20th Civil Society Forum: Reflections on the Global Human Rights Environment

Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland, 20th Civil Society Forum
“Reflections on the Global Human Rights Environment”

Keynote Address by the
EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore
Wednesday 27 April 2022

Watch the video recording here (12.00-27.30)



Minister, Ambassadors Byrne-Nason and Gaffey, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Firstly, I want to join the Minister in expressing my own personal sadness at the recent passing of James Kingston and Jim Kelly, both of whom I had the honour of working with when I was Minister. In the case of James Kingston, I continued to have that honour in my current capacity.

It is a great privilege to address this Forum and my warm congratulations to the Department of Foreign Affairs on marking the 20th year of this important and vital platform for discussion with civil society.  As you mentioned, I am joining you today from India, where I am attending the Raisina Dialogue, which is India’s main high-level conference on geopolitics. I am also here meeting with local civil society, with human rights defenders, and with government officials.

Country visits like this are a regular part of my work. Over the past number of months I have been in Pakistan, I was on the Ukraine border with Poland, the United States, Uganda, and Egypt. Through the work that I have been doing over the past three years as EU Special Representative for Human Rights, and reflecting on the global human rights environment, as this conference is about, I think it is fair to say that we are experiencing at present a worldwide recession on human rights and democracy. That of course itself is not news, because it happened evidently somewhat even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

There were negative signs already manifesting around the world. Gender had become a source of fierce argument; the rights of women and girls were already being called into question; journalists were being censored by many governments and disinformation openly spread by many of the same governments; civil society space was being squeezed and in many cases shut down and human rights defenders were being attacked and undermined. Even the very basic concepts of human rights were called into question by some.

The huge destabilisation generated by the pandemic made that worse, and I am thinking in particular of issues like domestic violence. But I think the pandemic also brought with it new opportunities in a way – an opportunity to build a fairer, greener, better society, underpinned by human rights and democracy, but unfortunately is also gave opportunity to those who want to increase repressive measures, to weaken democratic checks and balances, and to dilute the rule of law.

Over the past two years, report after report have documented and demonstrated the recession in democracy worldwide. For example, according to the latest report from the V DEM (Varieties of Democracies) Institute, the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is now down to the levels enjoyed in 1989, before the fall of the Berlin wall. Over 60 per cent of the world’s population now live in autocracies, either of the absolute kind or of the electoral kind.

Worldwide, we are seeing the highest number of violent conflicts since the Second World War. According to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, one quarter of humanity now live in conflict-affected countries. That is two billion people.  Last year, 84 million were forcibly displaced because of conflict, violence and human rights violations. This year, the UN estimates that 274 million will need humanitarian assistance. The numbers of people being displaced into the EU are now at the highest since the Second World War. Force and firepower are once again being seen by some as legitimate means of achieving geopolitical goals; nuclear arsenals are once again growing and are being threatened to be used.

Six months ago, I was visiting a free, democratic, and relatively peaceful Ukraine. I stood at the contact line with the non-government controlled eastern part. I talked with OSCE monitors, with victims from the earlier conflict, with journalists who told me of the torture of detainees in Crimea.  I spoke with Ministers, Parliamentarians, civil society and human rights defenders – and none of us could have imagined then, the hell that is now being inflicted on the Ukrainian people by the full-scale invasion of their country by Russia and by the manner of that aggression, including the violations of international humanitarian law.

It seems now that we have barely gotten to grips with one crisis before another one erupts, further destabilising the global human rights environment. Our attention is on Ukraine at this point in time, and rightly so, but we cannot forget about the people of Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Belarus and Afghanistan. Over the past two years, we have been experiencing an avalanche of crises.

I want to commend Ireland on the important leadership it has shown at the UN Security Council on human rights – in particular to acknowledge the work of Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason and Ambassador Michael Gaffey, both of whom are joining us today – particularly on a range of challenging situations and crises such as Ukraine, Ethiopia, the Middle East and climate change, ensuring that the most vulnerable have a voice and are not forgotten. Everywhere I go, I am proud to point to Ireland’s active and principled role on the UN Security Council.

