As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
President of the Norwegian National Assembly,
Minister of State for European Affairs of Ireland,
Leader of Democratic Belarus,
Mayor of Kristiansand,
It is a great pleasure and honour to be back in “vakre Kristiansand” for this third European Conference on Democracy and Human Rights.
This initiative is an opportunity to discuss the challenges we face at every level: Local, national and international.
And by organising an event like this you are reconnecting citizens with what can sometimes seem like lofty ideals:
You are showing the way in which human rights and democracy in fact belong to each of us;
Benefit each of us;
And must be treasured and preserved by each one of us.
This visibility is needed both to raise awareness and stimulate action.
And who could doubt the need for that in Europe today?
Over recent years, we have seen outbreaks of populism and extreme nationalism that have challenged multilateralism, national and international institutions, and even the very fabric of the democratic order in Europe.
And I know that these will feature in the various debates and discussions throughout the day.
But the extreme and urgent example of this challenge, is of course the Russian Federation’s military invasion of Ukraine.
Europe’s geographically largest country has invaded the second largest.
What took place on the 24 of February was completely unacceptable.
It was in direct contradiction to everything we believe in – and the very principles that today’s European co-operation – and its international institutions – rest upon.
That’s why there is no room for “business as usual,” indifference or the role of the spectator.
We need to actually contain this form of aggressive, violent nationalism – not only for the sake of our Ukrainian friends and the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine –
which in itself is important, but for the sake of the future of Europe and for international peace and stability.
For too long, we were perhaps a little naïve.
Maybe we should have seen the clear warning-signs, years ago.
Right after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, or after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the attacks in Eastern Ukraine.
Or at least in light of the steps taken inside the Russian Federation to curtail freedom of expression; to clamp-down on independent media and civil society, including “Memorial”; and the arrests - and even killings - of journalists and opposition politicians.
This is sadly what happens when democracy crumbles and is deliberately undermined:
Human rights evaporate and citizens suffer.
So, what we see on our continent right now really does matter.
If we continue to ignore creeping autocracy, slipping standards and the allure of the strong man syndrome, and not to speak about the proposition of military conquests in today’s Europe - things will definitely become much worse.
So what should we do?
To start with, we must do everything we can to uphold and secure vibrant and free democracies throughout Europe.
Let us ask what more we can do to help Ukraine.
Let us see what more we can do to support the Republic of Moldova and Georgia, countries in the Caucasus or on the Western Balkans.
The Council of Europe can certainly do its part.
We have also worked for years with the governments in the Republic of Moldova and Georgia, with Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – just to mention a few.
It is our job to reach out and try to help the reform processes in these countries.
It is the very purpose of the Council of Europe.
It is why we exist.
And why the organisation was created.
But in more concrete terms – what does it mean?
I believe it means going back to the “fundamentals” – “the basics”:
Reassembling the core building blocks of democracy and starting to construct something that is stronger and more resilient than ever before.
So what are these building blocks?
Let me give you three concrete examples.
First, freedom of expression.
In a democracy, everyone has the right to hold opinions –
And to give and receive information and ideas without the state intervening.
This is true of our everyday conversations.
But it’s also true for our art, music and literature.
And it is crucial for a free media.
We rely on journalism to provide us with facts, insights and perspectives.
But all too often these are being crowded out by disinformation and even violence and intimidation against journalists.
Second, freedom of assembly and association.
Without them, you would not have been able to attend this conference or listen to me right now.
In Europe we believe that people must be allowed to come together in peace, discuss what we want, and voice our opinions.
This isn’t just about social interaction, over a glass of beer – important though that is:
But also about the right to protest;
To form trade unions that stand up for workers’ rights;
And to form the vast myriad of civil society organisations that give meaning to individuals’ lives, and which bring about all kinds of innovation and change.
These are the ways by which millions of citizens really engage with democratic life and buy into it.
But too often, regrettably, these are also seen as some kind of threat to a leader or to the state –
And everything is done to limit or curtail such freedoms.
Let me also underline that independent NGOs are very often the lifeline of a healthy, happy and vibrant society –
And their activity must flow freely.
Third example: an independent judiciary.
Democracies require the separation of powers:
Not just in theory, but in practice.
How else can true justice be done?
If we want to protect our rights to liberty and security;
To a fair trial;
And to the principle of no punishment without law –
Then we need, of course, lawyers, judges and justice systems that are independent, autonomous and accountable:
So, the dangerous trend that we have seen in Europe towards government control or intervention in judicial appointments, processes and sentences must be put into reverse.
These are just three examples.
All of them are rooted in the European Convention on Human Rights, and in the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which plays such an important role in harmonising legislation and upholding human rights, democracy and rule of law on our Continent.
We are here today because we believe in building a stronger Europe.
A Europe that can resist extremism, misinformation and hate speech, and protect free media and journalists.
A Europe that can stand united against violent nationalism and political forces that seeks to destroy the very values we all share.
A Europe with vibrant, open and strong and diverse societies, where it is the people who ultimately set the course.
Where human rights, democracy and the rule of law belong to them – and thereby to all of us.
Tragically, this vision seems more dead and buried, than alive, in today’s Russia and Belarus.
So, yes, we have suffered a major set-back.
And yes, the situation in which we now find ourselves will be demanding, difficult and tough for quite some time.
But Europe is a source of immense hope, which must in no event be destroyed by territorial ambitions, the resurgence of aggressive nationalism, the perpetuation of spheres of influence, intolerance or totalitarian ideologies.
And with unity, will and determination, we will no doubt succeed in our joint efforts.
Thank you very much for your attention.