Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 20 April 2021 (via video conference)

Mr President, Rik Daems,
Secretary General,
President of the Court,
Members of the Parliamentary Assembly, distinguished colleagues,

The Federal Republic of Germany became a full member of the Council of Europe 70 years ago. This membership was an important step towards being able to assume international responsibility once more. Only a few years after the Second World War unleashed by Germany and after the Shoah, Germany’s betrayal of all civilised values, the hand of reconciliation was held out to my country. That truly was a gesture of good faith. The Council of Europe was the first European organisation as well as the first international organisation to accept Germany back into the international community.

The hardships of daily life in the post‑war period left many people facing an uncertain future. All the more remarkable, therefore, was the far‑sightedness of statesmen of the time who had a vision for the future – a united Europe. One of these figures was Winston Churchill, who said in Zürich in 1946: “If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy.”

With the establishment of the Council of Europe, this vision began to take shape. This was coupled with the hope of a better future – the promise of being able to live together in peace, freedom and prosperity; a promise, however, which could only be fulfilled for the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe many years later after the Iron Curtain had been consigned to history. The establishment and work of the Council of Europe encapsulates our self‑perception as Europeans – the values which have shaped and hold together our societies, and the basic expectations which we have of the member states. The Council of Europe has always regarded itself as having an obligation to strengthen human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950 reflected a new understanding of the individual and the role of the state. Citizens are not objects of their state but have extensive rights and freedoms. The state must respect and protect these rights. The Council of Europe should therefore raise the alarm when they are jeopardised in any member state.

The Council of Europe went even one step further: it made it possible for citizens to lodge an application with the European Court of Human Rights against their own state if they believed that their rights and freedoms were not being respected. That was revolutionary – and it’s an achievement of which we can still be proud today. From Lisbon to Vladivostok, this court is the court of last instance for victims of human rights violations.

Looking back today, we can say that many hopes of the post‑war period for a better future have been fulfilled. Today, Europe is the continent with the highest human rights standards in the world. The European model of democratic welfare states and market economies guarantees a quality of life which many people around the world envy – just think of education, healthcare and political stability. In part, we owe these very assets to the existence and work of the Council of Europe.

If we look to Europe’s external borders and to Eastern Europe, however, we see that even today peace and security as well as stability and prosperity certainly cannot be taken for granted. The situation in Belarus, in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno‑Karabakh or, of course, in Syria and Libya is, in some cases, extremely troubling. In all of these places, we see that human and fundamental rights, not least freedom of opinion and of the press, are under pressure and are indeed being eroded.

If we allow this to happen or simply look away when fundamental values and rights, which form the core of the constitutions of democratic states, are disregarded, then we would risk the European project itself being called into question. For how seriously we take the human rights situation in other countries always shows how seriously we take the protection of basic values in our own countries.

For that reason, we gave particular priority to the rule of law during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union last year. That also goes for our current Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The rule of law is indispensable if citizens are to have trust and confidence in the state and its institutions. Citizens must be able to rely on the state to uphold the laws passed by parliament while accepting the oversight of independent judges. This very trust is crucial to a functioning and thus stable democracy. However, we all know that trust can evaporate. Representatives of the state have to work anew every day to earn it.

Only if citizens have sufficient trust will we be able to overcome crises such as the COVID‑19 pandemic. In many respects, however, this is a huge challenge – for our health services and research community, as well as for our economies and social cohesion. The pandemic is undoubtedly also a litmus test for our democracies. The curtailment of personal freedoms in order to tackle the pandemic must meet strict conditions and requires special justification. It must be of limited duration, necessary, appropriate and proportionate.

The rule of law creates trust that social cohesion can be maintained not only within our own societies. For international cooperation, if it is to serve the welfare of everyone, can only work on the foundation of a rules‑based order – that is to say through jointly agreed rules that everyone observes. A reliable order of this nature is the basis for peaceful and also economically profitable relations among states. For companies and investors need legal certainty in order to be able to plan and calculate sensibly. If they take risks, then they have to be sure that, if the worst comes to the worst and they are confronted with a breach of contract or a violation of the law, they will be able to take their case to an independent court. Therefore, anyone who seeks to bolster legal certainty is boosting prosperity at the same time.

Alongside its commitment to the rule of law, the Council of Europe is also making a very important contribution towards greater international reliability with its fight against corruption. What’s more, a rules‑based order is a key prerequisite for peaceful coexistence. It runs contrary to our shared fundamental values when the sovereignty and integrity of states is called into question and disregarded, as we have witnessed in Crimea or in Nagorno‑Karabakh. The Council of Europe can play a key role here, but only if all institutions of the Council of Europe work closely together.

I can therefore only encourage you, President Daems, to continue to resolutely strive for close cooperation based on trust – between governments and parliamentarians of the member states as well as between the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. A positive sign of such cooperation is the new joint mechanism which the Council of Europe can use to react appropriately through dialogue to any violations of its basic standards.

A rules‑based international order is also necessary in light of the major challenges of our time, which no country can master on its own. That applies to the COVID‑19 pandemic, climate change mitigation or the rapid developments in cyberspace with all their opportunities but also risks. The security of users can only be guaranteed on a cross‑border basis. The Council of Europe has a role to play here when it comes to protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, for example in the use of artificial intelligence – a focus of our Presidency of the Committee of Ministers. You are also addressing this very issue in the Parliamentary Assembly. I very much welcome that. For even in the digital world, the individual and their dignity must always take centre stage.

Human rights can only be fully protected in a constitutional order in which the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary are respected. We should therefore be all the more concerned when today the separation of powers is called into question and the independence of courts is curtailed – even in some EU member states.

The European Court of Human Rights is open to more than 800 million people in Europe when they believe that their rights – although enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights – are being violated in their respective national legal system. Unfortunately, however, the Court’s judgments are often executed either at a snail’s pace, only partially or not at all. Especially in cases where individuals have been wrongly imprisoned, the implementation of the judgments, that is to say the liberation of the detainees, is particularly urgent and necessary. Our obligations in the Council of Europe with regard to protecting human rights are not negotiable. That’s why national law cannot have precedence over the obligations under the Convention. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe made this abundantly clear in its opinions.

It’s important that the Council of Europe and the European Union work together effectively on matters relating to fundamental values and rights. I’m therefore pleased that the negotiations on the EU’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights were resumed during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU and are now moving forward. Accession would close a gap in the European system for protecting human rights and that, I believe, is in the interests of us all.

May 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the Istanbul Convention’s opening for signature. This Convention sets down unparalleled international benchmarks for the protection of women from violence, especially against domestic violence. I therefore deeply regret Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention. I hoped that it would remain a member. I also hope that member states, especially those within the European Union which have not yet ratified the Convention, will do so soon.

Women’s rights are human rights. Violence against women must not be ignored. It’s a crime; and as such, violence against women must be named and prosecuted. This is all the more important as it has transpired that violence against women has increased against the backdrop of the current crisis. I therefore urge you all to foster support for this Convention and its full implementation in your home countries.

Ladies and gentlemen, 70 years ago Chancellor Adenauer compared the Council of Europe to a European conscience. Since then, the times and with them the challenges have changed, but not the fundamental values on which Europe is based and which constitute the European identity.

All of you shoulder political responsibility. Today, you are all part of the European conscience. I encourage you to stay vigilant and committed in order to breathe life into Europe’s fundamental values, in order to draw attention to human rights violations and to ensure that human rights are respected.

Thank you. And I’m now looking forward to your questions. Of course, I can’t answer them all – there are more than 70 – but we still have some time and I’d like to answer as many as possible. Thank you very much.

‑ ‑ ‑