Human rights in Modern Europe

Introductory remarks

State Secretary (Mr Peter Javorcik), event organisers, guests, Ladies and gentlemen,

 

  • It is a great pleasure to be back in Bratislava – a city that I thoroughly enjoyed calling my home for three years.

  • Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of the velvet revolution. It is especially worthy of celebration because it enabled your country and other countries in the region to actively choose democracy and human rights. Of course, for all our countries, respecting human rights is not a choice we make once and for all. Protecting and honouring human rights is a choice that we all have to make every day.

 

  • It is not difficult to find examples of violations of human rights taking place somewhere in the world. Simply open a newspaper or turn on the TV. Grave violations of human rights are taking place in war and conflict zones – some of them not far from our doorstep, others further away.

 

  • I am therefore grateful to have this opportunity to address this important conference focusing on “Human rights in modern Europe”.

Human rights

  • The most fundamental duties of a government include ensuring respect for and support of human rights. Our common European heritage is based on this principle. Although the principle of human rights has been recognised since ancient times, it was the horrors of the Second World War that brought it to the top of our agenda.

 

  • The Universal Declaration on Human Rights from 1948 is one of international community’s most important documents. In Europe, we also gained the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, known as the European Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force in 1953 but did not become pan-European until after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Convention, with all its protocols, today forms part of the fundamental legislation of all member states of the Council of Europe.

 

  • Even though we have this legislative framework in place in Europe, challenges remain.

 

  • In May this year, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, issued a report called “State of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe”. The report identifies important challenges on issues related to human rights and democracy in all Council of Europe member countries, although the extent and gravity of these challenges vary. The report does not name (or shame) any one country. But I think that if we all honestly review our own policies and practices, we will all find room for improvement.

 

  • It is not easy to review and assess the human rights situation in one’s own country. In 1999 we carried out a comprehensive overview of the situation for human rights in Norway, including how this situation could be improved. This resulted in a report, presented as a white paper to the Norwegian Storting (parliament) entitled “Focus on Human Dignity”. The report covered the human rights situation in Norway and human rights issues in Norwegian foreign policy. A new white paper on human rights in Norwegian foreign policy will be presented to the Storting in December this year.

 

  • We found that almost all sectors of Norwegian society were involved in human rights issues. The agricultural and fisheries sectors are important for the right to food, the construction sector is important for the right to housing. The education sector, for example, is important for the rights of national minorities.

 

  • Another lesson we learned was that we cannot develop a strategy in the area of human rights without the active participation of civil society. An independent civil society, including representatives of the various sectors of society, churches, trade unions, and NGOs, has vast amounts of knowledge and experience regarding the situation for the average citizen. This grass-roots knowledge is vital when developing a national strategy that will stand the test of time.

 

The EEA and Norway Grants

  • Two of the organisers of this event – the Open Society Foundation and the Ekopolis Foundation, both important civil society actors in Slovakia – are managing funds under the EEA and Norway Grants. The NGO Fund is an important programme for addressing human rights issues. Under several of the other programmes, special focus is also given to Roma inclusion. 
    So before I continue, I would like to take the opportunity to say a few words about Norway’s relations with the EU and the EEA and Norway Grants.

 

  • Even though Norway is not a member of the EU, we cooperate closely with the EU through the EEA Agreement and Schengen. The EEA Agreement means that Norway is a member of the EU internal market, and it harmonises legislation and regulations for trade and the movement of goods and people throughout the EEA. But the EEA Agreement is not just about trade and economic relations. It is also about our joint responsibility for Europe’s common future. Within the framework of the EEA Agreement, we seek to supplement the wider EU efforts to reduce social and economic disparities and promote democracy, stability and prosperity across the continent.

 

  • Through the EEA and Norway Grants, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway are contributing with a total of 1.8 billion euros for this period for reducing social and economic disparities by engaging in bilateral cooperation with 16 EU member states.

 

  • However, the Grants have another important objective as well, namely to strengthen bilateral relations between donor states and beneficiary states. Bilateral cooperation and partnerships benefit us all. Six Norwegian public entities are partners in programmes on climate change, green industry innovation, crossborder cooperation, domestic and gender-based violence and scholarships. In addition, 19 projects under the NGO funds cooperate with a Norwegian partner.

 

  • We all gain from increased cooperation and the exchange of skills and knowledge.

 

Today’s conference

  • This brings me back to today’s conference. A conference that is being organised by the Government of Slovakia, the Open Society Foundation and the Ekopolis Foundation – an excellent example of cooperation between governments and civil society. When we add the last of the four organisers, the Norwegian embassy, we see a good example of two countries – both bound by the same European framework for securing human rights – cooperating and pooling experience.

 

  • I was very happy to hear State Secretary Javorcik's remarks on the need to address the inclusion of the Roma community, and his outline of the government's comprehensive strategy for this issue.

 

  • By focusing on human rights, we have a framework for identifying and addressing inequalities and thus ensuring that no one is left behind. This includes safeguarding the rights of those who are the hardest to reach – the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. Combatting extremism and discrimination are important in order to ensure that vulnerable groups are not excluded. Including and respecting the rights of all minorities is a central task for all European countries.

  • In addition, work–life balance and gender equality are crucial if we are to achieve social and economic development. Growing evidence points to the long-term positive effects of women’s equal participation in the workforce.

 

  • I am proud to represent a government with a female prime minister, a female minister of finance, a female minister of defence - in fact, half the cabinet are women. Gender equality is a central goal for us. And it is not just a matter of principle. Our analyses suggest that female work force participation provides more economic value to Norway than our entire oil and gas sector!

 

  • Earlier this year, just before we celebrated our National Day with a special focus on the bicentenary (200th anniversary) of the Norwegian Constitution, a new paragraph in the Constitution was adopted. It is now a constitutional right that education promotes respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. This raises many issues, for example, what are the governmental guidelines in Norway for teaching children about democracy and human rights, and how should we promote education in these areas? Furthermore, what kind of qualifications do the people working with children and young people in the education sector need?

 

  • I am pleased to see that Norwegian experts have been invited to participate at this conference and share their experience. I hope you will all have fruitful discussions here today.

  • Thank you.
 

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