European Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Totalitarian Regimes

Speech held by Friso Roscam Abbing at the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Totalitarian Regimes, 23 August, Vilnius.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you to the Lithuanian Presidency for inviting the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights to address you all here today, on this important day. 

The band Depeche Mode in their song ‘People are people’ once sang:

I can't understand

What makes a man

Hate another man

Help me understand.

Which is partly why we are here today. We are here to look back, understand and learn from the past to build a better future. But we are also here to remember the tragic loss, the tremendous suffering and the incalculable damage that totalitarian Nazi and Soviet regimes inflicted on the people of Europe all those years. This is vital because, as the former Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security, Franco Frattini, once said:

We can only understand what Europe’s common future is, if we understand what Europe’s common past is.

Already we can say that Europe today, undoubtedly, is a better place. The Nobel Peace prize awarded to the EU in 2012 acknowledges that and the efforts we have all made – governments and citizens alike - to rise out of the ashes of war, conflict and tyranny. We share common values of human dignity, freedom, fundamental rights, the rule of law, respect for each other and democracy. And the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights guides our governments to ensure that rights are promoted and protected for everyone in the EU.

But none of us can pretend that everything is perfect. Suffering persists. Fear persists. Violence persists.

Take these words from a young woman in London as an example:

As a visible Muslim woman, I know I’m an easy target. But it’s cowardly to pick on a woman just because of what she is wearing.... These men saw me as a weak target, and tried to assert their masculinity over me. I wish people could understand you can’t blanket an entire faith just because of a few individuals who had nothing to do with us.

Too many groups in our EU society continue to suffer discrimination, hate crime and harassment. Let me give you some further examples:

  • This month neo-Nazi gang members have been imprisoned in Hungary for attacks against Roma.
  • In Germany the so-called ‘kebab murders’ of immigrants over a period of 10 years caused widespread shock.
  • And from our own work, we found out that about three in 10 of all transgender respondents to our Europe-wide survey into lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender hate crime and discrimination said they were victims of violence or threats of violence more than three times in the past year.
  • And our antisemitism survey, to be presented on the eve of progrom night, points to massive problems online and in social media; three out every four respondents indicated that this was where they most felt the hand of antisemitism today.

Ordinary citizens brutally persecuted in the past by totalitarian regimes. And still suffering today.

So what parallels can we draw with the past? As in former times, the socio-economic crisis in Europe is fuelling prejudice and, in some cases, violence against the most vulnerable groups of our society, such as Roma, migrants, and ethnic and religious minorities. We are also witnessing extremist ideology and populist policies in political and public speech, as in the dark past.

That’s why this year our Fundamental Rights Conference, on 12-13 November, here in Vilnius, hosted together with the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, will focus on combating hate crime in the EU. It aims at giving a voice and putting a face to victims of hate crime.

But, ladies and gentleman,

We have learnt from the past: It was the aftermath of two World Wars that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then there came international treaties which were signed by Member States to uphold and protect the rights of people across the globe. Europe’s founding fathers created the European Union, and based it on common values of democracy, dignity and rights. And since then the European Parliament and European Commission, as well as governments in the 28 Member States and national human rights bodies are working hard to ensure that human rights are universal. They serve human beings, no matter their colour, creed or where they came from.

And let us not forget the many organisations across Europe that work ceaselessly to preserve the memory of totalitarian regimes and their victims. Together with remembrance days, they remind us of what happened in the past. But, importantly they can and should also provide a bridge to the future. They play a crucial role in developing educational programmes that allow young people to reflect on contemporary human rights issues - such as equality and dignity - viewed through the prism of the past. They form an important part of our work to build a more inclusive society, based on respect for and understanding of fundamental rights and European values. And they help raise awareness of rights. You should know you have the right to get a job, go to school or simply be yourself, just like everyone else, regardless of the colour of your skin, your sexual orientation or the faith that you adhere to.

Today, we are here to pay homage to all those who fell victim or fought valiantly against totalitarian regimes. Underlining the importance of why we are here, let me conclude with the words of one Danish student who witnessed the shock and horror of the atrocities committed by such regimes:

“[Remembrance days and] visits to memorial sites can provide a broader understanding of what human rights are. They help you to understand how important it is to create a world with room for everyone.

Thank you.