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Good morning and welcome to Brussels.

It is my great pleasure to open the fifth Policy Dialogue on Human Rights between the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). I welcome our ASEAN guests as well as our Member States who attend this session as observers.

Let me give a special welcome to Timor-Leste, whose representative is joining us for the very first time as a future member of ASEAN. Our Union, too [the European Union], has prospective members: ten countries in total, including Ukraine and Moldova. This speaks volumes of the appeal of our integration journeys and of the uniting force of dialogue and cooperation amongst states and amongst peoples.

ASEAN and the EU are friends and strategic partners. Our Summit in December last year renewed our close partnership and our shared interest in a peaceful, stable and prosperous world, where international law and the rules-based international order are respected and upheld, and where peace, security and human dignity are maintained. We cannot build such a world without human rights.

The EU is ASEAN’s only dialogue partner on Human Rights with a regular and well-established exchange on, and we take pride in this bond, symbolizing our deep mutual understanding and interdependence as regional integration blocs, as transnational communities based on universal values.

Promotion and protection of human rights is at the core of our relations, intertwined into almost all aspects of our collaboration – trade, investment, security, defense, environment, and climate change. Today’s dialogue is vital for affirming our shared dedication to human rights. And for understanding each other better.

We live in turbulent times. The global human rights architecture built incrementally over the last 75 years has been shaken. When we met in Jakarta last year, I spoke about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has brought war, destruction and human suffering back to Europe. Almost one year on, President Putin’s aggression continues unabated despite the overwhelming condemnation of the international community, despite the suffering of Ukrainian civilians, [and despite] the war’s ramifications for food security in the world.

At the same time, the pressure builds up and we are witnessing what I call a “Ukrainian momentum” for accountability. This March, for the first time ever, the International Criminal Court has made the Head of State of a permanent member of the Security Council a fugitive and a pariah.

Our challenge now is to seize this momentum globally. We are very conscious that not withstanding the war of aggression on Ukraine and its consequences in Europe, but we cannot forget the other crises in the world, including the crisis in the midst of ASEAN, in Myanmar. And we must act on new crises that break out. The European Union will not withdraw from the global scene because there is war in Europe.

Two and a half years after the military coup, Myanmar has sunk into a humanitarian and human rights disaster. The Myanmar military has carried out a brutal nationwide crackdown on millions of people opposed to its rule. For example, In April an airstrike in Pay Zy Gyi (Sagaing State) claimed 180 civilian lives, prompting global condemnation. The Myanmar junta security forces have carried out mass killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, and other abuses that amount to crimes against humanity. Freedoms of speech and assembly are severely restricted. The junta’s ineptitude and mismanagement of the country’s economy since the coup has heightened the suffering of the population and entrenched a climate of fear and insecurity.

In March, the military-appointed Union Election Commission dissolved forty political parties, including the National League for Democracy. The junta extended the state of emergency for another six months in late July. Given these circumstances, credible and inclusive elections seem impossible.

Two months ago, I travelled to Bangladesh to visit Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, the biggest refugee camp in the world. I met with women, men, girls and boys who lost their loved ones at the hands of the Myanmar military. I listened to their stories, their grievances and fears, their hopes for justice and a better life. In all those discussions that I had in Cox’s Bazar with the Rohingya, there was one common theme – the longing to return home, to their villages in Rakhine State in Myanmar.

We need to do more to make this longing – a voluntary, safe and dignified return home – a real option. The European Union welcomes ASEAN’s principled approach and united front towards the crisis in Myanmar. We fully support the efforts of Indonesia as ASEAN Chair to galvanize the stalled Five-Point Consensus as a roadmap for peace, honouring the democratic aspirations of Myanmar’s people. The European Union urges the military regime to release, immediately and unconditionally, all political prisoners in Myanmar, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

Dear ASEAN friends, the European Union strives to be a global force for human rights. Our Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024) is a collective endeavour of our 27 Member States and EU institutions. It sets out a “Team Europe” roadmap, shaping our role as a strong advocate and defender of human rights and democracy on the international stage.

But we are mindful of challenges persisting within Europe and we confront them head-on. With our member states, we are intensifying our efforts in critical domains, which include combating gender-based violence, enhancing LGBTI rights, fortifying the rights of national, ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, and upholding religious and media freedoms.

