Protect Defenders Annual Meeting Annual Meeting
“The Human Rights Defenders Movement at a crossroad”

Welcome Address by the
EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

Tuesday, 27 September 2022


Thank you Antoine [Bernard] and thank you to for inviting me to talk with you this morning. Welcome to Brussels, the capital of Belgium of course, but also the headquarters of the European Union.

I was thinking, when you were talking Antoine [Bernard], about the wars that we are experiencing these days. Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, of course. But it is not just the war in Ukraine; what we are seeing in Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, and so many different places around the world. The Secretary General of the United Nations recently told us that one quarter of the world’s population now lives in countries that are affected, in one way or the other, by conflict.

I think it is worth reflecting on that here in Brussels. Because sometimes we think that the European Union has been here forever. It has not. It has evolved. A little over 70 years ago, in the aftermath of the Second World War and all the horrors of war that Europe experienced in the 20th Century, the idea of a European Union was just an idea. It is an idea that grew, initially, that the countries that once were at war with each other in the 20th Century in Europe should come together, cooperate, and build a better Europe, where war would be impossible.

That initial coming together of six countries grew to nine and then 12, and eventually, now to 27 countries. [These are] independent states working together, representing around 500 million people, with 24 national languages, 16 regional languages; working together here in the institutions that you will see during your visit, on economic issues, with a common economic currency for most of the countries, common policies on energy, education, so many different areas, a common foreign policy.

We sometimes think of it as an economic union, a monetary union, a political union. But in fact, this union of countries in Europe is founded on principles and values. The principles and values upon which it is founded are those of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. These are in the treaties that bring the 27 countries together. By the way, we plan that the number of 27 will grow. The Council recently decided to invite Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to become members of the European Union. This is a growing project.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that if the principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights are in the DNA of the European Union, that they should be reflected in what we do in our foreign and security policy, and that they should be reflected in the support that we provide for human rights defenders.

Our policy on human rights are outlined in an EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, that was agreed unanimously by all of the 27 member states. A cornerstone of that policy is that we support human rights defenders around the world. Because we recognise that the work that human rights defenders do in protecting human rights and working for human rights in different parts of the world, in many cases in very difficult circumstances, is essential to ensuring that human rights are central in the work that we do everywhere.

Over the past number of years, as Antoine [Bernard] has just said, that work has become more difficult. It has become more difficult, first of all, because of the pandemic. The pandemic as a health crisis may be somewhat receding now. But the impact of the pandemic is still with us. I think it is fair to say that before the pandemic broke out we were already seeing what I call a recession in human rights around the world. That was compounded by the pandemic, compounded in a number of ways. Firstly by the opportunistic way in which the circumstances of the pandemic have allowed regimes in different countries to retain in place the restrictive measures that were necessary at first from a health perspective, but which have now been retained in place in many countries as a means of repressing and of ruling over people in a repressive way.

But I think the impact of the pandemic has also been felt because of what it has done to the work that you do. The difficulty, during the pandemic, of monitoring and recording human rights abuses, the practical difficulties that it gave rise to. The sense of isolation that the pandemic produced, particularly for human rights defenders working in remote areas. And also the surveillance and the extension of surveillance methods that have been used in many different countries. The pandemic has had a big impact on all that we are doing in many different ways.

And then, of course, we have had over the last couple of years (some of it coinciding with the pandemic but some of it also coming after the pandemic) what I call an avalanche of crises that we have seen in different parts of the world. In Belarus, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Ukraine. In all of the countries in which you are working.

It is against that background that the European Union recognises the importance of supporting the work of human rights defenders. We do that in a number of ways.  First of all, we do it in a very practical way, through ‘’ and though the provision of emergency grants. The funding of €35 million in the past 7 years. The fact that we have provided assistance to 55,000 human rights defenders in different parts of the world.  There is an upcoming EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism that will be managed by from November 2022. And it will also benefit from increased EU funding of about 30% (€30 million over 4 and half years) in order to reinforce support to human rights defenders over that period.

The support that we provide to human rights defenders, of course, is not just of financial and practical support, which is important. We also provide political support. We do that using all of the tools at our disposal. We do it politically in all of the engagements we have with different countries.

Every day, in the 140 EU Delegations that we have in countries around the world, together with the embassies of our Member States in those countries, somewhere every day, our diplomats on the ground are working with human rights defenders and working with civil society organisations; providing and communicating the support from the EU. That may range from diplomats going to governments to talk about particular issues, sometimes about individual cases. It may be people turning up to observe trails of human rights defenders or making inquiries. It is not always successful, but you can be assured that it is work that we continue to do.

We back that up by the work that I do, for example, when I visit countries and when I meet government and political leaders. When I visit countries, I always meet with civil society organisations and where possible, I meet directly with human rights defenders.

We back it up too with the work that we do at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and the work that we do at the United Nations. I have just come back from the United Nations General Assembly last week in New York, where we talked about issues ranging from the abolition of the death penalty, the issue of internet shutdowns and what that is doing to the work that you do, and talking with civil society organisations from different countries where there are crises at the moment.

We back it up too with the work that we do in trade as every trade agreement that the EU has we have human rights clauses. The schemes and trade preferences that we have which allow for duty free access to European markets are on the condition that human rights standards are maintained in the countries concerned. All of the time, we work to remind countries of their obligations in those regards.

Part of that is a continuing engagement with human rights organisations and civil society organisations. Before every Human Rights Dialogue that we have with countries, we have a formal engagement with civil society organisations.  Every year, we have an NGO Forum; the next one will be here in Brussels on 14-15 December.  It will be the 25th forum that we will have with NGOs and this one will focus on accountability and justice in crisis and conflict situations.

The range of work that we do is quite extensive.  These days, we recognise that we are engaged in a global battle for human rights and democracy.  It is a battle that sometimes we feel that we struggle to feel that we are winning or that we are competing effectively. Next year we will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. This is an opportunity, as we commemorate these anniversaries; they are not just birthday parties, they are opportunities for us to reflect on where we are.

The discussion that you will engage in this week will inform us about what more we need to do and how we need to approach the defence and protection of human rights in the new circumstances in which we find ourselves these days. This is an opportunity for you to share your experiences with each other, to share them with us, to say to us what you think we should be doing and what we should be doing better, and to enable us to learn from your experiences on the ground.

I want to conclude with a personal remark. I spent pretty much all of my adult life in one way or another campaigning on different issues. I was a student leader, I organised many demonstrations. I was a trade union official, working for the rights of workers and their employment. I worked with local communities when I was in local government on environmental issues, community issues, and issues about tackling poverty. I spent about 30 years of my life in the national parliament of Ireland, most of it in opposition actually, but some of it in government. I campaigned over the years for many different social causes and issues relating to personal freedoms and human rights.

But I consider myself to have been very fortunate, that I was able to do that in a country which is a democracy, in an environment where I was able to do it with freedom, where I was not subject to the repressions and difficulties that you have to endure in the work that you do.

I just want to say that I admire enormously what you do every day. The heroic and courageous work that you do which I know is about making achievements and making gains; sometimes small gains, in your own communities, in your own countries. That collective effort that you are doing, is so important for the battle of human rights that we are all fighting for around the world.  We are fortunate in this part of the world, these days (it wasn’t always like that), that we are in a position to do it in freedom and that we are in democratic countries.  We want to use that privilege to help you also to win your battles, and to learn from you and to work with you so that collectively, we build a better world for everybody, because we are all so interdependent.

Thank you for being here with us and I look forward to hearing to what you have to say to us.