Global State of Human Rights conference

Annual Conference on the Global State of Human Rights

Organised by the European Parliament and Global Campus of Human Rights

Remarks by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

Saturday 16 July 2022, Venice, Italy


Watch the video recording here (from 09:32:00 to 09:45:25)



Thank you very much David [McAllister], and thank you [Thérèse Murphy] for your introductory remarks.

Let me first of all thank the Global Campus [of Human Rights], particularly my good friend Manfred Nowak and [chair of] the DROI committee of the European Parliament, Maria Arena, for the invitation to be here with you today.

I also want to congratulate you for focussing this conference on the rights of children and the rights of young people. Indeed it is very appropriate in this location, which is only a short distance from were Maria Montessori came from and, a 100 years ago, was doing her pioneering and innovative work which has stood the test of time on the education of children.

It is of course also taking place at a time where we, as David [McAllister] has mentioned, are very conscious of what is happening to children during Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. The OHCHR says that 343 children have been killed so far, but I think everybody recognises (including the OHCHR) that the figure is much greater than that. More than 5.000 children have been forcibly deported from their homes and millions have been forced to flee from Ukraine.

Let’s not forget, as we focus on Ukraine, that there are children in many parts of the world who are suffering abuses of their human rights as a result of conflict. I was in Ethiopia recently and I saw at first-hand what is happening to children there.

Global State of Human Rights

You have asked me this morning to speak more generally about the global state of human rights. It is a tall order to do so in seven minutes, and particularly this early on a Saturday morning. But I am going to make a couple of observations.

Firstly, we are going through a historic struggle for human rights in the world. Right now, I think it is fair to say that we are not winning that struggle. But we can win it, and of course we have to win it, if the values of human rights, democracy and rule of law are going to prevail in our world. The struggle is taking place on a number of different levels, primarily on the ground. I have been seeing this, in the work that I do, visiting many different countries.

The meetings, for example, that I had with women human rights defenders in the Brazilian Amazon, who are fighting for our environment but also fighting the human rights battle against vested interest and those who are supporting them. The lawyers that I met recently from China, many of whom have been disbarred and some put in prison, simply for defending their clients. The people that I met a couple of weeks ago in Ukraine, when I visited Bucha and stood on the side of a mass grave, talked with the priest of the church who knew many of them. I talked with victims who told worrying tales of the brutality and the inhumanity which is being inflicted on the people in the country.

The people I talked to in Ethiopia, who were concerned about the conflict, but also about the food insecurity which arises partly from that conflict, partly from the conflict in Ukraine, but largely from the impact of draught as a consequence of climate change. The discussions that I have had with Richard [Bennett] and with our own [EU] Special Envoy for Afghanistan [Tomas Nikklasson] and our [EU] Gender Advisor Stella Ronner about the situation of girls in Afghanistan. The women I talked to a couple of days ago in the United States, who are concerned about the impact of the supreme court decision of abortion on their health and the lives of them and their sister.

[Secondly], it is a struggle that is taking place on the multilateral fora. Every day, our diplomats are faced with clever little amendments to important resolutions, changing the wordings and changing the meanings, the concept of what human rights is about. It is a struggle we have seen through an avalanche of crisis over the past years – Ukraine (which I have mentioned), Afghanistan (which I have mentioned), Ethiopia, Belarus, Myanmar. It is sometimes difficult to keep up with last year’s crisis in the face of what is unfolding.

It is a struggle that is compounded by the rise of authoritarianism around the world. V-Dem, which has done extensive studies on this, now says that over 60% of the world’s population now live in regimes that are autocratic either of the electoral kind or of the absolute kind. It is a struggle which is still impacted by the [Covid-19] pandemic, which is itself a human rights issue – the right to quality healthcare, the right to life for many people who lost that, the right to vaccines. It is a struggle which is compounded by what is happening to our climate and the issue of food insecurity which that is giving rise to, which is itself a human rights issue.

