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Brussels, 5 December 2017
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First of all, it is a pleasure to be here again, for the third year, with you for this important Forum – very important for us and, I know, very important for all of you.
This year we started the morning with a more informal and restricted exchange with some of you, where I took the opportunity to not just deliver a speech - which is something I know is important, because public statements are important to support our work on human rights - but also to listen and to exchange in a more protected environment on the work we can do together.
We are in living extremely difficult times for NGOs and for civil society all around the world. I hear this whenever I meet groups working on civil society or human rights. I try to have meetings with human rights defenders and civil society organisations everywhere I go – from the most obvious to the most difficult places. Even on the occasion of this Forum, where we know very well that there are friends and colleagues who are not allowed to travel and to join us today here in Brussels.
This is not unusual, unfortunately, that human rights advocates and defenders are imposed travel bans and other restrictions. As we were saying earlier this morning with some of you, we get to the paradox that human rights defenders are not even able to defend themselves anymore.
We are getting to a different stage of threat that we are collectively facing - I would like to stress the "collectively", because I know very well that sometimes you may have the impression that you have been left alone. And I think that each of you might face a point in life where you face the challenge: what am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my family? Is it worth the fight I am doing? Is it worth my life, is it worth the danger in which I am put? It should not be like this, it should not be like this.
What I can say is that you are not alone and the European Union will always be with you. We are also feeling a bit left alone, because the number of players in the global scene that are investing in human rights is shrinking itself. Being the one, in bilateral meetings or international fora, that puts the human rights agenda on the table is becoming more and more challenging also from a political point of view. You cannot imagine the number of times where I meet my interlocutors and they say: "Why are you raising these issues? You are the only one still doing this".
I have to say, there are a few others. I was together here in Brussels with my good friend Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Foreign Minister, yesterday. Canada is always on our side when it is a matter of defending human rights and civil society work. But the space for the defenders of the human rights defenders - also in the political scene - is shrinking. This is why we need to work even more together, to make sure that this trend does not consolidate further.
As I said, beyond local issues, human rights violations in this or that country, there is a global problem that we are facing – one could even call it a cultural problem, a political problem. Some countries have withdrawn from the International Criminal Court, others are questioning the Council of Europe and the very idea of a continental system to watch over human rights.
We keep hearing the old narrative of a clash between interests and values. It should be clear – and it is clear to us - that when one person's rights are abused, we are all less safe and secure. A society where human rights are not guaranteed is more fragile, less resilient, and an easier target for radicalisation.
I often say to my interlocutors: if you really want to do counter-terrorism, if you really want to do de-radicalisation, invest in human rights, invest in civil society work, invest in open societies - this is the best investment you can do for the security of your countries. It is what I call "sustainable security" – the one that has roots that go deep in societies and communities. On the contrary, when democracy and fundamental freedoms are guaranteed, our economies are strong, our security is more sustainable, and our development is built on stronger foundations.
There are parts of the world where this is already happening. This morning I have heard about Colombia where despite all the challenges, we have finally turned the page after half a century of war. Reconciliation and accountability are no more abstract words, even if obviously we have to keep a focus on them, but they are real, they have the faces and the names of real people. Together with reconciliation will also come rural development, more inclusive growth, and stronger democracy.
Or think about the Gambia. The situation there could have turned into a regional crisis but it did not, the transition of powers was peaceful, and the story of the Gambia has given hope to an entire continent and now it has to be protected.
I do not want to sound overly optimistic, it is, indeed, not easy to be optimistic in these times. These are not the best times neither for NGOs nor for civil society around the world and even inside Europe, and for us who believe this brings an added value to people's lives.
But let me reassure you on this. Not only are you not alone, the European Union will never leave you alone – not only the institutions I represent but also, I am sure, the European Parliament that is in an excellent manner represented here and that is always a strong defender of our common work.
We can also try and invest in success stories, in positive narratives that can inspire people and give strength to those that still want to engage in this difficult work.
Sometimes our work for human rights consists of public statements and initiatives. In other cases, we have to work below the radar screen and we cannot be vocal, even if we would like to be. Sometimes we are vocal even if we realise that it would be wiser not to be.
But let me be very clear on this: whenever there is a human rights issue, or a human rights violation, we Europeans feel we must do something, and we do something. And I hope we manage together with your help to do the something that is helpful and brings a difference.
Let me take a recent example and I know it can be controversial: a couple of weeks ago I was in Bangladesh to visit one of the largest camps hosting Rohingya refugees – together, by the way, with two Foreign Ministers of two Member States, because I believe that we have to bring Member States in a coherent manner into our European work on human rights. You can read all the news about this situation, but when you meet the refugees in the camp, and you see the camps with your own eyes, it makes quite difference. I have seen many camps, I have seen many refugees, I have talked to many people, but the stories I have heard that day, the situation in the camp I have seen that day, will stay with me for a long time.
