High-level Conference “Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Intolerance in Europe”

Yerevan , 

Combating racism and intolerance: Time to draw the line



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Dear Minister,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me first of all to congratulate the Republic of Armenia on having chosen the fight against racism, xenophobia and intolerance as one of the main priorities of its Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers.

This has also been one of my priorities since the start of my mandate when I started out my term by creating the Group of Eminent Persons led by Joschka Fischer to look into this issue. Their conclusions were very clear: diversity is here to stay and we need to adapt our policies to this fact and also to change our mindsets. We need to focus on the positive aspects this brings and is benefits. More and more people are coming to Europe to come and work and contribute to our society and it is clear to me that now we are focusing on the economic crisis but sooner or later this crisis will be solved. However diversity is here to stay and we must benefit from it.

Racism, xenophobia and the various manifestations of intolerance and discrimination have been the downfall of Europe in the past.

We must not underestimate their power to damage our continent today.

Discrimination and intolerance are a vicious threat to human rights. They threaten our peace and social cohesion. They poison the political climate. They are a flagrant violation of the right of every individual human being to live in equal dignity, to enjoy the same human rights, and to be an active member of a democratic society.

How can it be that today we still witness the persistent marginalisation and stigmatisation of European minority groups, such as the Roma or Muslim communities?  How can it be that in many of our member States, anti-Semitism is on the rise again? How can it be that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is not in decline, but on the rise in some parts of Europe?


As a politician, I am very afraid when I see how aggressive the debate on immigration, on asylum and on integration has become across our continent. The debate which is conducted in political discourse and parts of the press often loses sight not only of common sense, but also of the most basic legal and political standards Europe has developed over many decades. 

Of course, the electoral success of extremist parties, which express — and nourish — a profound hostility towards ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, is a serious cause for concern. But what worries me even more is the tendency towards the banalisation of such discourse within some mainstream political parties.

We cannot accept this situation. It is time to draw the line and stem the tide of mistrust, hatred and discrimination.

Our conference will concentrate on two major aspects: racism and xenophobia in political discourse; and the role which human rights institutions can play to combat discrimination.

This is a good choice, because we focus on two themes where politicians and European institutions carry an enormous responsibility, and where we can act decisively and make a difference if we want to.

As regards the standards of public discourse, the focus is often upon extremist political parties, such as the "True Finns", "Sweden Democrats", Jobbik or "Golden Dawn".  Some of these parties pose very serious threats; and public authorities need to be very watchful to strike the right balance between the respect for the freedoms of expression and political organisation in a democratic state on the one hand, and the obligation to put an end to any attempt to compromise human rights standards, democracy and the rule of law on the other.

However, intolerance is very often more subtle than that, and all the more dangerous for this reason.  As I have said, I am especially worried about the rise of racist, anti-Semitic, islamophobic, anti-minority, anti-LGBT and anti-immigration rhetoric in mainstream politics. This is where we must pay close attention and make sure that our position is crystal-clear.  This is where we need to have the courage to take a stand on any creeping tendency among our mainstream political parties to exploit fears and stereotypes for short-term political gains.

Political leaders must at all costs resist this dangerous trend.  It can lead nowhere good. We must remember that the responsibility of politicians is not just to follow what they believe is popular in the public opinion; they have the responsibility to show leadership and shape public debate. 

Political leaders – at all levels - can and should explain to their constituencies that racism and intolerance threaten our society as a whole.  Putting the blame on the supposed "Other" for the problems of our economies or our societies will not make the problems disappear.  It will make them bigger, more insurmountable and more dangerous.

And so, the fight against racism and intolerance is not only a matter of protecting the vulnerable. A fairer society benefits all. European societies have always been diverse, and we need this diversity. There are plenty of statistics to back this up – Europe needs immigration, it needs more young people to sustain our health and welfare systems and our ageing populations, it needs a diversity of talent to make us competitive in the global market.  Isolating ourselves at this moment in time is suicidal.

Hate speech is becoming a common expression of intolerance and xenophobia, both in political discourse and through the media, particularly new forms of media.  The Council of Europe is today focusing on this phenomenon, where it can bring to bear its experience of balancing different rights in democratic societies.

