Six ‘E’s for promoting human rights abroad

On 9 October 2014, Mr Stavros LAMBRINIDIS, EU Special Representative for Human Rights, gave the first “EU Diplomacy Lecture” in a new annual series of high level lectures organised by the Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies of the College of Europe in Bruges. This is a short summary of his speech. A full report and more photos are available here.

25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world is still far from universal democratisation and respect for human rights. The end of the Cold War was not “the end of history” as many had expected. The space for civil society appears to be shrinking around the world and the voices questioning the universality of human rights are again growing louder. The promotion of human rights seems even more necessary today.

How can the EU promote human rights abroad? The challenge can be summarized in six ‘E’s.

The first is to empower the state institutions, courts, civil society organisations, media and activists who fight for rights in their own countries. By funding and keeping an eye on local human rights defenders and those who wish to silence them, the EU prevents human rights violators from sweeping their crimes under the carpet.

Second, where the EU cannot bring economic and hard power to bear on offenders, it can practice more subtle means of persuasion to encourage foreign governments to see the human value and interest of defending human rights.

Third, the EU must engage even with governments that are guilty of grave and widespread human rights violations, some of which, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, are often sensitive about their international reputation – while taking care not to provide them with a fig leaf of respectability.

EU Special Representative for Human Rights speaking at the College of Europe 9 October 2014

EU Special Representative for Human Rights speaking at the College of Europe 9 October 2014

Fourth, the EU must enlarge the defence of human rights against their attackers by reaching out to local governments and regional organisations such as the African Union, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Human rights do not pit one human culture or religion against another: they are the universal language of the powerless against the relativism of the powerful.

Fifth, while empowering defenders, engaging with offenders and supporting locally driven change are essential, the EU and the international community must at times be prepared to ”enforce” human rights, including through vocal public statements.

Sixth, the EU must continually strive to embody human rights at home and to ensure consistency across is actions and actors. And when dealing with third countries, whether business, development or security issues be on the agenda, EU and member states must sing from a common songbook, embed human rights clauses in all policies and agreements and stand ready to invoke them against any country, big or small.

Mr Lambrinidis concluded with a more semantic, but thought-provoking point: That our choice of words also matters, and that the EU should extend the language of promoting human rights more widely to its economic and security policies to emphasise their overarching ambition to advance human rights in all of their dimensions.

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