Skip to content Skip to footer

As part of our Monday Talks series, we have conducted an interview with Mr Stavros Lambrinidis, European Union Special Representative for Human Rights to discuss the recent matters of relevance.

Vocal Europe: Having been the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for Human Rights since 2012, what would you say are some of the greatest human rights challenges that the European Union has to address with its foreign policy?

Stavros Lambrinidis: That’s a small question. I would say that we have to face challenges outside the EU mostly, but we also have to face some challenges internally in how we do foreign policy and human rights. The world has gotten to be a worse place when it comes to human rights, at least human rights narratives in the past few years, and that is our biggest challenge.

Some countries that are ideologically or politically committed against human rights have become much more aggressive in trying to export bad narratives and practices to the regions, trying to bend the will of the people to the will of strongmen populists in their countries. This is a big challenge, because they are trying to basically convince us that human rights are either desperate or unpopular or “Western”, and therefore should not be applied.

So this is fundamentally a way that they are trying to use that we have to address, and we do. We do. We are promoting positive narratives for human rights and we are being much more on the offensive without being offensive when it comes to these people. We have major challenges when it comes to wars. Some wars are terrible, some wars are spilling over not just the obvious right to life that is being violated by the hundreds of thousands of deaths, but also issues of other human rights.

In fact, we have found that if you look at every bloody conflict in the world today you will see that at the roots of the conflict was probably a human rights violation, a serious one, that was not addressed on time. And of course there are thematic challenges: improving women rights around the world; dealing with religious fanaticism and the freedom of religion and belief; protecting freedom of expression and freedom of speech; defending the multilateral human rights system, the United Nations, regional organizations that do human rights, which for us is a very big priority; economic, social and cultural rights; ensuring that poverty is eliminated.

All these issues are not separate from each other, but intertwined, and that is where the challenge internally comes [from]. Here in the European Union, we have also become much more effective in streamlining human rights in our policies. It is not always that obvious. We have 150 delegations around the world, embassies, EU embassies, and all of them produce a human right report every year for their countries.

That is an indication of a priority we place on human rights that I think is virtually unparalleled around the world. They send the recommendations back, we act accordingly. We have a number of commissioners at the European Commission that deal with issues that touch on human rights: development, if you like, neighbourhood policy, many other things.

And of course Federica Mogherini, who leads these efforts here. That kind of streamlining has been our challenge internally and I think that we are much better now that we were six years ago.

Vocal Europe: The 10th of December is the International Human Rights Day, which also coincides with the 70th Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Currently, human rights are globally challenged by authoritarian regimes, certain cultural customs, and religious practices. In this regard, what should the international and national actors do in order to keep the principles of the Declaration intact and further ensure their effectiveness? And which role could the EU play in this process?

Stavros Lambrinidis: I think the fundamental thing that we have to do is to remember that human rights are law, international law, but they are more than that. They are human dignity, that’s what human rights are based on. We all are human beings, we are not animals. You may not like me, I may not be like you, but you may not kick me because you don’t like me, you may not imprison me, you may not kill me, you may not discriminate against me.

That fundamental human principle exists in every culture, in every religion, in every region of the world, in every political system. So we have to take the debate back. This is universal. It’s universal. The second thing we have to do and we are doing, is [to] make sure that every time there are egregious human rights violations we are not afraid to speak up. As European Union, as member states, as United Nations.

Many authoritarian governments would like you to simply not talk about the violations. They are trying everything they can. And the moment they call me up to tell me “don’t you dare make a statement”, I know that what I have to do at that moment is to make a statement. Because that is the one thing between them and total impunity. And the final thing we have to do and we are doing is not to allow the bad guys to hijack the debate.

From left to right: Ebubekir Isik, Stavros Lambrinidis, Irene Christodoulaki, and Vera Ventura. 28 November 2018, Brussels.

There are tens of countries around the world as we speak that believe in human rights, have ownership of human rights and are applying human rights based policies to address major challenges such as security and counter-terrorism, such as building sustainable development, such as building peaceful societies. We launched in New York in September the so-called “Good Human Right Stories” with 13 countries around the world and the European Union. These countries presented, each one of them, a concrete policy example of how they pursue government priorities through human rights.

And by being in the same room at the same time, they highlighted how all over the world, from all regions, human rights are universal and human rights work. In countries such as Peru, poverty has fallen form about 57% seventeen years ago to only 22% today, and it was done not by repressing anyone, not by having a central government policy that tells you “you can work here, but not there”, but by a commission that included government, civil society, independent Ombudsmen.

