Civil Society and EU should Work Together to Protect Human Rights Defenders

Heidi Hautala addressed the 5th ICORN General Assembly in Frankfurt 1-3 June 2010. As the need to gear up the protection of human rights defenders remains high, the contribution of ICORN remains vital, she said. [:]




Dear friends,


I was very much looking forward to attending the 5th ICORN General Assembly but I had to stay in Brussels as two meetings of European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights will take place during your general assembly, and I am the Chair of the Subcommittee so I must be there.


As your network gathers in Frankfurt, the backdrop of freedom of speech and situation of human rights defenders looks again bit bleaker;


In your talks you must have come across the unfair prosecution of Aleksey Sokolov in Russia, imprisonments of the politicians Mrs Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza and Mr Deogratias Mushayidi in Rwanda, persecution of the human rights lawyer Parvez Aslam Choudhry in Pakistan and cracking down on falung gong members in China. I certainly have, these cases are only few of those which I have raised within the last couple of months.


More alarmingly, attempts to introduce blanket void against freedom of speech in the form of “defamation of religions” continues at the UN Human Rights Council strong. Russian authorities are developing practice to criminally prosecute politically active and critical people on the grounds of “extremism law”.


The rollback on civil liberties continues with vigour while the response from democratic states remains substandard. This should be the time for EU to stand strong at the Human Rights Council and in its relations with Russia.


Indeed, in my speech I wish to address the EU policies aiming to protect human rights defenders and promote their rights.


Discussion on EU policies on human rights defenders is timely also for the legal landscape in human rights protection has changed in the European remit.


The Lisbon treaty has improved the ability of the European Union to act on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Articles 3 and 21 of the Lisbon Treaty put the promotion and protection of human rights at the centre of the EU’s external action. In practice this means that the promotion of human rights must be both the basic value and a core objective of the Union’s foreign policy. Moreover, the European Commission has now for the first time a Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. European Union is also in preparation to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights. Within these new post-Lisbon structures, the Subcommittee on Human Rights will do its utmost to help integrate human rights into all EU foreign policies. It will take a while to see the full impact of these new provisions but now we at least have a much improved toolbox to create truly efficient EU human rights policy.


However, we must begin with square analysis of the current situation. While the situation of the human rights defenders has worsened to alarming levels, the performance of the EU has been substandard. The response to the many controversial initiatives at the UN Human Rights Council has been weak, cooperation with oppressive regimes has been primarily uncritical and reaction to human rights violations has been feeble. More specifically, EU must step up its shy criticism of human rights abuses in Russia. Those responsible for murders of human rights defenders simply must be brought to justice. Impunity for murders and harassment of human rights defenders must stop. Moreover, it is the duty of the EU to demand accountability for human rights violations in the Caucasus, in particular, in Chechnya and Ingushetia and act before the instability and cycle of violence spreads further again.


For all these reasons the need to address our poor performance is ever more pressing.


It should be noted here that at the time when it looks like the EU has lost its way, the European Parliament has continuously pressed for stronger EU human rights policy and emphasized the need to base the EU cooperation with other countries on common values, and not just on pragmatic cooperation. During this time the Parliament has been resolute in raise human rights abuses from all over the world and determined to tackle questionable policies of the EU authorities. This matters; European Parliament has more power after the Treaty of Lisbon has now come into force and I am confident that the European Parliament will seek out ways to maximise its power in this field. This is the single positive development of recent times.


Most recently I have been busy preparing the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs report on Human Rights Defenders. This is reason all the more I would have really wished to join you – I would have tremendously valued discussing the final draft with you.


As some of you might already know, our Subcommittee on Human Rights discussed this report and how the EU can protect human rights defenders better for the first time on 25 January this year. The hearing at the Subcommittee on Human Rights was, amongst others, addressed by Mr Helge Lunde, the Executive Director of your network (the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN)) who called for stronger EU policies to protect and cooperate with human rights defenders better. Later on he has made invaluable commentary to my paper.


Indeed, key initiative of my report will be the programme of shelters cities, of which your network has unrivalled expertise and know how. This is single-handedly most effective way to ensure that a person who has been persecuted in his or her own country for ideas or views presented or simply for information they have, will be able to continue their work. ICORN understands the true nature of human rights defenders – yes, they are oftentimes victims, but they are most often above everything else advocates of freedom of speech; writers, artists, directors, free thinkers. Simply removing them from the situation is victory for the oppressor who defies progress. Their voices must continue to be heard not only until they and their families are in safety but to the very end until the oppression stops.


Very closely linked to this issue is my other proposal – prompt delivery of visas and urgency visas for human rights defenders at risk and in emergency situations. Input of your network also with regards this issue is most welcome.


Another key recommendation of the report is to create so called human rights focal points into the European Parliament, the European External Action Service and the EU Delegations abroad. To accentuate this, I further propose in the report that the new High Representative on Foreign Affairs, Ms Catherine Ashton and the EU Special Representatives whould meet with human rights defenders personally when they visit third countries in their official capacity.


On another but related matter, much of the focus of the report is given to how the EU Delegations abroad could better implement the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. This is an area that has been widely discarded or downgraded in EU Delegations and from the field we keep hearing varying stories of how human rights defenders have been turned away or ignored by the EU diplomats. It is imperative for EU to get this finally right.


Overall, I tackle in my report the question how to make the EU Human Rights Policy more coherent and systematic. It will come as no surprise news to any of you there in Frankfurt that I have discovered that at a closer scrutiny there are clear gaps and outright disregard in the EU policies and institutions in this regards. In my report I aim to address these voids systematically and persistently and how to make the EU action more result-oriented in this field.


Thanks to astounding cross-party commitment to improve the EU policy on human rights defenders and the contribution by ICORN and some other organisations, such as Reporters Sans Frontieres and Frontline, my report was adopted on 28th of April by the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs with near unanimity. This is remarkable and brings me hope that we can also push this spirit forward, all the way to achieving concrete results.


The final adoption by the whole European Parliament is scheduled for the Plenary in June. I have been informed that High Representative of European Union for Foreign Affairs, Ms Catherine Ashton, is trying to attend the debate herself.


Dear colleagues, adoption of this paper is only the beginning of hard work. Policies must be developed, activities must be monitored, results analyzed. This all takes expertise from networks like ICORN. Let this be a beginning of long and fruitful cooperation where we strive for concrete improvements for our colleagues who need if most.