The dissemination, incitement, promotion or justification of any form of hatred based on intolerance hides under the cover of freedom of speech. But hate speech is not free speech. Freedom of expression is not a license to instigate violence. The consequences of hate speech are anything but free.  Hate speech undermines democracy and leads to hate crimes.  We have seen only too often that words lead to acts.

The findings of the Council of Europe's human rights monitoring bodies, in particular the "European Commission against Racism and Equality" – ECRI - indicate that hate speech continues to be a major problem across Europe.

On this basis, ECRI has taken the decision to dedicate a substantial part of its next monitoring cycle to the close scrutiny of measures taken by member States to deal with hate speech. ECRI will not only look towards expressions of hatred that should be criminalised, but also towards intolerant and inflammatory discourse targeting vulnerable groups.

Hate speech is particularly rampant – and particularly hard to deal with - on the new electronic platforms of communication, social media and social networks.

Let me underline: without any doubt, the Internet and new technologies have been, and remain, a force for good.  Access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable. It generates new ideas. It inspires creativity and encourages entrepreneurship. But the Internet is not a regulation-free zone; the same human rights and legal standards that apply to the offline world must also be applied to the online world. We need to maximize the freedom and minimize the threat. Our lawmakers and judges need to keep this under constant review.

The on-going Council of Europe campaign against hate speech online shows our readiness to act, and to claim the Internet as a space for citizenship and participation for young people.

The "No Hate Speech" campaign is already implemented in 36 member States, including, of course, here in Armenia. The involvement of the partners in Armenia, and particularly your concern for discrimination against children and young people from religious minorities, are outstanding examples of good practice.

The campaign aims at exposing hate speech, and at giving young people the tools to promote mutual respect and human rights on the Internet. The campaign is carried out by young people because the Internet is part of their social world – they must be its guardians. 

Education is of course essential.  However, it needs to be backed up not only by a political discourse which is respectful of minorities and human rights standards, but also by clear political decisions in daily practice. Public authorities at all levels must send a strong message that incitement to racial hatred, including on the internet, will be prosecuted in accordance with national criminal law. 

States should also support self-regulatory measures by the Internet industry, such as anti-racist hotlines, codes of conduct and filtering software. The written press, newspapers and weeklies, which are usually already subject to codes of ethics, have a special responsibility for the content of discussion boards on their Internet sites.

When it comes to the role of human rights institutions in combating racial and ethnic discrimination, Europe has an impressive toolbox of standards and mechanisms.  We must use them with both prudence and determination. The recent thematic debate of the Committee of Ministers on the fight against extremist tendencies has shown that all member States are fully aware of the challenges.

The European Court of Human Rights plays a key role, and has developed a rich case-law on discrimination and racism which provides a blueprint for dealing with the balancing act between freedom of expression and protection against incitement to hatred and against discrimination. For instance, as regards the freedom of expression, the Court has established certain parameters to distinguish hate speech and incitement to extremism from the legitimate exercise of the freedom of expression. It has identified several forms of expression which are to be considered offensive and contrary to the Convention, including racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, aggressive nationalism and discrimination against minorities and immigrants.  However, the Court is also careful to make a distinction in its findings between, on the one hand, genuine and serious incitement to extremism and, on the other hand, the right of individuals—including journalists and politicians—to express their views freely and to "offend, shock or disturb" others.

My message is clear: today, political leaders must take a stand against hate and they must take a stand against any form of discrimination.

The European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights are about securing the fundamental rights of all persons, and they are also about restraining the power of the majority. The majority has an obligation to secure the rights of the minorities.

Ladies and Gentlemen, before the Second World War broke out when the Nazis were already in power, an article was published in a German newspaper saying that bicycles were the main problem of society. The journalist who wrote the article was called to the Gestapo offices and asked: "Why on earth do you say bicycles are the main problem?". He replied: "Why do you say Jews are the main problem?". When we stigmatise a group we end up dehumanizing that group and the consequences have been seen again and again. We have to avoid this negative dynamic process occurring. All of us in society have the obligation to protect the rights of minorities be they religious, ethic, LGBT or other minorities.

Ladies and Gentlemen thank you for your attention.