2021 EU-Central Asia Civil Society Forum: Building Forward Better – Keynote Speech
EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore
Keynote Speech at the EU-Central Asia Civil Society Forum
BUILDING FORWARD BETTER: ENGAGING FOR A SUSTAINABLE POST-COVID RECOVERY
06 October 2021 – 11:15-11:45
Excellences, Distinguished speakers, Dear civil society colleagues,
Good morning to all.
I am very pleased to be here with you today, all the more because it is in person. It is the third EU-Central Asia Civil Society Forum, and it is an initiative stemming from the EU Strategy on Central Asia.
Let me begin by warmly thanking all civil society representatives and our partners present here, and online, for your engagement and commitment to a successful Forum. We are grateful to Kazakhstan for hosting the event this year in the beautiful city of Almaty. I would also like to thank the organisers, European Union Special Representative for Central Asia, Tehri Hakala, and her devoted team, for their commitment to empowering civil society.
This timely event occurs in a challenging and interesting context. So many challenges have risen during the past year: we are too well aware of the impacts the COVID-19 have had on human rights, exacerbating many inequalities that already existed all over the world, including in Central Asia. My thoughts are with those who have lost their loved ones, families and friends.
But worrying trends emerged. Both the formal and the informal measures implemented in response to the pandemic have undermined fundamental values, values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognised by all countries, and on which any democracy should be based.
In particular, civil society organisations had to address more challenges than before, often in a restrictive environment, within which they have had to face pressure, stigmatisations, and persecutions. Yet, the importance of the work that civil society organisations are conducting to defend the universality of human rights, and sometimes in situations where their lives are at risk, must be recognised and defended at all times.
Civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists, and all activists who defend human rights with strength, are vital to our societies. In threatening the good conduct of their essential activities, the COVID-19 demonstrated how crucial it is to protect (among others but not only), freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the media. In fact, it is the only way to allow a sufficiently open space for the civil society to evolve.
The EU recognises the crucial role played by civil society organisations: they represent our indispensable partner in the actions we conduct within the EU, but also outside of the EU.
This European Union commitment is not new. For long, the EU has been a strong supporter of civil society organisations, and it had deployed a large range of tools and mechanisms to defend their work.
The new Global Europe Instrument 2021-2027 (NDICI) will support a sustainable global recovery and promote partnerships across the world. It will specifically allocate €6.36 billion to thematic programmes, including in Central Asia, focusing on civil society organisations, human rights, democracy, and more. This unique instrument represents a true step forward since not only it is based on a true human rights-based approach, but it also foresees direct cooperation with civil society organisations.
Its predecessor programme, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) already supported Central Asian civil society organisations during the last programming period (2014-2020), in financing human rights and democratisation projects specifically in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, thus participating to uphold the vibrancy of these countries’ civil society.
Let me share with you a couple of positive initiatives from the region. In Uzbekistan, the EU contributes to the strengthening of institutional and organizational capacity of NGOs, respond to the impact of COVID-19 on most vulnerable women and youth in rural areas and to improve their socio-economic situation.
In the Western part of Kazakhstan, twenty (20) small, mostly women-led, businesses were supported through a project with local Civil Society Organisations to implement the so-called Territorial Approach to Local Development (TALD).
In Tajikistan, the EIDHR, in close collaboration with the Tajik Committee on Women and Family Affairs, funded and thus allowed for the creation of an efficient tool to assist victims of domestic violence: the ‘Hotline 1313’ provides with free legal and psychological support and consultations to victims of domestic violence.
In a world where we have observed increasing threats posed to individuals advocating for human rights or reporting on human rights abuses, the EU has particularly strengthened its efforts to support human rights defenders. For seventeen years now, the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders shape our action on this matter.
More recently, the EU implemented ProtectDefenders.eu, a flagship mechanism led by a consortium of twelve NGOs, providing assistance to human rights defenders who face immediate risks. Since 2015, the mechanism has provided multifaceted support to over 46,000 human rights defenders at risk and their families.
