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Human rights conference

Helen Whittle, Nuremberg
December 10, 2012

Freedom of expression and LGBT rights are particularly important to Europe's young generation. Delegates from across Europe debated Europe's hot-button issues at the European Youth Conference on Human Rights.

EU flag
Image: Reuters

Freedom of thought and religion, of opinion and expression, education, and the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven - all of these basic rights were confirmed just over six decades ago when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris on December 10, 1948.

Today these basic human rights are considered a cornerstone of the modern European community. But that doesn't mean every European understands the structures that uphold them.

"If you asked someone on the street today to name the organs of the European Union, they're not going to be able to. I think it's really important to dig deeper than just what is in the media and to actually give youth a platform to experience it first hand," 20-year-old Alexandra Kotthaus told DW.

And that's why, together with 23-year-old Sebastian Gerbeth, she organized the European Youth Conference on Human Rights, which took place last week in Nuremberg under the motto "Rightfully yours."

Eighty young people from 16 different countries across Europe gathered for five days, focusing in particular on freedom of expression, same-sex marriage, and the social and economic integration of Roma people in Europe.

Participants debated these current hot-button issues and then developed their own ideas on how Europe can better legislate the protection of human rights. While their proposals can't directly be made into law, they are at least a gauge for the real EU politicians on what their young constituents think.

Weighing freedom and protection

Migration and freedom of movement were a major topic of debate among delegates. Conference participants tasked with the issue were torn between finding a balance of offering shelter to the oppressed and war refugees, while still safeguarding border and homeland security.

While the delegates' resolution called for tighter border controls through the expansion of FRONTEX, the European Union agency for external border control, those youths in Nuremberg hoping to travel the world themselves valued freedom of movement, recognizing that this freedom is not enjoyed by many outside of the EU.

"I think that is actually one of the main points why I'm here. I want everyone to be free because freedom is the best thing that I know and that's why I like to travel," said 18-year-old Raquel Robayo from Sweden.

At the conference, Robayo's group debated the integration of Roma in Europe - another topic which divided opinion among the delegates. Their committee's resolution called for a social-assistance network for Roma within the EU, and for general access to healthcare, education and the labor market, regardless of identity documentation, but the proposal was ultimately rejected by the majority of delegates.

Support for LGBT rights

The rights of the LGBT community, on the other hand, overwhelmingly united rather divided opinion. In the age of cyber-bullying and following a spate of suicides by young gay people, mental health has become a major issue among young people who are under pressure to fit in to their peer group.

"I actually didn't know that there's a higher rate for young people in our age group to commit suicide if they know that they are gay. I was very surprised that that is a fact in our world that we're living in now, which is so open minded in a way," Raquel Robayo said.

Illegal immigrants watch from behind a fence as police patrol the perimeter of a detention center at Amygdaleza, on the northern fringes of Athens, Monday, April 30, 2012
Border control and national security was a controversial issueImage: AP

Like many of the delegates, conference organizer Alexandra Kotthaus agrees that promoting the rights of the LGBT community is critical, and was shocked to hear some of the arguments used against the resolution calling for equal rights for homosexual couples.

"I thought that in these times, especially the youth would be a lot more liberal," she said. "But from a lot of eastern European countries, there were very controversial arguments to the whole resolution as in, homosexuals can't raise children the same way as heterosexuals can, they shouldn't have the right to marry because it's not 'authentic' and things like that. That was a big shocker for me."

After long debates, the resolution for equality between homosexual and heterosexual couples when it comes to adoption and legal partnerships was passed by an overwhelming majority and met with a huge round of applause. 

Drawing the line

As part of the social media generation, the young delegates could be forgiven for taking the right to free speech for granted. But that wasn't to be the case, as participants quickly found themselves mired in the political and ethical minefield of having to draw the line between the right to expression, while safeguarding national security and negotiating Holocaust denial laws.

Sixteen-year-old Onur Can Ucarer from Turkey said discussing freedom of speech showed him just how tricky diplomacy can be.

"There are many gray areas: anti-Islam movies, Wikileaks, and the Franco-Turkish diplomatic issue, or just the Armenian genocide," he said. "We've argued pretty much everything."

Ucarer's committee called for all EU member states to prohibit Holocaust denial and for all other genocides, like the Armenian genocide, to be subjected to non-denial legislation. But their bill was rejected in the end because the majority did not agree that breaches of national security should be punished with prison sentences.

"I've learned even the basic things: While we're writing the resolutions down, even one word can provoke a long discussion," explained Onur Can Ucarer, still positive about the experience in Nuremberg. "So, even though it is sometimes quite annoying, we're reaching compromises and trying to meet in the middle and I think that's a good thing."

Shared values, lasting friendships

As the location for the human rights event, Nuremberg has particular symbolism. The Nazis held massive gatherings and propaganda parades there in the late 1920s and 1930s. Following the war, the Nuremberg Trials, which brought the Nazi war criminals to justice, represented a historical turning point in international human rights laws.

With the past in the background, the conference focused more on the status quo. Co-organizer Sebastian Gerbeth says that such events help to promote solidarity, broaden horizons, and help young Europeans recognize what they have in common.   

"I think it is very important to see that young people from other countries are not different," Gerberth explained. "We always get feedback from the delegates saying, 'Wow, they are just people like me, they are just living in another country but they have the same problems, they have the same interests, and they live like me.'"

An image of a woman tied with a gag
Delegates found it difficult to reach a consensus on the issue of free speechImage: picture-alliance/dpa Fotografia
The hands of two Lesbian women and a child
A resolution calling for equal rights for homosexual was met with a round applauseImage: picture-alliance/dpa
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