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I am happy to speak again at the European Union-NGO human rights forum. One year ago, this forum was my first public event in Brussels at the start of my mandate as High Representative/Vice-President. Time flies, it was one year ago.
The last year has been a difficult year for human rights worldwide. We have seen more violations of human rights, more abuses and more restrictions. And, sad to say, more human rights defenders have been arrested and even killed in the defence of their rights.
All this underlines the importance of your work, of civil society, NGOs, human rights defenders. While the challenges on the human rights front have been mounting, we are also taking important steps as European Union to increase our effectiveness.
We have just finalised our work on the European Union Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime - an important instrument to go after serious human rights violations and abuses, worldwide, wherever they occur.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This year’s theme is “the impact of new technologies on human rights”. A timely theme. It is well-chosen and we need to shape a distinctly European and human rights-based approach to the digital world. Because repressive laws are spreading, with increased offline and online restrictions and more pressure on the civic space. New technologies have helped civil society networks to grow, but they have also enabled governments to increase surveillance and control. Often under the pretext of security.
Take the case of Hong Kong. The National Security Law has had a dramatic effect. Several pro-democracy activists have been arrested. We had invited Joshua Wong to participate to this Forum. He replied he might be in prison by then - and sadly, this is the case. The European Union stands by Joshua Wong, and by all who are facing charges because they are defending fundamental freedoms.
Take Egypt. Just a couple of weeks ago, Gasser Abdel Razek, the Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and other members of the organisation, were arrested for supporting victims of human rights violations. Organisations working to defend human rights must not be silenced.
Take Belarus, where massive demonstrations for democracy lead to more than 30,000 peaceful protestors that are detained.
Take the 100 journalists and bloggers currently detained in Chinese prisons for having challenged the official narrative on the pandemic. Like Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Zhang Zhan, who have been detained for their reports on the COVID-19 crisis in Wuhan – allegedly for ‘spreading lies’.
Many of you here in this audience see things happening before we do. Before we know. Thanks to you, violations and abuses are recorded and shared around the world. Also with the help of social media.
But new technologies also carry risks. Human rights defenders are often targeted arbitrarily, hate speech and fake news are spreading, mass surveillance is growing and there is also mass collection and analysis of citizens’ data without adequate safeguards.
To tackle these problems, the European Union aims to mitigate the risks, while at the same time also maximise the opportunities of new technologies. This is a core objective of the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy adopted in November, which will guide our work for the next years.
In the coming days, you will also hear about the European Digital Strategy, the Digital Services Act package and the upcoming legislation on Artificial Intelligence. These are all European Union measures to address new threats and protect our rights.
It is about shaping a digital world where human rights are protected and respected. This is our joint endeavour.
Thank you very much for your attention and I certainly wish you a very constructive and successful forum. I was with you in person last year, sorry for not being able to be in person. No one can be in person these days in Brussels, but at least I have the opportunity to talk to you to transmit the message of the European Union institutions and to wish you all –as I said- a very constructive and successful forum.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-199619