And of course, it is a struggle that is compounded by the extent of conflict that we are seeing around the world. The Secretary General of the United Nations recently told us that there are now more wars in the world than there have been at any time since the end of World War II, and that a quarter of the world’s population are now living in areas that are affected by conflict with all of the implications that that has for international humanitarian law and for the war crimes that we are seeing taking place.

Working on the protection and promotion of human rights

Against that background, there is a risk that we are overwhelmed by the extent of the crises, which in turn can lead to a sense of defeatism, a sense that the authoritarians are winning. I think that one of the issues that we need to address is to some extent a crisis of morale, among all of us who are fighting and battling for the protection and promotion of human rights across the world. I think that we need to address that. I want to suggest a couple of ways in which we might do that.

The first is to recognise what we are doing ourselves and the importance of what we are doing. I’m thinking in particular of the work the EU does in the promotion and protection of human rights; in the putting into action the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy across the 140 countries where we are represented, through country strategies. Every single day, our people in the EU delegations and member states’ embassies across the world are working across the world to protect human rights; observing trials, visiting human rights defenders imprisoned, talking to human rights organisations on the ground, sometimes in difficult circumstances.

The package of finances that we have made available for the promotion of human rights and democracy is 1.5 billion Euros up to 2027, the largest package of finances anywhere in the world for the promotion of human rights. What we do, for example, is use trade agreements and trade preferences to leverage human rights. The work that the European Parliament does, the resolutions it adopts, which are heard in different parts of the world.

I think we also have to take some comfort even from the small gains that are sometimes made, sometimes very incremental. Yesterday, for example, the Central African Republic formally abolished the death penalty, the third country to do so already this year. The people I sometimes see released from prison as a result of interventions and presentations that we make.

What I saw this week, for example, at the Security Council, where I was present for the hearing of the presentation of the Truth Commission’s report in Colombia, where they had taken evidence from 30,000 people who had been impacted by the conflict. The work that has been done through the transitional justice systems where both those involved, in the guerrilla side and the state side, have uniquely in the world accepted responsibility for the crimes that they have committed. I think this brings the issue of accountability to a new level through a transitional justice mechanism.

The second point that I would make is that it is important that we don’t overestimate the power of our opponents. Every time and the more I see repression taking place around the world, the more I think it is an indication of weakness on the part of regimes rather than their strength. If Putin was so confident on the support of his people for his war of aggression in Ukraine, why did he adopt new legislation to give 15 years sentences to people who are opposing the war. If the rulers in China were so confident of the support of their people, then why are we seeing such a degree of repression. I think we need to see what is happening not as the all-powerful repressing people, but actually as a sign of weakness.

The third point I would like to make is that, of course, we need to do more. But I think we need to do it in a different way. I think we need to broaden the agenda for human rights. Food, certainly, is on the agenda these days. Economic, social and cultural rights need to get a greater degree of attention, and I’m glad that the EU and the African Union have recently agreed that we will have a special event at the September session of the Human Rights Council on economic, social and cultural rights. Broadening the constituency means the involvement of people and the work that has been done in the area of sports, the work in business and human rights – in particular the new [EU] legislation that has been brought forward on due diligence.

Working together, as David [McAllister] has said, with the likeminded in the work that we do; the European Parliament and civil society, but also the work that we are doing with the United Nations. We have recently commenced a Strategic Dialogue with OHCHR, which I have co-chaired with High Commissioner Bachelet. The work that we’re doing and that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is doing these days, gathering the evidence in Ukraine. The ICC has come a long way. When I started this work 3,5 years ago, the ICC was at risk, with countries threatening to withdraw, one big country sanctioning some of its officials. Now the ICC is at the centre of what we need to do on Ukraine.

Finally, to look into the future. Next year, 2023, will be the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will be an opportunity for us to reflect, to renew, to recall the circumstances in which the declaration was adopted. Already, at the EU level, we are giving some thoughts on how we can mark that important occasion and how we can use it to revitalize and renew our efforts on what we suppose the universal declaration was all about.

Thank you very much.