They were successful through human rights. In Georgia, torture was one of the highest in the world in 2011, it’s almost zero today in very few years. They applied human right policies and they are telling us that they are pursuing security not thought torture, they can bring security in the country through respecting rights and these examples are examples that anyone else in the world, any other country who wished to address challenges like those, may do so. So we are not perfect in human rights, no one is. The litmus test in human rights is not perfection, the litmus test in human rights is: do you have the institutions in place that do not allow you to shove your imperfection under the carpet?

In other words, do you want to be better than you are? There are countries around the world who say that we should not be talking about human rights because we violate them as well, and of course everyone does. But if you look at those countries, they do not have independent courts, they do not have independent parliaments, they do not have an independent press, they have the civil society that they don’t talk to, but they usually repress. So, every check and balance for them to be better at human rights is not there. In Europe, everyone of these things are there. So we are not perfect, but we are trying to be better.

Vocal Europe: Another issue of great importance concerning human rights is the ongoing Rohingya crisis. In October the EU mission to Myanmar assessed the human-, and labour rights situation in the country. The Union has started to consider revoking the country’s tariff-free trade on human rights grounds, expressing major concern over the treatment of persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities like the Rohingya. Do you think that this is an effective way to deal with the situation in Myanmar? And, what the EU could do more in this regard?

Stavros Lambrinidis: Oh, we should do a bunch of things. And we are examining all the possibilities now for a long time. I have been in the country five times in the past five years. I’ve met with Aung San Suu Kyi, I’ve met with the previous government, I have met with the head of the military, I have met with civil society, I have met with religious leaders. I have dedicated a big part of the European Union’s efforts in trying to resolve this crisis.

Myanmar had a number of human rights problems and a dictatorship, and moving to democracy was one of the big successes of the country. But what happened to the Rohingya in the process, this big black hole of rights, is despicable. And what it is that the government and the military can and must do has been discussed extensively. There have been United Nations commissions that the European Union is supporting. We are the biggest donor in Bangladesh in ensuring that the refugees can live in as much dignity as possible. We have been working with the government and pushing the government to create the conditions for a voluntary and dignified return.

We have explained to the government that that means defending the human rights of the Rohingya and ensuring that everything from their citizenship, to eliminating and punishing hate speech against them, to ensuring that they can return to the place from which they [left] and are not thrown to a different part of the Rakhine State that they have no connection with, emotional or livelihood-wise.

All these are issues that need to be addressed. So we have very much engaged in the country and of course we are examining as well a number of other options that we have in our hands, whether it is economic options, dealing with the government and the military, or whether it is sanctions. We already have sanctions on a number of military commanders in the country that we have determined have been involved in violations. We have an arms embargo against the country, so none of the Member States sell arms to Myanmar. So I assure you we are very vigilant.

Vocal Europe: All over the world, the human rights defenders and NGOs face unjustified restrictions and frequently arbitrary prosecutions. How is the European Union engaging particularly with countries where tremendous human rights violations occur? Are the current relevant mechanisms that the EU has in the human rights field effective when it comes to this kind of violations? What should be done at the European level in order to improve the effectiveness of these mechanisms?

Stavros Lambrinidis: It’s a very important question, because the shrinking space of civil society has been a big challenge in the past few years, one of the biggest. And the reason it is a real issue is because unless human rights become the ownership of the people in every country, they will never really take long-term roots in the country.

We know that, which is why we support civil society. And repressive governments know that as well, which is why they repress civil society. Because they do not want human rights to really reach the people. They don’t want it to became part of the country’s culture. So we use financial means, we use political means, and we do both external and internal policies in order to support them, support human rights defenders, support civil society. We have the biggest fund to support economically civil society all over the world, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. We do not tell civil society what to do, they have their priorities all over the world.

We support them economically in order to be able to have them do their work. We politically support them by ensuring that whenever we visit any country we meet the civil society at the exact same level that we meet with governments. In our human rights dialogues with over 40 countries around the world every year, we have increased the presence of civil society and civil society seminars where we bring governments and civil society together before the two governments officially speak during the dialogue. In some instances, human rights activists tell us that they have not had the chance to speak with their own government other than the opportunity that we gave them through those interactions.

We support the United Nations’ work forcefully, both the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, for example, or on freedom of association. We make sure in every country that we go that we encourage, and as strongly as we can, that they engage with the United Nations system. And, of course, it you look at our domestic polity documents you will find it perhaps remarkable that the biggest foreign policy and economic policy priorities of the European Union list civil society as key actors of engagement for us in those documents.

If you look at the European Consensus on Development, the big document that everyone approved on how we apply the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals around the world and how we eliminate poverty, you will see numerous references to human rights and civil society. I encourage you to look at other countries around the world and tell me if you will see the same kind of commitment. I assure you, you won’t.

