High-Level Conference ''Empowering Local Actors to Counter Violent Extremism'' Session: International dimension of violent extremism

Brussels , 

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Dear Commissioner Malmström,

Dear Ministers,

Distinguished Guests,

Dear Friends,


I am very grateful for having the chance to speak here today at the Palais d'Egmont, a beautiful building steeped in history and tradition.  

I would like to start by thanking the European Commission for organising this high-level conference and for bringing together so many distinguished personalities from all walks of life within the framework of the Radicalisation Awareness Network.

Two days ago, we marked the sixty-eighth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp.

We must never forget that the Nazi horrors were born out of an extremist ideology with violence at its very core.

Driven by pure racist prejudice, the Nazis and their collaborators slaughtered millions without mercy.

To this day, Auschwitz reminds us of the horrifying potential of violent extremism.

It also reminds us of the price of tolerating violent extremism for far too long.

In the seven decades that have since passed, we have witnessed how extremism has adopted various guises, targeting different groups.

Time and again we have seen this evil flourish.

Not just in far-away lands. Not just on TV.

But right here in Europe on our door-step.

We saw it here in Brussels last year when the imam of Rida mosque was killed in an arson attack.

We saw it in Greece this month, when twenty-seven year-old Shehzad Luqman, a Pakistani immigrant, was stabbed to death by right-wing extremists.

We saw it in France a year ago, when a gunman went on a rampage at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

The victims included a 30-year old rabbi, his children aged four and five, as well as the daughter of the school's principal. The 7-year-old girl, Miriam, died in her father's arms as medics tried to resuscitate her.

We saw it in Sweden not too long ago, when a string of shootings in Malmo targeted victims with immigrant backgrounds.

We also witnessed it in Norway, my home-country, when seventy-seven innocent civilians, most of them still in their teens, were gunned down by an extremist.

These examples have one common feature: fanatical hatred of the Other. They show the increasing divide between "us" and "them". They relate to the search for our identity.

Dear Friends,

The organisers of this conference are right in emphasising the importance of local actors in countering violent extremism.

Local authorities and communities are the front line in our fight against violent extremism. But they cannot bear the burden on their own.

Only a co-ordinated international response given together with all relevant national actors will deliver the results we need.

So what does this international response consist of? What can international organisations such as the Council of Europe do to help empower local actors to combat violent extremism?

First and foremost, we have to stand up, act and do more under the Rule of Law, to end intolerance, racism and hate speech.

The Holocaust did not begin in the death camps – it began with words of hatred. Those words became weapons of mass murder.

Over the past few years, we have seen a rise in discrimination and intolerance across Europe.

Minorities are being marginalised and stigmatised. Not long ago, a member of the leading party in Hungary wrote that: "Gypsies are animals and act as animals" – these words are unacceptable.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are increasing. So is virulent nationalist rhetoric. 

Debate on integration and immigration has become more and more polarized. Extremists – in all camps – are feeding off each other.

This has to change.

Now is the time to speak up clearly against extremism.

But also against discrimination towards any social, cultural or religious group.

Time has come to ensure that mainstream political rhetoric in Europe promotes sustainable integration and takes a clear stand against hate speech, online and offline.

In the Council of Europe young people will start to run a campaign to combat hate-speech, which will recruit and train a network of young human rights activists to challenge racism, misogyny, homophobia and all other forms of intolerance online.

Our Convention on Cybercrime – the Budapest Convention and its Additional Protocol on Xenophobia and Racism- but also the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance and the work of the Council of Europe on Internet Governance are crucial tools in the fight against hate speech.

The European Court of Human Rights should be our compass in this fight: even if there is no universally accepted definition of the expression "hate speech", the Court  has already identified a number of forms of expression which are offensive and contrary to the Convention – including racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, aggressive nationalism and discrimination against minorities and immigrants.

For example, the Court clearly held that "denying crimes against humanity was one of the most serious forms of racial defamation of Jews and of incitement of hatred towards them" (Case of Garaudy v. France).

But at the same time the Court is very careful in making a distinction on the one hand between genuine and serious incitement to violent extremism and, on the other, the right of individuals – including journalists and politicians – to express their views freely and to "offend, shock or disturb" others.

For example, the Court held that a journalist who prepared a documentary on a group of young people who made racist remarks about immigrants and ethnic groups during the interviews should not have been convicted for having helped to disseminate racist remarks. The journalist was just informing the public about a social issue (Case of Jersild v. Denmark).

Dear Friends,

If Europe wants to remain a region of peace and prosperity, we have to embrace diversity.

