Mr President, High Commissioner, distinguished colleagues,
In 2018, no major government policy, from promoting sustainable security and peace, to achieving sustainable development and social justice, to protecting the world’s environment, to ensuring social resilience, inclusiveness, tolerance, fairness, and progress, can be achieved without the rule of law and human rights at its core.
I am here today to underline the strong commitment of the European Union in 2018 to remain very active in, and supportive of, UN human rights fora. The EU supports a strong UN as the bedrock of a multilateral rules-based order. The promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of multilateralism, a central pillar of the UN system, and of course a core and founding value of the European Union itself.
The EU reaffirms its full support for the independence and work of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his Office. I would also like to personally recognise the leadership shown by High Commissioner Zeid in recent years and applaud the positive contribution he has made to many challenging situations around the world, against a difficult and evolving global landscape. I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Asma Jahangir, UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, who sadly passed away recently, who was internationally renowned for her long-standing commitment to human rights.
At the beginning of the 37th session of the Human Rights Council, let me congratulate Ambassador Šuc on his election as President of the Council and also welcome the newly elected HRC members. I take this opportunity to strongly underline that the EU counts on all members to uphold the highest standards of human rights in their own countries and to fully cooperate with the Council and its mechanisms throughout their time in office.
The EU reaffirms its support to the efficient functioning of the Council, including on reforms that would make the Council as effective and accountable as possible to the citizens of all our countries. Only by remaining "fit for the purpose" will the Council retain its continued relevance. The EU remains committed to cooperating with all countries, NGOs and civil societies more broadly, in transparent and cross-regional processes to strengthen the Council, while in parallel ensuring that its achievements, including the ability to address country situations, are in no way undermined.
During this session, the EU will take an initiative, together with Japan, to address the human rights situation in DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea). We remain deeply concerned about the continuing grave and systematic violations of human rights by the DPRK regime and hope that international pressure will result in concrete improvements.
The EU will also present a resolution on the human rights situation in Myanmar, proposing the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, taking stock of the work in progress of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission and recalling major concerns with the treatment of persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, in particular the Rohingya.
The EU, together with partners from all over the world, will also continue to build on its initiative on freedom of religion or belief working closely with the OIC and, together with GRULAC, the efforts on the rights of the child, focusing on the protection of children in all humanitarian situations. The current appalling pictures of the suffering of children we have been seeing from Eastern Ghoutta (Syria) should make us redouble our efforts in this area to protect children in such crises.
The conflict in Syria has been a key priority for the EU. We will continue to advocate for the HRC to continue to focus on the human rights situation there: to fight impunity and ensure accountability for all, to allow access for the Commission of Inquiry, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, call for the release of detainees, and to demand the full application of humanitarian law by all sides.
Needless to say that 2018 is a seminal year for human rights, as we mark the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration, the 25th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action as well as the 20th anniversary of both the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the Rome Statute. It offers an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on what has been achieved to embed an international global order since the end of World War II. There are many things we can be proud of but also worrying signs of a gradual erosion in the international consensus built around the UN Declaration of Human Rights – this is a cause of deep concern. For that reason, it is even more important, particularly this year, to highlight some of the positive human right stories that I continually see on my travels, examples of which we should celebrate, encourage, and learn from.
The Universal Declaration has proven to be the cornerstone of international human rights law on which many countries have built a strong and resilient human rights architecture. Human rights need to be truly universal, indivisible and interdependent – confirmed by the signatories of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action 25 years ago. Human dignity, upon which human rights are based, is a universal concept celebrated in all cultures, religions, and world regions. It does not belong exclusively to the West or the East, the North or the South, and we should firmly stop all those who try to divide us on those grounds. People who rely on us in this room to protect their dignity and rights all over the world demand that we do not relativize or politicise their human rights. They expect us to act with dignity in order to protect theirs.
The promotion and protection of human rights of course also requires an accountability framework that provides effective remedies to victims when needed. This is particularly true in situations where we see gross violations of human rights on a systemic scale. The European Union remains firmly committed to the fight against impunity and the promotion of international criminal justice. Since the very beginning, the EU has supported a strong and effective International Criminal Court. It will continue to work towards the universal ratification of the Rome Statute and calls on all countries to prioritise this.
