Strengthening Regional Human Rights Defenders’ Networks in the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and Turkey
I am proud to be the President of an institution that champions the voice of the people of Europe, defending human rights all over the world.
People look to us when a journalist is jailed, when women, political opponents or minorities are the victims of violence or discrimination. The European Union is the only region without the death penalty.
We are much more than a currency or a market. We are a guiding light for fundamental rights in the world.
Let me remind you that the first condition to becoming an EU member is to share these values. This is why compliance with the Copenhagen human rights criteria is non-negotiable.
Despite that, also on our borders, in countries aspiring to EU membership, we see very worrying developments.
Firstly, freedom of expression is a keystone of democracy. Access to independent information and open debate are the basis of our citizens’ political rights.
As a former journalist, I know how important it is to be able to work freely. Journalists’ duty is not only to report the news, but also to keep politicians under scrutiny without fear for their safety or freedom.
This is why we are very concerned with the latest developments in Turkey.
The country is alleged to have the largest number of journalists in jail. The recent statement by Erdogan accusing Deniz, the German reporter from Die Welt, of being a terrorist for just doing is job, is extremely worrying.
I call for his immediate release, along with the dozens of Turkish journalists unjustly detained.
It is also unacceptable that the President of Turkey referred to Nazism in relation to a democratic country. Germany fully guarantees all fundamental freedoms and with these comments, Erdogan offends all Europeans.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina the national journalists association registered forty (40) cases of media freedom violations only in 2016.
In Albania, Belarus, the FYROM, Moldova and Montenegro several journalists have been detained, or impeded for just doing their jobs.
The situation in Russia is also of concern. It is estimated that more than thirty-six (36) journalists have been murdered there since nineteen ninety-two (1992). The name of our press conference room was named after Anna Politkovskaya, in her memory.
Secondly, another key element of democracy is the freedom of thought and association. How can society be open and fair if you do not have the right to debate or hold different opinions?
This is why we are very preoccupied with the oppression of political opponents in some of your countries.
Elected members of parliament are in prison in Turkey - thereby denying the voices of their electorate. This is a very serious infringement on the democratic credentials of Turkey.
We are fully on the side of the rule of law and democracy and we strongly condemn the attempted coup in Turkey. We expressed the European solidarity for all the victims.
However, we cannot turn a blind eye to the forty one thousand (41 000) people jailed and ninety thousand (90 000) who lost their jobs as a result of this dramatic event.
According to the media, over six thousand (6,000) political activists are in prison and more than one hundred twenty five thousand (125 000) civil servants have been investigated.
Our call today is for the full respect of due process and the rule of law.
In Moldova, the opposition leader and five other activists were detained for political reasons.
In Albania, we note problems with the treatment of minorities. And the list goes on.
Unfortunately, despite your strong effort and the support from Europe, we note that the situation is not improving. As a matter of fact, the Commission’s 2016 reports say that no progress has been registered in the area of freedom of expression for all six Western Balkan countries.
And things are getting worse in Turkey.
Next year we will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. It recognises the fundamental role of people like you - who protect and promote human rights.
We must not limit ourselves to admiring your courage. We will continue to support you, to stand by you.
We cannot have peace, stability, prosperity, without respect for human rights, rule of law, gender equality and freedom.
Human rights are the only way to make the world a better place to live in.
It has never been easy. But you are not alone. The European parliament is taking on this mission with you:
We debate human rights situations at every plenary;
We have a sub-committee on Human rights;
We established the Sakharov Prize, awarded to Human Rights icons from Mandela to Malala;
We, as co-legislators, approve the EU budget linking our assistance to a commitment to Human Rights.
This commitment is also reflected by our action supporting democracy and in our election observation missions with the participation of this Parliament.
We also have constant exchanges with many countries to help build democratic capacity.
As we speak, officials of the European Parliament are meeting Ukrainian officials in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament). They will explore support measures to make parliamentary procedures in Ukraine more democratic and transparent.
As I mentioned, another initiative of the European Parliament of which I am particularly proud is the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.
Since 1988, the Prize is awarded to recognise the struggle of those whose self-sacrifice advanced Human Rights around the world.
I was humbled recently, when I met Sakharov winner, Lamya Aji Bashar, a young Yazidi woman, kidnapped by Daesh. She is an inspiration to all of us and for the Muslim world.
I was also honoured to meet Sakharov winner Hauwa Ibrahim, who spent her life defending women against harsh punishment under Sharia law.
They symbolise the very spirit of this prize, that we also proudly promote through the Sakharov Prize Network.
The European Parliament, in partnership with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, invited you to exchange ideas and share your experiences of the battle for human rights in your countries.
As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, and as history has shown us, a peaceful and strong future for Europe goes hand in hand with the stability of our closest neighbours.
We all of us have a responsibility to show even greater strength and courage in exercising our role as defenders of the universal values that are underpin the predominant raison d’être of our Union.
Europe is a success story when it embodies dreams of progress, prosperity, freedom and peace.
Your fight is our fight.I wish you every success with this conference.
Thank you for your attention.