King of the Belgians

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Madam President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, Secretary General, ladies and gentlemen, members of the Assembly, today your Assembly represents 47 member States and more than 800 million inhabitants. Since 1949, the European family has gradually drawn closer and grown, building on the essential foundations of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. All this is both a cause for optimism and a tremendous responsibility.

I am speaking to you at a time when Belgium has the honour of chairing the Committee of Ministers. My presence in this Chamber is a token of the profound commitment of my country to all the institutions of the Council of Europe. Collectively, they act as the custodians of an edifice of fundamental values that has been centuries in the building. If we considered it necessary, throughout history and, more particularly, since the Second World War, to establish custodians of our values, it is because these values remain vulnerable. The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1950 was the response of Europe – an ever-evolving response – in the face of tyranny, oppression and acts of barbarity, in particular, the events during the Holocaust. Human rights are and must remain a bulwark against the worst examples of evil of which human beings are capable; they aim to protect what is human in humankind. Rights and freedoms are rooted in the concept of a decent society, by which I mean a society that will not tolerate abuses of authority, indignities or humiliation.

The context has changed tremendously since then, but this original source of inspiration needs to be continually re-enlivened, in particular when we see that in a great many of our countries there is an increasing trend to fragmentation and individualism, and because at the beginning of this 21st century our world is still being afflicted by acts of barbarity. Despite the undeniable improvements, there are still too many situations in contemporary society in which women and men are not being treated with dignity. The report on intolerance and discrimination in Europe drawn up in 2011 by the Group of Eminent Persons of the Council of Europe highlighted certain shameful responses that are emerging in our societies in the face of pressure from migration. As stated in the report, those attitudes cannot be ascribed to individuals alone but are sometimes of an institutional nature. The recent tragic events in the Mediterranean remind us of how urgent this issue is for Europe.

Closer to home, we experience daily situations of human indignity. Despite the substantial efforts that have been made to correct this in Europe, we are still confronted with the difficulties involved in finding jobs and in working conditions that give precedence to performance over personal development. Despite the tremendous achievements in the areas of health care and provision for the elderly, we still see human values losing ground.

Furthermore, there is an insidious indifference that can often conceal an attitude of contempt towards other people. That is the case whenever we turn a blind eye to poverty, fragility and loneliness, which are still omnipresent in society and are affronts to human rights. If we are to construct and preserve a society based on decency, we need to restore the vision of human beings in their full dimension, a concept that pervades the European Convention on Human Rights and all the normative and political instruments of the Council of Europe. An individual has not only rights but duties with respect to the community in which he or she lives. Our collective responsibility today involves creating, as stated in Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a “social and international order” that means that the fundamental civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights can fully prosper.

What do we mean by “human beings in all their fullness”? Human beings are unique and apparently isolated in the world, but they are also naturally drawn to other people and dependent on the world within which they live, so they are a compound of autonomy and openness. They are inward-looking, but they also have a sense of belonging. On the one hand, each individual is entitled to his or her inner space, private sphere, intimacy and secrets – a life governed by individual choices. This means respecting the right to privacy, as enshrined by Article 8 of the Convention. Individuals should be safe from any outside interference. On the other hand, human beings should be open to contact with others and with the world at large, as stated in Article 11 of the Convention, which enshrines freedom of assembly and association.

Those two dimensions are not only complementary but mutually enhancing. Human beings construct themselves and develop through authentic interpersonal relations based on respect, empathy and a commitment to tolerance. It is only through this constant mutual enrichment that we can create and foster a decent society and a civilisation. For humans to attain fulfilment, they need to nurture both those dimensions in a balanced way. If we are too self-contained and inward looking, it will lead to further fragmentation and excessive individualism. We will lose sight of common sense, which will impede the transmission of values and traditions. A fragmented society lends itself to being built on indifference, slander and contempt, which in turn may be conducive to intolerance and violence. However, being too outward looking may lead to relativism, the loss of identity and a sense of loyalty, and over-dependence on others. Furthermore, although a certain measure of transparency is necessary, absolute transparency between individuals is a mere illusion. It hampers mutual trust, and trust, after all, is the basic foundation of all human relations, including economic relations.

The mission of the greater Europe that you represent here in the Council of Europe, and of which you are the custodians, is to construct every day a culture conducive to the development of self-sufficiency and autonomy, but also to openness to others. This would be a culture in which decency and civility would take precedence over indifference and humiliation – a culture of enablement, allowing each individual to fully develop his or her potential and personality. It would enable him or her to engage fully with others and reach fulfilment, and to assume responsibilities and take risks while respecting others and co-operating with them. Only such a culture is conducive to the effective implementation of human rights, of which we are all the custodians.

In order actively to promote that culture of dignity, our societies have many instruments at their disposal. Respect for fundamental human rights and rejecting the denial of other people’s humanity requires training and education that focuses on individual development in the full sense of the term. It requires education in the family setting, in schools and through the media, which are fundamental. It goes far beyond just teaching our children to defend individual rights. It is basically what we do whenever we try to foster mutual respect in relations at work. We are trying to achieve the same aim by forging tools for social cohesion; by fighting against trafficking in human beings; by seeking to regulate how to assist human beings in a humane way when they fall sick or become old and vulnerable; by fighting against hate speech that incites people to violence; or by drawing up action plans against extremism and radicalisation. In fact, that is the core assignment of the institutions of the Council of Europe, and I would like strongly to encourage you to sustain that commitment.

Finally, the decent society that we would like to develop and preserve together is one that creates links beyond the immediate future and transcends the short term. We are all the heirs of the generations that have gone before us. With respect to our values, culture, science and the law, we have all been shaped by our history. Respect for the dignity of all should extend to future generations as well – we do not want to disinherit our children.

Madam President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, Mr Secretary General, ladies and gentlemen, members of the Assembly, it was our forebears who painstakingly built up this edifice of democracy and the rule of law. By establishing human rights, they wished to sustain that achievement by giving pride of place to human beings.

We now need to build on and further improve this legacy. We are duty-bound to remain committed to these underlying values and to embody them in a decent society.