This is the main message of the report "Living Together: combining diversity and Freedom in 21st century Europe" produced in May 2011 by a Group of Eminent Persons put in place at my initiative. Not a day has passed since its publication without Europe being reminded of its relevance, sometimes in the most dramatic and even tragic fashion. 

To fight xenophobia and intolerance we need a strong, transversal and diversified European coalition. So far our response to diversity has been predominantly local and national. I believe we should be moving towards a concerted European response and the Council of Europe, with the European Union, should take the lead in this endeavour.

Second, we have to fight against social and economic marginalisation

The crushing economic crisis has weakened the social fabric of many European societies.

Last month, Eurostat published some shocking statistics: currently almost a quarter of the European Union's population – almost 120 million people – live near the poverty line.

At the same time unemployment among young people has topped 50 percent in several countries.

More and more youths are living on the fringes of society and are becoming easy prey for recruitment by extremist groups.

Preventive measures are needed.

Compliance by member States with key conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights on civil and political rights and the European Social Charter on social and economic rights is crucial in this respect.

Non-compliance may lead to social and economic marginalization which, in its turn, triggers hate speech and violent extremism.

The European Social Charter guarantees vital rights: the right to work, the right to a fair remuneration, the right to social security, the right to protection in cases of termination of employment, the right of elderly to social protection.

In this connection, the European Committee of Social Rights, the monitoring body, took a number of decisions concerning Greece and concluded that some of the austerity measures taken such as the payment of a minimum wage below the poverty level to workers under the age of 25, or the exclusion of young workers from the protection of the labour law were not in conformity with the European Social Charter.

The Committee may take similar decisions in respect of other countries in the year to come.

In addition to the guidance given by its Conventions, the Council of Europe also undertakes specific actions when needed. A good example is the ROMED Programme which has been put in place in cooperation with the European Commission. In the past two years, more than 1000 Roma mediators in 20 countries have been trained. More than 700 national and local actors have been involved. A European network has now been created allowing exchange of experiences across the continent.

Part of the solution also lies in moulding communities where everyone feels they have a stake in society.

Where opportunities are available to all, including young people in socially disadvantaged areas.

Where the criminal justice system is just and efficient.

Where the police and the public work together to support the maintenance of law and order.

And where national governments ensure respect for human rights in police work, encouraging law enforcement agencies to work alongside leaders of ethnic groups and representatives of different faiths.

This is something that the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities has pushed for over the years and I am therefore glad to see that some of these recommendations have been echoed during this conference.

These measures are important. Now more than ever.

Dear Friends, this brings me to my last point: we have to rebuild trust in political institutions.

Violent extremism today is being fuelled by the frustration and disappointment of citizens with our democratic institutions and politicians.

These attitudes are aggravated by the perceived inability of democratic institutions to provide adequate response to the economic crisis and a lack of citizen participation in decision-making.

The result is a deep-seated disillusionment with the political class and a worrying lack of trust in national institutions.

Young people must be included in the political process. They must be given a voice and real opportunities to participate. 5000 young people come to the Council of Europe residential youth centres every year to learn about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. They return to their home communities with the values and skills they need to take part in decision-making at all levels.

The Council of Europe is the only organisation where young people and government representatives make decisions side by side on policies and programmes. We encourage other organisations to follow our lead. Democracy is only democracy if it is representative of all citizens, not just a privileged few.

I strongly believe that any action to counter violent extremism lies in more democracy at the grassroots level.

The first step is to reach out to pupils and students across Europe by teaching human rights and citizenship education in the classroom, to invest time and resources in preventing human rights violations before they happen.

All 47 member States of the Council of Europe are using our Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education to promote human rights and democracy.

The Charter has inspired:

●       Finland's recent education reforms

●       A new elective course on human rights and democracy for secondary schools in Turkey

●       The current education reform in Andorra, which is focused on identifying skills to promote social cohesion and to value diversity.

We need more dialogue.

Bit by bit we can chip away at radicalism if we ensure better governance and greater state legitimacy.

Everyone must do their bit.

According to the EU Commission's data, almost three quarters of EU citizens perceive corruption as a major problem in their country and almost half think that the level of corruption has risen over recent years. We find it in all countries.

GRECO together with MONEYVAL are our main weapons in fighting corruption. I urge all the member States‘ governments and national parliaments to look into their recommendations and to implement them speedily. I also look forward to the participation of the European Union in GRECO.

Dear Friends,

I would like to close by quoting Voltaire, the incisive Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher who was a regular guest here at the Palais d'Egmont.

Voltaire was a strong advocate for civil liberties and freedom of religion.

He also reminded us that: "those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

That is a call for vigilance, for close attention to the language and secret codes of extremism.

Let us be alert and brave and ready to stand up for a tolerant, self-confident Europe.

Thank you.