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Keynote: “Human Rights in a globalised world – challenges for the media"

Keynote speech by Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum

Thorbjørn Jagland (Secretary General of the Council of Europe)Image: DW

Bonn, 20 June 2011

Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I should like to thank Deutsche Welle and Director General Bettermann for hosting this Conference which addresses a crucially important topic for us all.

It is with very fond memories that I am back in Bonn.
During my younger years, I was Chairman of the Board of the Socialist International, and Willy Brandt was its President. Willy always liked to make our formal meetings as short as possible so that we could go to his regular restaurant on the hill, overlooking the Rhine and talk and have a bottle or two of wine.

My discussions with Willy on democracy and human rights have stayed with me as truly fundamental.

He was always clear about one of the most important lessons of World War II: accepting that human rights could be for some and not for all, the respect for humanity in general, and for the individual especially, began eroding, eventually opening the door to the darkest chapter in European history.

So I say as Willy Brandt: Human rights must be for all, if not they are for none! Human rights are an absolute value for the individual and an absolute responsibility for society. That is my point of departure.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
47 years ago Bob Dylan’s song “the times they are a-changin” captured the sense of the changes in America and the dawn of the civil rights movement. The times were indeed changing, people stood up against old and unjust policies regarding the rights of the individual in a new way. It was time to change the times.
I think Dylan could have been singing the same song for us here today. The forces of globalisation are changing the world, changing the power structures, and changing our perception of what it means to be an individual.

Globalisation is a “movement” which has a profound impact on our societies, on our understanding of human rights and on the daily life of so many individuals all over the world.
How are we to understand the individual and his/her relation to society at a time when commonly accepted ideas and values are being questioned as pillars of society?

Is anything absolute anymore? Yes, human rights are!

I am proud to be heading an organisation which has put something very absolute on paper – our human rights – and the way these rights should be protected and applied in Europe.

The European Convention on Human Rights adopted by the Council of Europe is the direct consequence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The declaration states that human rights are innate and unchangeable because they come from our human dignity and not as a result of political decisions. These rights are natural rights.

Freedom of speech is a timeless right because human dignity means that we can speak and write freely. We have freedom of speech because we are people.

That is also why human rights should not be subject to political power or pressure. Human rights are a safeguard against political power. They are a right of the minority to be protected by – and from – the majority.

Human rights have been the most transformative forces in changing the world. When people climbed the Berlin wall they wanted freedom. When people in North Africa recently took to the streets they did the same. They wanted freedom. Freedom to speak.

Dear friends,

When Martin Luther challenged the Church in his protest against the use of indulgences he provoked a fundamental change of the societal structures of his time.

Few could envisage the impact of his actions. But Luther’s document could be printed and spread out all over Europe, unleashing the Reformation and eventually opening the space for religious freedom. The shaping of modern ideas of freedom of conscience and speech were to follow.

Since then freedom of speech has changed power structures fundamentally, time and time again. Democracies have been born and today the doors to the forces of globalisation and information are being opened. With this comes more change.

It is true as Lenin once observed that sometimes decades can pass and nothing happens. And sometimes weeks can pass and decades happen.

Today we understand that the strongest force of globalisation is in bringing a new sense of freedom and enlightenment for which the Internet is its symbol.

For hundreds of millions of people the Internet has brought the freedom to act and communicate across and beyond national borders.

Last year a poll for BBC World suggested that four in five people believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental right, and only a few weeks ago a UN report stated that access to the Internet should become a human right.
The Internet has become a space representing an unprecedented potential for freedom. Not only for the freedom of expression. It is now the main vehicle for democracy where people organise themselves and voice their opposition to government.

Unfortunately, for some the Internet has also become a tool of absolute freedom – freedom without responsibility. You can say whatever you want while protecting your full anonymity. In many countries, this has meant that the Internet is filled with hate speech, slur and dirt unknown in the history of free media.

Recently, a debate in the United Kingdom on the right of the press to publish a commonly known name of a person involved in a sex scandal, touched upon a very difficult line of balance between the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression.

Where should we draw the line between what is private – and should remain so – and what is in the interest of the general public? And how do we draw the line when the Internet gives access to everyone and where no legal claim can be enforced?

Media provides education, entertainment, cultural and artistic expression. But I believe that the changes we have experienced over the last decades deem it necessary for the media to carefully consider their role as a provider of space for public debate.

We need a global instrument for this purpose, and I support the recent UN report’s call for access to the Internet as a globally recognised human right. I agree and we should start in Europe!

But let us also be clear that the forces of the Internet should not be allowed to uncritically turn into the tyranny of the majority against the right of the minority. If so, the Internet turns from being a tool of spreading and enhancing human rights, to becoming a tool which undermines human rights.

Dear friends,

The French historian, Jacques Le Goff once said that Europe will never be a closed circuit. It is always changing, always in motion. It is this multitude of nations, cultures and people that constitutes our true identity.

Today, however, globalisation is exposing us to diversity with an unprecedented speed and scope. The increasingly free movement of ideas, cultures and individuals is now confronting our identity with different, sometimes conflicting ideas, views, habits and customs.

Our societies are redefining their identities and this provide grounds for new tensions. And the main source is migration.

Recently, a report to the Council of Europe, prepared by a high-level Group led by former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, looked into the challenges arising from the ever increasing multicultural composition of Europe. The report found that discrimination and intolerance were widespread.

As a remedy, the report, entitled “Living together: combining diversity and freedom in 21st-century Europe” recommends that European societies should embrace diversity. We must all obey the law, but no one should not be “expected to renounce their faith, culture or identity”. But we must also embrace our common values.

Public statements which tend to build or reinforce public prejudice against members of any group – and particularly members of minorities, immigrants or people of recent migrant origin – should not be left unanswered.

We need courageous political leaders to balance and give direction in the debate. And we need a courageous press which can report and analyse the debate and provide understanding to the reader of the changes of society he or she lives in.

This is why I say that the role of media is not only about the freedom of expression and the democratic practices. In our globalized world the media are an irreplaceable tool to foster solidarity.

The “globalization movement” is changing our times, but it has no aim of it’s own, it has no leader and it has no compassion. It is a raw non-human force that we and you, the media, must seek to steer in the right direction to make it a tool for solidarity between citizens.

When our societies become more diverse we must not allow confrontation to become the main tool of understanding. We must build on our core values, and we must embrace diversity. The media play a key role in shaping such a culture.

The media acts as a historical watchdog providing through its scrutiny, checks and a balance to the exercise of authority which might otherwise turn authoritarian.

Today the media must provide checks and balance of globalization. Only then can we continue to push globalization in the right direction – a direction that is consistent with human rights. And only then can the media remain an essential democratic tool in our societies.

Dear friends,

We live in times when power increasingly lies with those whose narrative wins. In the new world of globalization the power of the fist is meeting its limits.

That is why states compete increasingly for the minds of the people. In this competition, the narrative of human rights has more appeal than anything else. It has so because we all know the meaning of it.

That we recognise human rights as something absolute. Something about you and me and how we can live and exercise our lives in freedom and prosperity.

We must not forget that when nationalism became the driving force in Europe it opened the doors for conflicts and wars. The solution was the move to internationalism. To institutions bringing the nation states together in co-operation based on a common set of values. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In a time of great changes, let us remember this. That human rights provide us with an anchor, a common understanding of what humanity is about.

What is present now will later be past, wrote Bob Dylan. As the times are changing we face great opportunities for humanity, but these opportunities will not come about by themselves.

The media must check and scrutinize globalization – making sure that human rights will remain present and for all. Or they will be for none.

Thank you.