Back Award ceremony of the European Civil Right Prize of Sinti and Roma

Strasbourg , 

As delivered


It is with great pleasure that I congratulate Amnesty International on being awarded the 2016 European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma.

In the last 55 years, Amnesty International has grown from seeking the release of political prisoners – prisoners of conscience – to upholding the full spectrum of human rights.

Its work ranges from abolishing the death penalty and ending torture, to protecting sexual and reproductive rights;

From combatting discrimination and violence, to defending freedom of expression and the rights of women, children, minorities, migrants and refugees.

At the core of Amnesty’s mission is an enduring belief – a belief that we at the Council of Europe share, very strongly:

It is the belief in individual freedom. The conviction that society is only free when individual liberty can prevail, without discrimination.

Modern Europe is built on this ideal.

During the Enlightenment, by embracing the rights of the individual, our societies were able to step towards a new era: away from tyranny and absolute power, towards democracy and the rule of law.

Yet, as you know, still we see abuses of power. Violence, corruption, discrimination. But at least one thing we can guarantee: wherever we find these abuses, we find Amnesty International too.

It remains a voice for the voiceless and a remarkable catalyst for change. As the head of the oldest pan-European intergovernmental organisation, created by our member states to advance the European Convention on Human Rights, I am extremely grateful for the public service Amnesty International provides.

Today it has more than 7 million members and supporters, in 150 countries.

At times, Amnesty’s positions have sparked controversy — but it has never lost sight of the absolute standards of human rights.  No state authority has ever managed to prove Amnesty wrong, or biased. It continues to be guided by its three founding principles: neutrality, impartiality and independence.

In 1977 Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A year later, the “United Nations Prize in the Fields of Human Rights”. In 1984, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute’s “Four Freedoms Award for Freedom of Speech”.

Today, it adds to this list a very special award.

The European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma recognises Amnesty’s commitment to the plight of 12 million Roma, Sinti and other groups living in Europe who share a common cultural identity.

Their situation is often exceptionally difficult. Pushed to the margins of society and treated as outsiders, without access to rights, jobs, education or health services. Without proper housing. Many living in abject poverty.

The discrimination Roma and Sinti face has a long and violent history. Half a million were systematically murdered by the Nazis in the 1940s. And today, in Europe, we are witnessing another wave of anti-Roma discrimination by populist and extremist movements. They see Roma as an easy target.

It is therefore more important than ever we come together to safeguard the human rights of Roma and Sinti. To empower them. To celebrate Roma resistance and the rich contribution Roma heritage has made to our shared cultural life. 

Amnesty International sets a proud example.

They have campaigned on behalf of Roma and Sinti for decades.

One particularly powerful act of advocacy was launched in 2013 when, through “Human Rights Here — Roma Rights Now”, Amnesty appealed directly to the European Union and its member states to apply, fully, relevant anti-discrimination legislation.

They have published numerous reports on the living circumstances of Roma and Travellers in individual countries, and on their situation in Europe.

They have provided facts and figures, as well as names and locations of aggressions against Roma, including the extremely pertinent “We ask for justice: Europe’s failure to protect Roma from racist violence”, which was published on International Roma Day in 2014.

In the Council of Europe, we know from our own collaboration with Amnesty on these issues how totally dedicated their teams are.

They raise concerns over developments in member states.

They exert public pressure for the enforcement of international standards.

Amnesty informs us when governments fail to abide by the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

It helps us draft appropriate and effective recommendations for better policies.

It challenges us to come up with solutions to problems such as the segregation of Roma children in schools; racist attacks; ethnic profiling; the growth of anti-Gypsyism in public discourse.

On all of these fronts and more Amnesty is a conscience for Europe’s governments and a constructive partner to all those who seek Roma rights.

I pay tribute to this organisation.

I commend the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, particularly President Rose, for choosing such an outstanding beneficiary of this year’s prize – and also, I should say, for your efforts on behalf of Europe’s biggest ethnic minority.

I thank the Manfred Lautenschläger Foundation, which supports the award.

And I wish you all well. Thank you very much.