We have also taken steps to tackle the dynamic challenges presented by the digital age and the climate crisis, launching initiatives that intertwine human rights into our digital and climate action. The EU’s legislative actions extend beyond its borders and we hope not only to inspire others but also to find common solutions and understanding globally.

The spotlight on values and human rights is an important subject within the European public and political arena, significantly shaping our engagements with nations marred by questionable human rights records. A notable instance is our re-evaluation of relations with China, where our investment agreement has been held up indefinitely.

Promoting human rights is a task that requires partners and dialogue. With states and with regional blocs such as ASEAN. But also with broader human rights constituencies.

As High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell underlines, “our partnership with civil society is ingrained in our DNA”. Emphasizing a safe and empowering civic space and standing with human rights defenders and civil society globally is at the heart of our human rights policy. We strongly advocate for a supportive and secure civic space within an appropriate normative framework. Yesterday’s consultation with ASEAN and EU civil societies was an important milestone in this regard. I look forward to hearing their contributions and recommendations in today’s discussion.

Our Dialogue will encompass not only longstanding topics, such as freedom of expression, but also delve deeper into emerging areas, such as digital rights. It is imperative that our collaboration maintains its dynamic nature and that we continue seeking ways to bolster human rights promotion and protection across all spheres.

I want to emphasize the critical role of European constituencies and the European Parliament for what we do as European Union. The European Parliament is a representation of our society’s hopes and needs. Their focus on human rights and individual cases holds great importance, and we are obligated to address them. I am pleased that you will be traveling to Strasbourg to engage with European parliamentarians.

Our world is changing and so is the way of conducting trade and business activities. Human rights within ASEAN are of importance not only for the EU, our member states, and our civil society. An increasing number of companies based in Europe and beyond are now prioritizing Corporate Social Responsibility in the nations where they conduct business. And there is a growing number of European consumers whose choices are informed by human and labour rights. A solid record on human rights is becoming significant for any country seeking to attract European investors.

And I know you are paying particular attention to new European legislation on due diligence in the supply chain and that is part of that process. And we look forward to discussing that with you in greater detail.

Reflecting on our Dialogue and deepening partnership, I want to be frank. Since we last met in Jakarta one year ago, we have been observing developments in ASEAN and ASEAN Member States closely. While we acknowledge the progress made in institutionalizing the ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue and mainstreaming the human rights across the three ASEAN pillars, we also have concerns.

As you are aware, the EU is a staunch advocate for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. We oppose the capital punishment in all circumstances. We note with concern that the death penalty is still applied in a number of ASEAN countries. We are also alarmed about attacks against human rights defenders in South-East Asia. We are concerned that environmental activists are persecuted for fighting land grabbing or defending rights of farmers. Lawyers advocating for the accused are enduring harassment and detention. These concerns are shared by the European Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, our EU member states, and our vocal civil society. And we continue to address them during our bilateral Human Rights Dialogues established with individual ASEAN countries. These Dialogues are important platforms for improvement on both sides, in Europe and South-East Asia.

Last year, we agreed on specific deliverables and areas where we would like to cooperate further, and it is crucial to revisit those discussions to assess our progress. I am aware of the progress made, particularly in the areas of human rights and business exchanges, disinformation, and migration.

Perhaps the most significant development is the initiation of a new partnership involving our organizations, the ASEAN Secretariat, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. This cooperation partnership will provide a robust framework for concrete joint activities and contribute to the AICHR’s capacity building.

And we are following very closely your own Human Rights Dialogues within ASEAN. We express our willingness to engage in that process and to support that process in every way we can.

I am confident that, through today’s dialogue, we can reinforce our strategic partnership and identify areas where we can work jointly for the better realization of human rights of our people.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to remain with you throughout our deliberations due to a requirement at an event that I am attending in Madrid, which is organised by the Spanish Presidency and which I am obliged to attend. But I will be following the Dialogue’s discussions very closely. I will be passing over the chair to my colleague Mark Gallagher whom you have worked with already.

My final point is that we normally hold our Dialogue every two years. This is a little unusual that we are having one just twelve months after the last one, but we are doing catch-up after the COVID pandemic. I am really happy to see you in Brussels and I look forward to our discussions and I hope that at the end of our conclusions that we will commit to the holding of the next Dialogue in two years’ time in a venue nominated by ASEAN.

Thank you again and I look forward to our discussions.