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Closing of High-Level conference "Council of Europe norms and standards on national minority rights: Results and challenges"

Strasbourg 29 June 2021
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As delivered

 

Ambassadors,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear Friends,

 

Among the tragedies and atrocities of the Second World War, the cruelty inflicted on our continent’s minorities – the murder of so many – was at the forefront of our founders’ minds when they created this Organisation with a promise of “never again”.

Since then we have certainly seen wars, repression, violence and lower-level conflicts in Europe, and in which national, ethnic and religious minorities have suffered hardship and loss of life.

By expanding its membership, extending European standards and working with member states to develop the tools and practice required, the Council of Europe has worked to replace conflict with co-operation and ensure the fundamental rights of all Europeans.

But we all know that problems remain.

And given some estimates that around one in seven Europeans belong to a national or linguistic minority – sometimes  living in political hotspots -  it is always right to take an opportunity like this today to reflect on what has been achieved, and what more can be done.

But at this conference there has been an added element to address.

You have heard today about the ways in which COVID-19 has widened the inequalities and worsened the vulnerabilities that often face national minorities -

About challenges related to the provision of health care and information to minority communities;

Access to digital education in minority languages;

And the never-ending scapegoating and prejudice that is directed towards specific minority groups.

During the public health crisis, each of these got worse.

At a time when everyone has felt vulnerable, some were particularly targeted and subject to discrimination.

But in recognising this unique circumstance, it is important to acknowledge that challenges certainly existed independent of those caused by the coronavirus.

Roma and Travellers often had inadequate housing before COVID-19, along with the education, healthcare and employment difficulties that these communities have long faced;

Not to mention the time-old problem of hatred and discrimination that they so often and most regrettably continue to encounter.

Similarly, there sometimes remain very difficult challenges around state language laws and policies, where the rights and needs of minority language speakers are not always considered;

We have seen stigmatisation of minorities, where extreme nationalist, populist and xenophobic narratives crowd out appreciation for the benefits that diversity certainly brings;

And we have also experienced inter-state conflicts and our monitoring bodies’ lack of access to grey zones: circumstances in which minorities’ rights are often violated.

This is not “breaking news” – you are all very familiar with it – and we have discussed these issues over and over again.

So, what can we do?

Sometimes it is good to step back and try to focus on the bigger picture.

Seeing what we have already achieved inspires us and guides us to the further progress we can make.

The European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter, the Framework Convention on National Minorities, and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages - these are all powerful tools.

The Framework Convention has been ratified by most member states.

Alongside the Language Charter, it provides the means by which to protect minorities, backed by dialogue between national authorities and minority representatives.

The work of our monitoring bodies remains absolutely essential.

But we must always insist on being there - on the ground - seeing the facts for ourselves and seeking to depoliticise what should always be seen through a human rights prism.

I may add that recent reforms to the monitoring mechanisms have already yielded positive results and paved the way for further reflections in light of the decisions taken at the Hamburg Ministerial session.

This is a clear demonstration of our member States’ commitment to make us even more relevant and efficient in this area.

A sentiment that is rightly shared by the Parliamentary Assembly, which also remains active on this subject.

And let there be no doubt, that where these tools have been deployed, they have delivered.

In many cases, they have had a transformative effect.

Initiatives aimed at Roma and Travellers in some of our member states illustrates this point.

Today, 30 states parties to the Framework Convention recognise Roma as a national minority;

And 16 parties to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages protect Romani as a minority language.

At the same time, the rights of Roma to housing, equal access to education, and respect for their traditional lifestyle have repeatedly been confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee of Social Rights;

On state language policies in general, several member states have struck a balance between the legitimate promotion of the state language and meeting the needs of minority language speakers –

And they have sometimes achieved this with the help of the Council of Europe, including from our Venice Commission on Democracy through Law, Slovakia being a prime example.

When it comes to respect for diversity, examples of our impact include the European Court of Human Rights holding that hate speech is certainly not protected by freedom of expression;

I also note our ongoing work on a recommendation for member states on addressing hate speech in a human rights framework;

I would also like to mention that our Intercultural Cities Programme supports 147 cities in delivering a “diversity advantage” for everyone.

Lastly, on the difficult subject of conflicts and grey zones, I offer no miracle solution. But our work in member States, on action plans and through confidence-building measures are all contributing to ensure peace and stability, founded on respect for the human rights of national minorities and all people.

Our activities in the Western Balkans are testament to that.

So, the tools exist. The question is how we use them and if we can use them even better.

The legal aspects are crystal clear, and our member states have specific obligations.

But when it comes to agreeing recommendations, respecting reports, and addressing minority rights in a multilateral setting – we can certainly do more.

And, for these things, what is required is political will.

There is certainly not a lack of relevant recommendations or proposals for solutions.  But by demonstrating political will, we can make progress on the problems that we face.

In this, we must continue our close co-operation with our member States, as well as relevant partners, including the EU, the OSCE and the UN – and of course the civil society organisations that contribute to our work so richly.

In ending, let me underline that I am grateful to the Hungarian Presidency of our Committee of Ministers for the series of events that it has organised on minority rights, including one that will be co-organised with the Council of Europe, and will be held in Budapest on 7 September.

This will help us highlight the important work the Council of Europe is doing in this area.

And we always need to be open to how we can further enhance the way we work, with a clear focus on results and how to meet new challenges effectively.

This conversation is certainly far from over.

It must and will continue.

But for now, thank you for your attention.