Exchange of Views – DROI Committee, European Parliament

Exchange of views with Eamon Gilmore
EU Special Representative for Human Rights
DROI Committee, European Parliament 

Brussels, 9 September 2019


Madame President and Members of the European Parliament,

Thank you for the invitation to be with you today for this exchange of views, and especially for the honour to appear before you, so early in your mandate.

I wish to congratulate all of you on your election to the European Parliament, those of you who are here for the first time, and those who have been re-elected.

I have never had the privilege of being a Member of this House, but for thirty years continuously, I served the people of my country and my constituency in elected public office, most of it in my National Parliament, Dáil Éireann. It is, I believe, the greatest honour in a democracy, to be freely chosen by our fellow citizens, and to have delegated to us the responsibility to make laws, to hold institutions to account and to act for the public good.

As I do my work now, as EUSR for Human Rights, I often recall that special moment of democracy, when as individual citizens, in the privacy of a polling booth, we make free choice as to who will represent us and who will govern, and I reflect on the rights and freedoms that sometimes, perhaps in Europe, we take for granted, and I think of the billions of people throughout the world who are denied them.

In the World today, Human Rights are challenged on four different fronts:

First, is the daily reality, of Human Rights violations and abuses: Children robbed of their childhood and forced into armed gangs and children who are the innocent victims of war; women who are raped and subjected to violence; families forced to flee their homes because of conflict, poverty or fear; courageous women and men who languish in prison because they dared express an opinion or because they sought to defend the Human Rights we all espouse; accused people who are denied a fair trial; or the people who walk long distances every day to find water which is safe to drink.

Respecting and vindicating the human rights of these people is not some political option or choice for countries and governments.

It is a legal obligation, agreed by countries, enshrined in international conventions and legally binding treaties, and intended to apply to every person, everywhere on the globe.

But this Universal and Indivisible nature of Human Rights is now also being challenged by those who seek to redefine it in more relativist terms. And this is our second challenge – the attempt to redefine Human Rights. The approach that argues that Development comes before Human Rights; that Social and Economic Rights should be separated from the Civil and Political; that traditional values trump others, especially in the personal domain, in an imagined hierarchy.

The third and related challenge is the weakening of multilateralism, about which much has been spoken.

In Human Rights, we see it in the rejection by some countries of UN Special Procedures; in the withdrawal by the U.S. from the UN Human Rights Council and in the undermining of the International Criminal Court and the apparent impunity for gross violations, including even genocide.

The Fourth Challenge we face arises from this global age itself: the advances in technology and communication, digitalisation, artificial intelligence which pose new risks to human rights especially relating to privacy and personal integrity, but which also open up new opportunities to widen freedoms and defend rights.

In this challenging environment, the European Union is expected to do more: to assert our values, which are not just European but Universal; to defend the multilateral system, and in alliance with others to champion Human Rights.

The EU is, of course, already doing a lot on Human Rights. Human Rights is in the DNA of the EU: in the Treaties; in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and as the Global Strategy makes clear, it is at the core of all our Foreign Policy and External Action.

Together with the Member States, the EU is the largest global financial contributor to Human Rights, and the evidence that can be found, in the reliefs we provide for human rights defenders, in our supports to civil society, and in the financing of the programmes and work of other international bodies such as the UN, Council of Europe and the ICC. The EIDHR alone has made available 1.3bn Euros in the current MFF period to 2020.

The EU is committed to combatting impunity and to promote a rules-based international order.   We have been a consistent, strong supporter of promoting and respecting International Humanitarian Law and the International Criminal Court.   In addition, the EU was the first regional actor to adopt a Policy Framework on Support to Transitional Justice.

Accountability for human rights violations in conflicts situations is essential to rebuilding a peaceful, democratic society and preventing new cycles of violence.

In the multi-lateral fora, it is the EU which consistently upholds the UN system, supporting the High Commissioner on HR, and it is the EU which often takes the lead, on country-specific resolutions (Myanmar, Burundi, Belarus, DPRK), and on thematic issues such the rights of the child and on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

At Bilateral level, the EU Delegations in third countries raise specific issues with governments, maintain dialogues with civil society, and take action such as attendance at trials.

In 125 countries, the EU has “live” updated Human Rights Strategies; there are formal Human rights Dialogues with more than 40 countries and Regional organisations; Human Rights clauses are in the Trade and other framework agreements; Human Rights are a precondition for accession; the Trade preferences regimes are conditional on adherence to human rights standards; and the in recent years the EU has taken new initiatives such as the Alliance for Torture Free Trade and the Good Human Rights Stories Initiative (which I will moderate later this month in New York during UNGA).