The EU Action Plan 2020-2024, adopted unanimously, by all 27 Member States of the European Union in November last year, is another illustration of the strong EU’s engagement to promote the universal values we all share. This Action Plan provides for the implementation of concrete objectives in every country the EU is engaging with, to ensure the fully compliance of States’ obligations with human rights. To fulfil this objective, it is articulated around five pillars:
- Protecting and empowering individuals;
- Building resilient, inclusive and democratic societies;
- Promoting a global system for human rights and democracy;
- New technologies;
- Delivering by working together.
Many of these were part of our priorities for many years, but this Action Plan also includes new elements that will participate to provide a sustainable answer to the global challenges we face. These are notably:
- increased action on economic, social and cultural rights;
- more emphasis on democracy;
- greater focus on business and human rights;
- more emphasis on the link between human rights and the environment;
- maximising the benefits of digital technologies and minimising their risks;
- further action on the protection and empowerment of human rights defenders; and
- more investment in communication to create better awareness about what we do.
Although ambitious, it is the concrete steps taken to implement this Action Plan that will be decisive to better promote human rights and democracy around the world. I have been given a particular role in guiding its implementation. Cooperation, especially with civil society, is therefore one of the key elements to achieve our priorities. For this reason, the Action Plan provides for annual consultations, as well as regular and inclusive engagements with civil society on its overall implementation. Most notably, the EU is determined to further support and strengthen civil society organisations, in (1) ensuring the promotion of a safe and enabling environment for CSOs as actors in their own right; and (2) in condemning and taking appropriate actions against any kinds of violations that unduly restrict their work.
An important part of the EU’s Human Rights Policy also relies on the conduct of Human Rights Dialogues. In these and other formal bilateral consultations, which civil society organisations are consulted upstream of the meeting, before being informed of the outcomes. This has been the case for every Central Asian country, and the latest one in date, the 11th EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue in Brussels on 6 September, is an example of this cooperation.
All of these tools and mechanisms aim at improving the human rights situation on the ground, implementing direct positive changes for the citizens. An example of good initiatives was realised in Kazakhstan, where the EU supported the setting-up of a unique platform under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ‘Dialogue on Human Dimension’, allowing authorities, human rights organisations and other civil society organisations, as well as experts such as human rights lawyers, to discuss human dimension issues and make recommendations. In Uzbekistan, the EU funded the project ‘Strengthening Civil Society to Advance Women’s Rights through Advocacy, Protection and Empowerment in Uzbekistan’, implemented by the NGO ACTED, to improve the protection environment for violence-affected women, to advance women’s rights and to enhance women’s empowerment.
Partnership is at the heart of the Team Europe spirit, of which this Forum is a perfect illustration. The European Union enjoys rich ties with Central Asia that aims at developing a regional approach. Our cooperation on human rights, rule of law, good governance and democratisation is consolidating day after day, at national, regional and multilateral levels. The Central Asia Rule of Law Programme 2020-2024, co-funded by the EU and the Council of Europe, has demonstrated how multilateral and regional cooperation contributes to improving the lives of citizens.
I have myself intensively engaged with Central Asian countries, and most notably with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This includes consultations with the civil society and human rights NGO platforms, because civil society has been, and will remain one of the priorities of my mandate. I also took the opportunity of this Forum to visit both of these countries, together with the EUSR for Central Asia, Ambassador Terhi Hakala. I am convinced that the meetings conducting during this occasion will enable a push to forward the dialogue on human rights, making progresses on these crucial issues possible. And I am particularly looking forward to be able to continue my engagement throughout the region.
All of these engagements and efforts are promising, but they need to be multiplied, because the challenges are numerous: it is our universal values that are at stake. All actors need to do better in order to build more sustainable and inclusive societies. This specifically needs to be done by empowering women, the youth, and any minorities, while fighting all kinds of discriminations based on gender identity or sex, race, ethnicity, religion, political opinion, etc. It is also critical to reinforce the efficiency of our support, to better reach out to local communities, through direct communication. Dialogue with civil society must remain open and inclusive, at all levels.
The range of action is wide, and we need to act fast to be equal to our ambitions. But this is precisely the reason why we are living in such interesting times. To retake the words of the UN Secretary-General Guterres during the last UN General Assembly: now is the moment ‘to deliver, to restore trust and to inspire hope’. The EU remains at the forefront to answer this call and to participate to the establishment of more resilient and prosperous societies. The civil society organisations of Central Asia and elsewhere have a crucial role to play in this programme, and the EU stands ready to support you in this process.