But the protection of rights also relies on local ownership, on the protection and empowerment of every citizen who wishes to work for the defence of such rights. As said, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted 20 years ago and international awareness of the importance of defenders has grown along with mechanisms to protect them. Countless human rights defenders have been incredibly effective in giving a voice to those who suffer from repression and challenge injustice, oppression and brutality in many parts of the world. But also, it has been used to effectively support governments who wish to achieve human rights improvements.
Of course, as human right defenders became very effective, so did the repression against them by those committed to violating rights, afraid to lose their privileges and power. However, we know from history that actions inspired by fear are never going to be sustainable in the long run. History has shown, time and time again, that States and societies can only be resilient and enjoy long term sustainable security when democracy is strong and human rights are respected and deeply rooted. The European Union and its Member States, through our considerable arsenal of policies and instruments, remain committed to supporting the free space of civil society to operate. The EU also fully supports the important work done by Assistant Secretary General Gilmour to strengthen the consequences of reprisals taken against those who cooperate with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms.
The EU has spoken out publicly to express support to many brave and steadfast individuals who stood up for human rights. In China, the arbitrary arrests and detentions of many human rights defenders or lawyers, including Wang Quanzhang, Lee Ming Che and Yu Wensheng is of serious concern. The freedom of opinion and expression, including of Tashi Wangchuk should also be upheld. In the Russian Federation, the arrest early January of the Director of the Memorial Human Rights Centre in the Chechen Republic, Oyub Titiev, continues a worrying trend. In Syria, countless detainees are held by the Syrian regime, without trial, without due process and in inhumane conditions. With the civil war entering its seventh year, the rule of law has been eroded by a context of impunity in which security forces and services operate. In Sudan, while welcoming the recent release of some political prisoners, we continue to call for more transparency and respect for due process for all human rights defenders, including for the recipient of the 2007 Sakharov Prize Mr Salih Mahmoud Osman. A thorough and transparent investigation of the tragic killing of Berta Cáceres, a prominent Honduran environmentalist and human rights defender is essential in order to bring all culprits to justice.
Allow me to reiterate the words of the EU High Representative and Vice-President Mogherini: "Human right defenders you are not alone and the European Union will always be with you".
The EU will continue to support those UN Member States who are respecting and increasingly supporting the work of human rights defenders and NGOs. I would like to commend in particular Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and Burkina Faso for having recently passed laws protecting Human Rights Defenders. The marking of the centenary of Nelson Mandela this year offers an important opportunity for countries to give legal basis to the principles he espoused throughout his life.
Also, support and awareness of human rights is increasing throughout the global population with more technology and social media, the use of major sports events, the power of youth movements, more responsible businesses and corporations, and celebrities and influencers using their voices to advocate. Some of these unconventional paths are showing how every person and entity can contribute in a positive way to express their individual responsibility to stand up for human rights.
The 2030 Agenda commits to leave no-one behind, envisaging a world of universal respect for equality and non-discrimination within and between all countries, by reaffirming the responsibilities of all States to respect, protect and promote human rights.
Dear friends, at some point in our lives or another, we are all minorities. Even in this room, some people may be a majority in terms of their gender or the colour of their skin, but, within their own “majority” group, a minority in terms of their sexual orientation, their political beliefs, their religion, or their disability. If, when in the majority, we are tolerant when “minorities” we may not “like,” or that may not be “like us,” are repressed, then beware: We are opening the floodgates to our own future repression and discrimination as well. When we suppress independent courts, national human rights institutions, free parliaments, a free press, or an independent civil society, when they expose human rights violations against those we don’t like, then we should be prepared to fight a very lonely fight, with few independent voices remaining to stand by our side when our own rights are violated. But if instead, dear friends, we all truly feel and act like human rights defenders in our own right - then I have hope.
The UN human rights system has proven to be an incredible source of inspiration, with important progress made since 1948. Today, the world has become more complex, illustrated by several ongoing political and humanitarian crises which we are struggling to deal with effectively. While the international human rights system has come under increasing pressure, it still continues to show great resilience and remains the single and most effective framework through which we can address concerns and aspire to build a better world in the future for all – which should be our duty and our calling.
I thank you.