The thing that was striking me the most was the number of young children – children of the age of my little daughter, seven years old, six years old – taking care of younger children: six year old children bringing with them children of two, three years old, taking care of them, having travelled with them. Imagine how old you get with such an experience, imagine how do you get to twenty years old, what kind of a mind-set you can have, what kind of experience it can be to have your early years deleted like this. I know I do not have to tell these stories to you, because you know them better than me.
I also met a group of women, and heard from them about the violence they suffered and the violence against their children. Once you hear these stories, you see that inaction is simply not an option. The day after, I was in Myanmar for the Asia-Europe meeting [ASEM] and before the Summit, we asked to set up a special meeting with all the Ministers who were present there, from the European side and from the Asian side – including Aung San Suu Kyi [State Counsellor of Myanmar] – to talk about the situation of Rohingyas. There were no cameras, it was not in the news, and yet it was a very important meeting because a few days later, a deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh was announced and signed.
We know very well that it is controversial, we know very well that the implementation of this agreement will have to be extremely carefully accompanied and monitored, but it is a step in the right direction. I believe it could constitute a first entry point in solving a crisis that, before, did not have any bilateral channel to be tackled, with the presence and the work of the international agencies that can help doing so, starting from the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. We will have to continue on the same path with public statements, but also, and most importantly, with direct engagement with those whose decisions can make a real difference.
I believe there is no substitute for this kind of direct engagement – from Central Asia to Zimbabwe. This is why I am particularly grateful to our [European Union] Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, for all his visits and contacts, including visits to human rights defenders that are detained. Symbols are not only symbols, there are also political statements and sometimes make the difference.
This is why our Human Rights Dialogues remain such an important tool in our foreign policy. You can be sure the human rights angle to our foreign policy will not disappear. I know there are powers in the world that are saying that human rights are not the basis for their foreign policy anymore; it is not going to be the case for us.
But there are things we cannot do and there are places where we cannot go to. This is why it is so important to partner with you and to learn from you: your experience from the ground is invaluable, you see things happening well before they get into the news, and, sometimes, before they get on our desk - because you are on the ground.
Let me make another example. We have all seen the images on CNN coming from the detention centres in Libya. I think that for all of us in the room – no one excluded - unfortunately there was nothing new in that story, apart from the images, and some of us have seen the images before. I remember very well a meeting I had with some of you last year, here in Brussels, and one person who was at the meeting told me she had been to a detention centre and had seen how bad the living conditions were – if we can speak of living conditions, I have a problem in saying "living conditions", it is "dying conditions". And, I, myself, heard the same stories from women arriving in Lampedusa four, five years ago.
What those images brought was the public awareness of the situation that we all knew was there. The news is also that we started to act, because sometimes it is easier to pretend you do not see a problem, if you believe a problem is too difficult to be solved. This is not the NGO approach, this is not the human rights defenders' approach, this is not our approach. We see a problem, we know there is a problem, we try to face it, we try to improve it, even if we know that the solution is difficult to be found. But we engage, we try to change the situation for the better, even if it will be a long way.
But only this year – and this did not happen last year or the year before – we have helped 14.000 people leave the detention centres and go back home. This does not simply mean that we paid their return ticket. We have also offered them an opportunity, to learn a job, to open a new business back home. This is the work we have done together with some of you, with some of the NGOs and the civil society organisations. But I am glad that the CNN showed those images, because it has shown how urgent it is to act, and to act together. And, as you know, with the European Commission we have recently proposed to create at least 50.000 new opportunities for resettlement so that those who have the right to international protection can come to Europe, in a humane and safe way.
I just came back the other day from Abidjan, where we had the African Union-European Union Summit, and where we agreed to set up a joint task force of the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations, to precisely protect people all along the route, because we see the detention centres problem, but the problem is also before they get to Libya, the problem is all along the route, and, in particular, to address the issue of detention centres in Libya.
I have to thank the IOM [International Organisation for Migration] and the UNHCR together with some of you who are operationally doing this work, which is a very complicated work. We will continue this work with all the determination that is needed, knowing that it is a drop in the ocean - as we say in Italian, sometimes you have the feeling that you are trying to empty the sea with a spoon - but, still, you have to do it until the sea is emptied, because the detention centres have to be closed, and people have to be saved.
I said we will not leave you alone, but we also need to keep working together - you working with us, we working with you, on a daily basis, on all possible issues, including those that look a bit more difficult. I would like to thank you very much, first of all to those of you who engaged in a conversation with me before, this morning. And to all of you for the work you will be doing in these two days, but even more than that, for other two things: for the work you do with us and you allow us to do with you, on a daily basis, because without your work and your support the European Union’s work on Human Rights and the support of the civil society will not be effective, as, I believe, it is, even if we can always improve. And for all the work you do inside Europe and all around the world.
I think we need each other, now more than ever before, and I know that you feel that you need support. I can guarantee to you that the European Union will never, never, never leave human rights defenders and civil society organisations alone. But I tell you – we also need you, because the space is also shrinking for us. So, we need to work together; you will not find a more reliable partner than the European Union for your work and we would not find a more precious partner for our work than the work you are doing.
I thank you very much and I wish you all success in your work.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I147699