And, of course, the European Parliament, and especially through this Committee, is one of the World’s greatest advocates for Human Rights.

No World Power, no regional organisation, no individual country does more to promote and protect Human Rights than does the EU and its member States collectively.

But we need to more; we must try to do it even better; and we should do it together. In Human Rights there is much to be done, and we cannot afford the luxury of dwelling on our own temporary differences of approach, instruments, tools and styles. We must concentrate together on being effective, drawing on all the resources and resolve of this Parliament, of our institutions and our member states, and working closely with civil society and advance the human rights agenda.

The role of the EUSR is essentially to support that work, to contribute to the effectiveness of the EU’s work on Human Rights, to work with all of the institutions, and with the member states, and of course with the parliament. The purpose of the EUSR is essentially to add value to the Human Rights efforts of the Union. My office and operation is small but willing.

Let me give you a flavour of what I have been doing since asking up office in March.

Since I took up duty on 1st March, I have participated in the Human Rights Dialogues with China, Belarus, Myanmar and Colombia.  I am scheduled to co-chair HRDs with African Union, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa during October and November.

A human rights discussion with Iran is also being considered before the end of the year.

On the multi-lateral side, I have:

  • Represented HRVP at Council of Europe Ministerial Meeting in June; at UK/Canada hosted conference on Media Freedom in July; and at US organised Ministerial on Religious Freedom in July;
  • participated in the June Session of the Human Rights Council;
  • Visited Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and I have established working relationship with Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights;
  • visited headquarters of African Union in Addis Ababa for discussion with African Union Commissioners who have a Human Rights role;
  • Participated in the launch of a UN initiative on Children in Conflict;
  • I had a long meeting with High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and we are planning a further working meetings in the near future;
  • met with several UN Special Rapporteurs;
  • met the ICRC President to engage in discussion on IHL
  • I will visit the ICC in The Hague this week.

Our bilateral engagement is a fundamentally important strategic area.  Since the beginning of my mandate, I have visited:

  • Ethiopia (where there has been a remarkable improvement in Human Rights);
  • Eritrea (where I was the first international Human Rights official to visit); and I have laid the groundwork for further engagement
  • Myanmar (for the Human Rights Dialogue, and for bilateral discussions with the country’s civilian and military leaders);
  • Bangladesh (for discussions on their own human rights record and to visit the Rohingya Refugees in Cox’s Bazaar and discuss with community leaders);
  • Washington (for the religious freedom Ministerial, and for discussions with the administration about their planned new approach to human rights);

I am planning bilateral visits to Egypt, Gambia, Mexico, Belarus in the near future and I have an invitation to visit Ukraine.

Over the course of the past week during the EU Ambassadors conference, I had the chance to meet and discuss with the Ambassadors of the countries I have been to and I am planning to visit.

I want to work closely with the Parliament, and I have already had some preliminary discussion with you Madame President, on how we might share information and experiences of your Parliamentary visits and my bilateral work with various countries.

We might also consider some issues on which we could have some thematic consistency in our engagements abroad.

I am thinking of issues such as the abolition of the Death Penalty. The World is 75% of the way to total abolition or moratorium. Can we try to drive for total world-wide abolition?

Can we work together in support of the UN Campaign to take children out of conflict?

To oppose violence against women, wherever it occurs or whatever form it takes? To help to secure the release of those imprisoned today for thought, conscience or for expressing their opinion? To help bring to justice those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities, and to help end the culture of impunity which encourages repetition.

I mention these as examples of the way we can work together. We can also work together on the new Human Rights challenges such as those arising from Digitalisation and others.

We are meeting today at the beginning of this new Parliament, and at the start of your work as a Committee. It is also at an early stage in my mandate as EUSR.

Two months from now, subject of course to the decisions of the Parliament, the new Commission will have taken office. Work is already underway in the preparation of a new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. It is a good moment to align our work on the Human Rights Agenda.

We have different roles of course, and we will not always agree on everything, on priorities, or on the best ways to be effective. But we should never forget that in a world where Human Rights has rarely been more challenged, we are on the same side, and we should never lose sight of our ultimate objectives in this field; which was put very eloquently by the President elect of the new Commission when she spoke to EU Ambassadors last week:

The Power of Freedom

The Reliability of the Rule of Law;

The Dignity of every human being.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions and comments.