Award Ceremony for the North-South Centre Prize

Lisbon, Portugal , 

Mr President of the Republic of Portugal,
Ms President of the Assembly of the Republic,
Mr President of the Executive Committee of the North-South Centre,
Distinguished winners of the North-South Prize,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to be here today, in the seat of democracy of a country which has always been open to the outside world, and to pay tribute to two very exceptional individuals, His Highness the Aga Khan and Ms Suzanne Jabbour.

This occasion is made even more special given that this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the North-South Centre.

The laureates of the 2013 North-South Prize come from different backgrounds and different countries but their work shares a common root.

They have both dedicated their lives to helping those who are least privileged and most vulnerable.

They have done so using different methods and means but their goal has been the same: to help re-build the lives of those who have fallen through the cracks of society.

In the case of His Highness the Aga Khan and the Aga Khan Foundation this has been achieved by improving the living conditions of populations in the most deprived regions.

Not only by improving their material situation but also by boosting their prospects for the future.

This has been done through focusing on crucial areas such as education, economic development and boosting institutional capabilities.

Today, social and economic deprivation cannot be said to be a problem far from Europe.

Poverty and inequality are on the rise in all European countries and have been reinforced by the economic crisis.

Our continent is rich, but the gap between the extremes in income and wealth is increasing at an alarming pace.

This gap is damaging the social fabric. For millions, the capacity to access quality education, housing, public services and quality housing is weakened.

Time and again we have been painfully reminded that the scourge of poverty in Europe involves real people with real problems.

Through his work and longstanding commitment to social justice, His Highness the Aga Khan has shown that a lot of these real problems also have real solutions. We must look for such solutions on our continent.

The accomplishments of Suzanne Jabbour are no less impressive.

Ms Jabbour has spent the past decade fighting against the use of torture within prisons.

She has also been unrelenting in her efforts to improve conditions within detention centres in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Dealing with prisoners can be demanding and costly, and often does not win great public support, but we cannot allow ourselves to cut corners.

Even when prisoners are in conflict with the law.

Even if they have committed crimes on foreign soil.

Suzanne Jabbour’s efforts to improve the plight of prisoners are a powerful reminder to the world that all human beings are equal and need to be treated accordingly.

This is a cause that the Council of Europe strongly identifies with.

The European Court of Human Rights, our Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and other instruments remind our governments of their responsibility in this area.

On a wider level, this year’s laureates have shown us once again that working with civil society is an increasingly important task.

Democracy requires that all groups within society are able to have their voices heard.

Civil society participation is therefore vital to democracy.

It is important not to limit ourselves only to the bigger, more established NGOs.

We must reach out to all NGOs, big and small, and to the whole spectrum of civil society.

We must broaden our perspective.

This is one of the reasons why the North-South Centre is so important in this day and age.

By reaching out to civil society, in particular youth and women, and by bringing together these partners with governments, international organisations, local and regional authorities, the North-South Centre has helped shape a culture of democratic citizenship.

A culture firmly rooted in human rights and civic responsibility.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The North-South Centre has often been described as the Council of Europe’s window to the world because its purpose is to assert the validity of the values upheld by the Council beyond the European continent.

I like that analogy but I personally think it is more than just a window.

It is also much like a terrace, an extension of our house, offering neighbouring regions a solid platform for dialogue and structured co-operation between civil society, local authorities, governments and parliaments.

Distinguished guests,

I would like to use this occasion to thank our Portuguese hosts not only for their hospitality today but also for making the North-South Centre a reality.

They planted the Centre’s very first seed, but they have also nurtured it and helped it bring its results.

For me, Portugal is the perfect home for the North-South Centre.

Portuguese history is a story of discovery and exploration.

For centuries, Portugal has been a powerful symbol of openness and intercultural exchange, bridging Europe with neighbours from beyond our shores.

This openness to the world is something that Europe really needs right now.

Standing here in the magnificent Sao Bento Palace, it is fitting to quote the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Pessoa once said that:

“Any wide piece of ground is the potential site of a palace, but there is no palace until it’s built.”

This was true for Portugal’s long democratic journey as it is for our human rights infrastructure in Europe.

The formalization of human rights is not enough to guarantee their effective application.

We must therefore redouble our efforts to cement the foundations of our democracy.

One of the political premises of democracy is the protection of the vulnerable, of those living at the very margins of society.

And this is what His Highness the Aga Khan and Suzanne Jabbour have done so well.

Together, we need to strengthen democracy by giving a voice to all citizens and helping restore dignity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The North-South concept has evolved in this quarter century.

Despite this, the standards and values that underpin the existence of the Centre remain as relevant today as they did twenty-five years ago.

Interdependence and solidarity remain the name of the game.

For North and South.

Looking ahead, these are values we must stay true to as we increase our democratization efforts at home and in the South-Mediterranean region.

I hope that this year’s prize will give us food for thought.

I hope it will make us think more about how to deal with urgent questions that we all face together.

Questions such as how best do we increase social justice within our societies?

How do we bridge the gap between rich and poor?

How do we restore dignity to those who have fallen through the cracks of society?

This year’s laureates of the North-South prize give me hope that these questions can be answered.

Thank you.