18th Plenary Session of the Congress
Strasbourg, 17 March 2010
Address by Stefan Wolf, Lord Mayor of Weimar, on "The role of local and regional authorities in the implementation of human rights"
Ladies and gentlemen,
Colleagues from the local and regional authorities of Europe,
My presence here today to address representatives of local and regional authorities from the 47 countries of the Council of Europe on the subject of "The role of local and regional authorities in the implementation of human rights" constitutes a great honour for Weimar.
I assume that it was not by chance that Weimar was chosen, so I should like to offer you the viewpoint of this small and comparatively prosperous German city with a population of 65,000, which receives approximately 4 million visitors each year. It is a city of culture, where visitors can find not only the roots of German humanism, but also traces of the National Socialist reign of terror; it is a place where people can learn about the cultural history of Europe, and it is also a place which has been awarding one of the main European human rights prizes for the past 15 years.
Perhaps I may come straight to my main theme, namely ordinary life in this world village of ours in central Germany, in the hope that this will make our consideration of the implementation of human rights more lively and practical. A week ago today, the Minister of Culture and Tourism of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hamid Baghaei, made a visit to Weimar. West met East in an atmosphere of poetic friendship and cultural exchange. Some citizens of Weimar demonstrated peacefully on the marketplace for democracy and human rights in Iran and for solidarity with Israel, and the newspaper headlines said that the Lord Mayor was treading on thin ice. I told my Iranian guest about Franz Liszt, that cosmopolitan European, about East European author Johann Gottlieb Herder and his account of European cultures, and about the global expansion of the Bauhaus movement, established in Weimar in 1919, but driven away in 1926. And another subject raised during my conversation with Ahmadinejad’s Culture Minister, of course, was the many thousands of killings and the brutalisation of human beings in the Weimar area between 1937 and 1945. For nobody who talks about culture in Weimar can or may fail to refer to the concentration camp at Buchenwald, or human rights and their violations. One thing that we have learned from the Buchenwald camp's survivors is that the right to a life story of one's own is an existential human right!
As the political authorities at grass roots level, we have a duty to help people to fulfil this human right to their own destiny. This applies as well to those who are persecuted and to asylum seekers, who have crossed the often deadly Schengen border and risk losing their knowledge of themselves as the years go by in our European reception camps or hostels.
So it is the right to one's own destiny, one's own life story that I would like to take as my first focal point as I consider our local and regional responsibilities. People who live in retirement and care homes share this right, as well as the right to be listened to and to make their opinions known. Its implementation is in the hands of those who hold or control the right to make one’s voice heard.
I should like if I may to quote two concrete examples of how we, in our legislative capacity, and as local representatives, alongside important facilities such as district centres, cultural clubs or hostels, which reach out to their district, can also implement this right to remember.
On 14 July 2007, former concentration camp inmates from 22 nations ceremonially handed over to Weimar municipal council their "Buchenwald Testament", which the council had unanimously agreed to accept. The city pledged to the survivors: "that we shall never stay silent about the crimes of the National Socialists and shall always combat with all our might National Socialist thinking, racism and anti-Semitism". Two years later, on the Day of German Unity, 3 October 2009, the Weimar municipal council added more weight to this decision, conferring honorary citizenship on the chair of the international Buchenwald-Dora und Kommando committee, Bertrand Herz, "representing all former prisoners". These two decisions by the municipal council were more than just symbolic signals, for they involved an enduring commitment by the city of Weimar, which thereby fundamentally changed its relationship with its own history and with the present and future. We should not underestimate this power of legislative action where representation is concerned. It is still vitally important to the democratic feeling of self-worth of a region’s people, and for their perception of themselves as part of a human community. Taking a look in the mirror to see others' representation is fundamental to a community's own perception of itself. We know this not least because of the well-known Weimar human rights prize, awarded by the Weimar municipal council each year to individuals anywhere in the world who have risked their own lives defending the rights of their fellow human beings. This prize has an international reputation, moreover, thanks to close co-operation with the federal government's human rights commissioner. In this context, we have enjoyed very positive experience with an unbureaucratic network of local, federal and national bodies. The award of an international human rights prize by a small German city can generate a win-win situation at every level, and not least for the recipient of this kind of support. Of course this is only possible if the staffing resources are available at local level. This task would be virtually impossible without an official responsible for foreigners, something that European municipalities are not required to have.
As you can see, I have endeavoured to complement the views of the two previous speakers from the Weimar perspective, emphasising the strong role of representation and communication activity in a humane community. Legislative action sometimes plays only a secondary role when it comes to implementing human rights at local level.
But unless the social homework is done, all these representative and voluntary steps to implement human rights in municipalities will come to nought. This work consists of the daily challenge of bringing back into our community life what had been thought to be "superfluous". Alongside the human right to one's own destiny, a right learned from the Nazi era, the right to be perceived as wanting to be different belongs among those human rights with a Christian foundation for which we in Europe - precisely as authorities at grass roots level - should develop a particular sensitivity.
I can only encourage you all to make use of existing national and European means of providing assistance and to take every opportunity to engage in skilful interaction. It is precisely a combination of European, national, regional and local measures that will be able to bring us the success that we desire - a task which will require the utmost professionalism as well. For example, consistent use of the "social city" federal programme, supplemented by funds from the ERDF, has enabled us in the meantime to achieve exemplary success in Weimar in preventing segregation in our prefabricated concrete housing, particularly among residents. We can support these long-term and sustainable projects, conducted through various support programmes centred on the "social city" federal programme, by guiding them at grass roots level through additional local and regional measures. Another example is the local "social ticket" for short-distance public transport, offered to our jobless who live in outlying districts, and one day to be introduced on a uniform basis for the whole central Thuringia transport region. The aim is to provide support for the fundamental human right to mobility and to free access to the employment and education markets through local infrastructure measures. We should not allow human beings to be declared superfluous, and in this respect we are fully in line with the human and citizens' rights of 1789! The ability to participate fully in the social process is still one of the most important rights of the citizen, as well as being a precondition of those rights, and it prevents people from becoming cut off by local public transport fares from the professional, social and cultural life available in cities and in their centres. A lot can be achieved in this respect through regional co-operation.
Much can be done at grass roots level through political and legislative processes to implement human rights. I have given a complex example of this, one close to my heart, in the form of the infrastructure measures which foster social participation by citizens.
Other measures, in contrast, tend to require instead good informal networking by civil society, politicians and administrative departments to encourage them to grow; without this human rights remain a dead letter. The spontaneous decision to allow the removal of election posters of a racist nature and the impeding of extreme right-wing phenomena by the municipal authorities (municipal councillors and election officials) can be viewed in this context … even as a short-term exceeding of the statutory activities of a mayor. Such symbolic action is possible only (in exceptional circumstances) when a fundamental local consensus has emerged in advance. I would urge you today, as we look at the subject of the upholding of human rights at grass roots level, to take into consideration as another factor civil courage in the acts that an elected representative of the people can carry out. Where else but in local and regional authorities, at grass roots level?
Thank you for your attention.