International Conference on the Future of Human Rights

International Conference on the Future of
Human Rights and the Fight Against Impunity

Organised by Fight Impunity Organisation and the European Parliamentary
Research Service, with the participation of No Peace without Justice

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

Thursday, 16 June 2022

 

CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

 

It is a great honour to join you today, together with the President of the European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and the President of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband at the opening session of this Conference on the Future of Human Rights.

I wish to congratulate Fight Impunity Organisation; No Peace without Justice and the European Parliament Research Service for organising this very important conference, which is taking place at a crucial moment in time.

Right now, we are all engaged in a historic struggle for the protection and even survival of human rights, as we know them. This struggle is taking place on the ground in the courageous work of human rights defenders, civil society organisations, journalists and lawyers. Today we think of Don Philips and Bruno Pereira in Brazil. The struggle is also with the rise in authoritarianism around the world which imprisons opponents, silences free press and bans civil society advocacy.

In conflict situations the abuses of human rights are added to the violations of international humanitarian law – war crimes, like we have seen in Ukraine, Syria and Ethiopia, which call out for accountability.

And in the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN in New York, our diplomats are battling  every day to defend the very concept that human rights belong to people (and not to states or institutions) from those who are seeking to redefine human rights.

This struggle on all sides has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic which increased inequalities, provided new justification for restrictions of freedom and revived issues such as domestic violence.

On top of that has come an avalanche of crises: Afghanistan – where girls are denied education, and women their equality; Belarus – where there are now 1300 political prisoners; Myanmar, where a military coup has sent the democratically elected leader to prison and the Rohingya people continue to suffer; Ethiopia which has descended onto civil war; Ukraine where Russia’s war of aggression continues with mounting evidence of war crime.

I am particularly shocked by the stories I have heard from detainees and their relatives in many countries: of torture, of denial of access to lawyers, to loved ones and of being kept in conditions intended to break the human spirit. It is a degree of brutalisation that lays bare an absence of humanity. That inhumanity seeks to control, subjugate and even erase the humanity of others.

In such an environment, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the tide of atrocity and abuse. This can lead to defeatism in the way we address the future of human rights. However, this conference is an excellent opportunity to do the opposite.

It is vital that we look to the future of human rights with a greater degree of confidence, energy and determination and optimism. Freedom, equality and dignity should be actions, not just be aspirations or ambitions. 

This is challenging, but much is already being done. Last year was the first year of implementation of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020 to 2024. Every day our over 140 EU Delegations and Member States Embassies on the ground work to bring the Plan to life.

Last year was also the first year of the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. The EU has already adopted restrictive measures targeting persons and entities from China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea and Russia.

I am continually amazed by the courage of human rights defenders, many of whom work in very challenging circumstances and at great personal cost.  Since its launch in 2015, the EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism, ProtectDefenders.eu, has supported nearly 53,000 human rights defenders at risk and their families.

Supporting democratic electoral processes remains an EU priority and in the second half of 2021, we successfully deployed Election Observation Missions to Zambia, Kosovo, Iraq, Venezuela, Honduras, and The Gambia.

We have launched the new Global Human Rights and Democracy programme with funding of €1.5 billion.  It increases EU support for the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law from 2021 to 2027.

Despite all this, we tend sometimes to under evaluate what we are doing ourselves, and to overestimate the strength of others.

I think it is important to recognise that repression is itself a sign of weakness. As awful as human rights violations and abuses are, they demonstrate latent instability and insecurity. In the regime that commit them, even though new technologies are being exploited by some to increase repression, they are also central to documenting and recording violations and abuses which makes it harder to get away with war crimes and to hide atrocities.

We are in an era when it should be easier to bring perpetrators to account. Just 30 years ago there was a real risk to the very existence of the International Criminal Court (ICC), with some countries to leave and the U.S. sanctioning its top officials. Now accountability is top of the agenda in every political debate. The ICC is leading the investigation work on Ukraine. We have also seen the inability of Russia to mobilise votes in multilateral fora on Ukraine in the face of international clamour for accountability.

But of course we need to do more. We need to be more innovative and proactive, not just reactive.  We need better cooperation with the rest of the world. We need to broaden the constituency for the human rights and be mindful of the language we use, making it more accessible. We are talking about real issues that have a direct impact on every one’s life, not theoretical concepts. We need to increase our focus on economic, social and cultural rights and in my last discussion with African Union Commissioner Bankole, we agreed that the EU and African Union would co-host a side event in the Human Rights Council on economic, social and cultural rights.

Next year, we will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This gives us an opportunity to renew the narrative on human rights.  It can be a narrative of strength and empowerment, rather than negativity and defeatism. Human rights are the linchpin in resolving so many challenges, but we need to get better at convincing others of this. It is not only a moral imperative, but better protection and respect for human rights and democracy around the world will reduce inequality, poverty and social exclusion and serve peace.

This is a very important discussion today and tomorrow on human rights. And I for one will have an eye open for the new ideas, new approaches and new thinking that you will no doubt develop.