Ireland is of course a key part of the great European peace project. The EU itself was founded on the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.  We believe in the right of everyone to live in dignity, free from fear and want, to voice their views and participate in decisions affecting them. We believe in peace and in development that is sustainable, participative and inclusive. But these are not just European beliefs or values. They are universal and every UN member has agreed these principles in the UN Charter and in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

In the current challenging global human rights environment, the EU has taken action to reverse the democratic recession and reinvigorate its work on human rights. Last December, the EU launched the Global Europe Human Rights and Democracy programme. This programme amounts to €1.5 billion and replaces the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. It increases the EU support for the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as well as for the work of civil society organisations and human rights defenders worldwide from the period 2021 to 2027.

Under this programme, we also launched a new flagship initiative, the Team Europe Democracy, which will strengthen democracy around the world by promoting the rule of law, political and civic participation, media freedom and pluralism, and address the challenges and opportunities in digitalisation.

2021 also marked the first year of the implementation of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024. Guiding the implementation of this Plan is a central part of my work and the 140 EU Delegations and Member States Embassies on the ground are bringing the Plan to life, translating it from paper to action. The Action Plan is stepping up our work on long-standing priorities on human rights and democracy, but there are also many new elements, which respond to the challenges we currently face. It is not a one size fits all Plan, but it is tailored for specific circumstances and needs at local level. And of course, civil society is a central and crucial partner in realising the goals of the Action Plan and making it a living document.

2021 also marked the first year of the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime is designed to target individuals, entities and bodies responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, no matter where they have occurred. Last year, the EU adopted restrictive measures targeting persons and entities from China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea and Russia.

We increased support to civil society organisations and human rights defenders, especially environmental, land and indigenous peoples’ rights defenders, women human rights defenders and labour defenders. The EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism, ProtectDefenders.eu, has supported nearly 53,000 human rights defenders at risk and their families since its launch in 2015.

Supporting democratic electoral processes has remained a cornerstone in EU engagement worldwide. Despite the restrictions linked to the pandemic and political and security circumstances, in the second half of 2021 the EU successfully deployed Election Observation Missions to Zambia, Kosovo, Iraq, Venezuela, Honduras, and The Gambia.

I want to mention the recently published proposal for a Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence, as I know that this will feature in the second panel discussion and I know that my friend and colleague Guus Houttuin will tell you more about it during that discussion. This is an important development, as the Directive would see companies required to identify, prevent, end or mitigate the adverse impact of their activities on human rights, including child labour and exploitation of workers. Combined with the important legislative initiatives also in the new Digital Services Act and the proposed Artificial Intelligence Act, all of which are based on the human-centric and human rights based approach. These are important new areas of activity on human rights, which I think are demonstrating that the human rights agenda is broadly, to include the area of business and human rights, and human rights in the digital world.

While the global human rights environment may be facing challenges not seen in decades, these activities show that we can attempt at least to stop and reverse the recession we are witnessing. It is not an insurmountable challenge. Complacency is not an option. The pandemic has shown us that human rights and democracy are not abstract or theoretical concepts, and indeed the virus itself demonstrated that universality is indeed very real. I think that the awareness of rights is stronger and growing. People are becoming more indignant and determined, and civil society is central to that effort.  All around the world, civil society continues to defend human rights and democracy, to increase awareness among communities about their rights and the reality around them and to give voice to those who have none.

But of course we need to do more. And in particular I think that if we are to prevail, we need to broaden the constituency for the human rights agenda. That means, I think, paying more attention to economic, social and cultural rights, to making the language of human rights more accessible. We must insist that human rights belong to people, not to any individual state or to any particular institution.

And in the battle of human rights, which is a battle not only on the ground but also a battle for the very concept and the soul of human rights, we need to also look at new approaches and new ways of working. Next year, we will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That will be a good moment for us to reflect on its seminal importance but also to look at how we are working and how we can do more, and do it better.

We need more questioning, debate and discussion to focus our action, to increase our solidarity and to help those who are most vulnerable. When faced with brute force and tyranny, it can often be difficult to imagine a way forward. But I believe that human rights and democracy will prevail. They are the lifeblood of humanity and of society.

I believe that the event that you are hosting today will contribute enormously to that discussion, and I thank you for it. I thank you for the opportunity of contributing to it.