Strasbourg, 13 December 2016
Thank you first of all to the rapporteur and the shadow-rapporteur.
As you know, we discuss twice a year our Annual Human Rights reports. But if I look at the long list of debates we have had together in this hemicycle over the last year, human rights have been at the centre of each and every European Parliament’s plenary.
And even today, a few hours ago, we listened to our Sakharov-price laureates, that I just had the honour to meet, saying "We look up at Europe as a symbol of humanity".
This is not simply an institutional duty we fulfil.
Our work on human rights lies at the core of our foreign policy. It defines our European Union, it defines who we are. And whatever we do is about the real life of real human beings. We do understand power politics, we do understand the “great games” of international affairs. We do not only understand them, sometimes – often – we play our part to shape them.
But we never forget that everything we do is about real people. This is the European way to Foreign policy. We are not naïve and we are not cynical. In the Global Strategy we refer to principled pragmatism – and this is our way.
This will be even more important in the months and in the years ahead. The decision by some countries to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court demonstrates that the pressure on the international system of global governance is going to be raised.
There will be – there is already a growing demand for a power that stands on the side of human rights. We are more and more so an indispensable power - an indispensable power for human rights, for multilateralism, for a rules based global order.
The report we discuss today shows once again that all institutions of this Union stand on the same side. I am glad not only that you have shown your support for our Action Plan on Human Rights, but also for our Operation Sophia and for our new External Investment Plan.
We agree on fundamentals, we agree on the vision. We share the view that 2016 has been a very difficult year indeed for democracy and human rights. We are all convinced that there is no sustainable development without human rights, and there is no sustainable security without fundamental freedoms.
This is what the Global Strategy calls “resilience”. Our States and our societies are strong only when democracy is strong, when the debate is free and open, when human rights are respected, when the space for participation is open and guaranteed, and participation itself is active and welcomed.
Human rights’ abuses do not make a country more stable or more secure: on the contrary, they only make societies less resilient and weaken the legitimacy of institutions. This vision is already inspiring our actions in very concrete ways. Let me make a few examples.
First, the Report talks about our missions and operations, and the link between security and human rights. The prevention of human rights’ abuses is indeed becoming a key focus, a key element of our work on security. The EU Action Plan on Human Rights says that our support to our partners’ security forces must be always consistent with the promotion of human rights. And we are doing this in practice every single day, for instance through also my proposal of a European framework to support security sector reform. 2017 will be the year of a mid-term review for the Action Plan – and we are already working on a daily basis to make it a meaningful review.
Second, the Report rightly focuses on civil society, and the restrictions against freedom of expression. It is almost impossible to mention all the initiatives we have put in place to preserve and enlarge the space for pluralism and free debate. Some of you attended the annual EU-NGO Forum a few days ago in Brussels: you know our dialogue with civil society organisations is constant and intense – both in our region and worldwide. The #EU4HumanRights campaign has raised awareness about human rights in Europe and beyond.
Let me thank in particular, as you did, our Special Representative Stavros (Lambrinidis), who is here with me today – as he is always with me whenever we have these debates in this hemicycle. His work is making a difference every single day for so many people and in particular for human rights activists and campaigners. We are talking about visits, dialogues, meetings – he is in strong and constant connection with me and with all our services and so many of you – our hand, our brain, our voice in handling with difficult cases, in many cases with success and results of which we are proud and can be proud. – Thank you Stavros.
In 2016, the European Instruments on Democracy and Human Rights has supported directly more than 250 human rights defenders and their families, who were at risk because of their daily work.
Third element: we are engaging constantly with our partners through dedicated Human Rights Dialogues. Here I know, this is a delicate chapter of our work. Yesterday, I start with the most delicate example, I met in Brussels with Bruno Rodriguez, the Foreign Minister of Cuba. Our relationship with Cuba has entered into a completely new phase, and one of the first new steps we have taken was to start a Dialogue on Human Rights. We had two rounds of that – one in Europe and one in Havanna – and I believe there is no other way to make a real difference – to try to make a real difference: engage constantly, engage tirelessly, trying to improve the situation on the ground, having frank and open discussions with our partners.
Finally, we are keeping human rights – and the rights of women and children in particular – at the core of peace talks and reconciliation processes. Syria is constantly on our mind, and in these hours in particular, as we are receiving terrible reports from the ground.
And here I would like to take the occasion of this debate to join my voice to that of the UN-Secretary General who just a few hours ago underlined the obligation of all parties on the ground to protect civilians and abide by international humanitarian and human rights law – and recalling that this is particularly the responsibility of the Syrian government and its allies. Those who perpetrate war crimes will be held accountable. The priority now, in these hours, is to protect civilians, guarantee them safe and monitored transit to a place of safety.
We all know that it is also crucial – always in Syria, but on the future – crucial to be working on protecting everyone’s rights through the transition and in the transition – in the moment when a political process will be finally put in place.
But let me also mention a success story, as you did, some positive examples. The peace deal in Colombia, an agreement for all the victims of conflicts, and that will provide a sound basis towards justice, reconciliation, and reaching the truth. And I am honoured that Jose Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, was yesterday in Brussels with us, during his first international visit after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. And we launched together the EU-Trust Fund to accompany exactly the implementation of the peace agreement.
So let me conclude on a positive note. Yes, the situation of human rights in the world is very serious. But there are also success stories. And wherever things are moving in the right direction, the European Union is there, engaged directly – through our funds, through our delegations, through our Special Representative, through dialogues and diplomacy.
My message for you is the same I delivered to the NGOs a few days ago: We need to be vigilant, all of us, we need to be critical when necessary. But we also need to amplify the success stories. We need to talk about the real people behind the numbers and beyond the budget lines. We need to show that the European Union is practically and concretely a force for human rights, a force for democracy and a force for good. We need our voice – your voice – to be heard also on this, more than ever.