Human Rights, Syria, DR Congo, Afghanistan and Tibet highlighted in Strasbourg

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The highlight of this week in European Foreign policy has probably been the 12 June session at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Indeed the whole afternoon and evening was dedicated to foreign policy debates between Members of Parliament and High Representative/Vice President Catherine Ashton.

Human Rights issues as well as topical foreign policies such as the Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Tibet were addressed.

Human Rights

Catherine Ashton opened the session with two debates on Human Rights, which remains her silver thread in EU foreign policy. Indeed Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union reaffirms the EU’s commitment to promoting human rights and democracy in all its external actions while guaranteeing coherence and consistency across these areas and between its external action and its other policies.  Given that the European Parliament has repeatedly called for the appointment of an EU Special Representative for Human Rights, members addressed a recommendation to the Council on the same issue. The High Representative said that "The European Parliament deserves credit for championing this idea since its report in 2010 ". She went on to say that "I am looking for somebody with an established track record and international experience in human rights, as well a strong understanding of EU policy.  The Member States have put forward some excellent candidates, and I look forward to a swift appointment".

The second Human Rights topic of this plenary session concerned the EU's Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World in 2011. This Report, which is available on the website, is set to be adopted in two weeks’ time. Catherine Ashton presented to the European Parliament the outline of this report. She declared that “the Annual Report shows how the EU really can make a difference when and where it matters most. (…) Since January, we also conducted 14 in-depth human rights discussions with countries around the globe, with another 22 still to come this year.  From Jordan to Vietnam, from Ukraine to the United States, from Argentina to Pakistan, the EU sits down in the spirit of partnership to see how together, we can improve the enjoyment of human rights."

Latest developments in the Middle East including the situation in Syria

As the tragic Situation in Syria is on everyone's mind, Mrs Ashton began her speech on the Middle East by saying "we are all appalled by the sickening violence we continue to witness in Syria (…)We must act decisively to prevent further bloodshed while avoiding fuelling the flames of sectarian violence. Further militarization of the conflict – and a full blown sectarian civil war – would only bring huge suffering to Syria and risk having a dramatic impact on the region."

She stressed in her speech to the European Parliament that "the only way forward now is to reinforce Annan's leverage with the Syrian Regime and make his Mission more effective. No other option has been able to gather any kind of international support. K. Annan – to whom I pay tribute for his extraordinary efforts in exceedingly difficult conditions – has the support and legitimacy of the international community (UN) and the Arab League. "

Catherine Ashton explained that "we need to agree on a roadmap that reinforces Annan and his plan.  This should involve 3 key priorities: 1) a more effective contact group, including Russia and China, to coordinate support to Annan and exert influence on the Regime. I therefore welcome the idea of a "Contact group" of key actors on the Syrian crisis as announced by K. Annan last Thursday in the UNSC. The international community must show unity in this critical moment. 2) united action by the UNSC to add more robust and effective pressure, including the reinforcement of sanctions under Chapter VII; and 3) international consensus around a political process and transition. "

On the Middle East Peace Process the High Representative reiterated to honorable Members of the European Parliament that the EU's "… objective remain the same. I have been very clear from the beginning of the Arab Spring that developments in the region make the peace process and a negotiated solution even more urgent and important, not less. While we are all paying a lot of attention to the situation in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, ending the conflict remains a top priority and a fundamental EU interest."

The Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Mrs Ashton began her speech by recalling that "the Democratic Republic of Congo is a country which demonstrates that the EU's engagement must be long term if it is productive, and where – over time – we are making a difference. (…) DRC is a fragile state and a young democracy.  It is still recovering from years of war and deprivation"

On the democratic follow up after the November 2011 elections, Catherine Ashton said "I shall take this opportunity to pay tribute to the commitment and hard work of the EU Electoral Observation Mission led by Honorable Member Mariya Nedelcheva which carried out its work in very difficult circumstances. Its final report (which has been well received by all political actors in DRC), highlighted the fact that the scale of irregularities and fraud weakened, if not undermined, the credibility of the outcome, and that significant reforms and improvements were essential for the future".

On the security and humanitarian situation in eastern Congo the High Representative declared that "the situation in the eastern Congo has improved. But it remains extremely fragile and, as recent events have highlighted, there remains a risk of it sliding back into war and disorder.  Our priority is to work with international partners and with the governments of the region to prevent this happening."

On a new strategy for Afghanistan

Turning to the situation in Afghanistan and in particular to a new strategy for Afghanistan Catherine Ashton said that "our overall strategy in Afghanistan remains to assist the Afghan government and people to be able to run their own country. (…)There has been clear progress - more than half the country and more than half the people are already under Afghan security control. But equally, the insurgency remains a major threat to security across the country. I want to extend my condolences to the families of the four French soldiers that were killed on Saturday." 

She also pointed out to honorable Members of the European Parliament that " the EU and Member States are making a real contribution to Afghanistan. The Afghan Government is doing a lot, but it needs to do more to fulfill its key commitments: to hold credible and transparent elections; to improve the management of public finances; to advance human rights, especially the rights of women and children. "

Situation in Tibet  The plenary session finished with a debate on the situation in Tibet. Catherine Ashton said "the European Union is concerned by the deterioration of the situation In Tibet, as illustrated by the wave of self immolations and by clashes between the police and the local population since the beginning of the year."  She went on to say that " the EU calls upon the Chinese authorities to ensure that the human rights of the Tibetan people are respected, including their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, as well as to enjoy their own culture to practise their own religion and to use their own language."  Catherine Ahston finished by saying that " the EU also urges the Chinese authorities to exercise restraint and to allow access by foreign diplomats and journalists to all Tibetan autonomous areas."

Catherine Ashton's speeches at the plenary session: