Speech by Ms Maud de Boer-Buquicchio
Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
2011 North-South Prize Ceremony
Lisbon, 27 March 2012
Embargo against delivery/Check against delivery
Mr President of the Republic,
Mr President of the Assembly of the Republic,
Esteemed winners of the 2011 Council of Europe North-South Prize,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me start by thanking most warmly, on behalf of the Council of Europe, the Portuguese authorities and the Parliament for their long-standing support and hospitality for this important event.
The North-South Prize has been awarded every year since 1995 to two individuals who have stood out for their exceptional commitment to the protection of human rights, the defence of pluralist democracy, raising public awareness on issues of global interdependence and solidarity, or strengthening the North-South partnership.
Historians will certainly regard the last two decades as the theatre of watershed changes on the European continent and in its neighbourhood.
I am not a historian, but I have been privileged to have spent many years in my professional life witnessing and being involved in these these movements from the perspective of the Council of Europe. And these have been exciting and inspiring years, since it is clear that our values – those of human rights and democracy - have been a main impetus for the monumental changes which have occurred and which are still in progress.
Both of our laureates today – on our continent and on its shores – have played a decisive role in these processes, and continue to push us forward.
Today, it is an honour for the Council of Europe and for me personally to reward Mr Boric Tadić, President of Serbia, representing the North, and Mrs Souhayr Belhassen, President of the International Federation for Human Rights, representing the South with the North-South Prize.
The personal history and career paths of our two laureates are quite different, and yet show some striking similarities and points of convergence. They are exemplary in demonstrating how values are not simply ideals or abstracts concepts, but a blueprint for action and for change.
President Tadić joined Serbia’s nascent democratic dissident movement in the 1980s and was arrested and imprisoned several times by the then authorities. In 1997, he founded and directed, until 2002, the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Political Skills.
President Tadić spared no efforts to secure Serbia’s progress on the way of European integration. Since its accession to the Council of Europe in 2003 and especially since the election of President Tadić in 2004, Serbia has achieved considerable progress in implementing a series of important reforms, in launching a dynamic regional co-operation process and in responding to the need to work with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The arrest and extradition of two last war fugitives, Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadzić, has opened up new prospects of justice for the victims of the conflict, reconciliation in the region and integration with the European Union.
The Council of Europe has accompanied and supported Serbia’s efforts aimed at the integration into the EU. Serbia has now met almost all obligations and commitments made to the Council of Europe and actively pursued the agenda of integration to the European Union. I also wish to congratulate President Tadić for the fact that Serbia has recently been granted a status of candidate to the European Union.
Today, Serbia is a most active member of the Council of Europe and is in the forefront of pushing forward a number of issues on our agenda.
Our second laureat, Mrs Souhayr Belhassen, has been battling tirelessly for years to bring about democratic changes in her country. She has fought for human rights and human dignity despite constant harassment for her activism, including attacks, phone tapping, being followed and having her mail controlled. She was also expelled in 1993 from Tunisia and forced into exile for five years following a petition supporting Algerian women and denouncing the silence of the Tunisian regime. She then returned to Tunisia continue to give a voice to those who needed it most and to stand for universal democratic principles. She was elected vice-president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights in 2000. Her fight and example have inspired many of others who stand for freedoms and rights.
Mrs Souhayr Belhassen is now at the head of one of the world’s largest organisation for the defence of human rights – the International Federation for Human Rights – which brings together 164 human rights organisations throughout the world. Mrs Belhassen was the first woman to become President of the International Federation for Human Rights in April 2007, and was re-elected in 2010.
As I mentioned in my introduction the points of convergence between our laureates, let me recall that back in 1927 the International Federation for Human Rights proposed the creation of an international declaration of human rights and of an “international criminal court”. The ICC entered finally into force in 2002 and thus represents the culmination of the FIDH’s longest campaign.
As President of FIDH, Souhayr Belhassen is putting the rights of migrants and of women among the top priorities of the organisation. In this context, FIDH is launching two important campaigns for the protection of women’s rights in the Arab region and in Sub-Saharan Africa. At a recent Round Table which I had the pleasure to chair, Mrs Belhassen and two other women from the “Arab Spring” countries, highlighted the need to pay particular attention to women’s rights in the evolving context in their countries, in particular as regards tensions between universal human rights and still disadvantaged personal legal status of women.
The social, political and cultural transformations that have recently taken place in North Africa certainly provide a major opportunity for the empowerment of women in the Southern Mediterranean region, but also risks.
A number of the democratically-elected parties in these countries have a religious basis, and it remains to be seen how they will deal with the question of equality of rights for women and men under the law, with calls from some of their adherents for a more traditional distinction in roles and powers. Without wishing to impose European models or concepts of State secularism, ways must be found to ensure that universal rights are truly that – universal – and that there is no room for systemic discriminations or differences in status or rights based on gender.
The Council of Europe neighbourhood policy, as well as initiatives such as the North-South Centre’s Women Empowerment initiative can play a role in monitoring developments and supporting women’s rights at this critical moment.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear laureates, the Council of Europe stands with you in your efforts aimed at strengthening democracy, the rule of law and the protection of human rights, in Europe and beyond.
I have spoken at the beginning of my speech of the watershed nature of the changes in Europe and more recently, in the countries of the Arab Spring. I am sure that you will agree with me that these changes are by no means at their conclusion. I know that both of you will continue to add your stones to this edifice. The Council of Europe will be by your side.
I congratulate you.