The global strategy that Federica Mogherini announced a couple of years ago, the compass of our foreign policy engagement, includes civil society in it. And finally, let me say, some civil society activists, as we are making all these discussions, are in danger for their lives or are being thrown in jail because their government simply doesn’t like what they are saying, not because of any bad thing they have done.

Those civil society activists know that we have in place programs to protect them, to fund their lawyers, to protect their families in some terrible instances, to take them out of dangerous way if we can, to build with governments in some countries that are willing to do so human rights protection and prevention mechanisms to ensure that they never reach that point of dangers to begin with. You asked a simple question and you are getting a complicated answer. The reason you are getting that is because human rights is not easy.

Vocal Europe: The European Union proposes very attractive trade deals to certain countries in exchange of improving human rights situation in the countries concerned on the one hand, and on the other hand you have the Dutch proposal that puts forward a new EU sanctions regime targeting individuals globally, accused of human rights violations. Which approach do you think is more effective for the EU foreign policy to safeguard human rights globally?

Stavros Lambrinidis: Well, that proposal you mention is one that is been under discussion as we speak, and I’m very pleased that there was a reflection meeting recently with experts from all over Europe. I think that’s an important discussion to have for our Member States. But that does not mean that we don’t already have in place both regional, geographic-specific sanctions in the EU or instruments that we can exercise pressure through in order to bring human right improvements.

So if you take most recently the case of Myanmar, that I mentioned to you, and Venezuela, you see that the EU has applied specific human rights related sanctions in those countries. And that requires, of course, the unanimity of Member States, but we have been effective in doing so. You are very right in noting our trade agreements.

Until a few years back, we did not have what we have today, which is a mandatory human rights clause in those agreements, a central clause that major violation of human rights will affect the trade relationship. Something that many of our partners around the world don’t know is that we have also this special tariff regime, called the GSP Plus (Generalized System of Preferences plus), that fundamentally allows every country in the world that is under that scheme to import virtually all their goods in Europe with virtually zero tariffs.

So you would think, what do the Europeans ask in return? What is the quid pro quo there? Are they asking for better access to oil and gas, as many people accuse us of doing around the world? Or being self-interested? Are they asking to export more oranges as they import more tangerines or something?

No, GSP Plus regime has only one requirement on the country that is under it. And that is that that country signs, ratifies and implements all United Nations and international label organizations conventions that have to do with human rights and labor rights. That’s the one requirement. What we ask countries in order to be able to have the most privileged trade deal with us is [to] be good in human rights and improve all the time. And when we see violations, as you very correctly point out, we send delegations, we look at those violations, we talk to the governments, we talk to civil society and people, and we always try to calibrate what the best reaction for us is.

But for us, as I said, human rights is not a luxury. It is a necessity. When we ask from countries around the world to apply it, it is because we know, not just from our own experiences but from experiences all over the world, that open societies that respect rights are always in the end stronger, more resilient, more peaceful, more prosperous. And those who violate rights may for a short period of time appear to be okay, but in the end collapse.

If I may tell you, a few years back – because sometimes people say: “Human rights is a luxury, we’re trying to fight terrorists, we are trying to bring security, don’t criticize us, don’t get human rights involved”. And I was thinking, a few years back, we were talking about economic development and not a single human being said “sustainable development”. And then we said, wait a second now. Maybe you can develop economics in the short term if you have child labor, maybe you can develop if you have workers that you give no rights to, maybe you can develop if you pollute your environment, because all these things will make you produce cheaper goods.

But is that the kind of development that the world wants? And then we said, there’s no way. No way. This ends up destroying our societies. And then we came and said sustainable development. “Sustainable” became the key world. And now no-one talks about development.

Well, in the exact same way, the European Union says to the world that it is about time we bring the word “sustainable” before the word “security”. You could bring security in your countries if you arrest a few thousand people you don’t like and you throw them in jail and you take them off the streets when they peacefully protest, give the impression that things are nicer and calmer.

But all you are doing is you are creating resentment, taking away from you country the ability to improve itself through different points of view, potentially radicalising people that eventually will become radical when they were not before. You can torture people to get the “truth”, but as the Netherlands showed us, or as Norway showed us, as Georgia showed us, there is a way to interview and to get the truth out of suspects, even of the worst terrorist crimes, without torture, which is an absolute prohibited crime under international law.

And if you torture your people, all you are doing is you are diminishing your people’s trust in your institutions. No one trusts the judiciary anymore, even for an entirely unrelated case, if they see that the judiciary basically accepts confessions of tortured people and doesn’t make a peep about them. Sustainable security, these are big topics.

Human rights is about the big and is about the small. It’s about addressing the fundamental root causes of war and insecurity and poverty and it’s also about addressing the specific immediate need of any particular human rights defender who may have protested against something and now their government wants them dead. It’s both. And if we do both more effectively as Europe, I will be very proud.