The EU can amplify our human rights pledge
The Coalition Government’s promise to put human rights at the heart of Britain’s diplomacy is being fulfilled daily. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Cathy Ashton, has unveiled a comprehensive new approach on human rights worldwide, with our full support. This follows the 2009 review of EU democracy support, based on its conclusion that “Human rights and democracy are inextricably connected. Only in a democracy can individuals fully realize their human rights; only when human rights are respected can democracy flourish.”
This approach was reflected in Aun San Suu Kyi’s historic Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that democratic institutions and practices are necessary for the guarantee of human rights.” Her visit to the UK and her address to parliament underline her gratitude to this country for its consistent support, marked by visits this year to Burma by William Hague and then David Cameron, as well as by Cathy Ashton. Now we are also leading the way in suspending sanctions, lifting our policy of discouraging trade with Burma and supporting responsible investment. British politicians have long been at the forefront of moves to give the European Union an external policy based on the priorities of democracy and human rights.
On Monday EU foreign ministers adopted an ambitious EU strategic framework and action plan on human rights and democracy. This includes an ambitious human rights package consisting of 36 policy areas, ranging from the fight against the death penalty, effective democracy support, the eradication of torture and the promotion and protection of child rights.
A division of work on not less than 97 actions has been agreed, in full respect of national competences. Indeed, it will only be by joint investment between the EU and its Member States that change can be made on the ground.
That change should be bolstered by the imminent appointment of an EU Special Representative for Human Rights. Cathy Ashton told the European Parliament recently that it deserves credit for championing the creation of this, the first-ever thematic post. The Special Representative will act under her authority to enhance the EU’s effectiveness, presence and visibility in protecting and promoting human rights, as well as strengthening the EU’s contribution to democracy support.
Human rights, poverty reduction and the upholding of international law are essential to – and indivisible from – both EU and UK foreign policy objectives. We cannot achieve long term security and prosperity unless we uphold our values, and recognise that unchecked human rights abuses represent a threat to our own national security.
Although we must promote our values with conviction and determination, it must be in ways that are suited to the grain of the other societies we are dealing with, particularly in fragile or post-conflict states. Democracy and respect for human rights rest on foundations that have to be built over time: strong institutions, responsible and accountable government, a free press, the rule of law, equal rights for men and women, and other less tangible habits of mind and of participation are all necessary elements for democracy to prevail.
The Arab Spring is making a reality of the aspiration for democracy and reform so vividly revealed in the UN’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report. Patchy and transitional – and often agonising – though the process may be, political and economic freedom are spreading across the Middle East and North Africa and inspiring other parts of the world.
As our and the EU’s economic weight is squeezed and influence passes more and more to governments who may not share our values, the EU and national governments will have to work harder and more harmoniously to entrench international law and human rights. We must continue to raise our concerns about human rights wherever and whenever those concerns arise, including with countries with which we are seeking closer ties, such as China or Russia.
This year, the EU will support the establishment of a European Endowment for Democracy as a stand-alone agency, capable of acting with expertise, flexibility and speed, emulating its Washington equivalent. This is a result of the long campaign waged within the European Parliament and an increasing chorus of other MEPs, especially those from the ex-Soviet bloc countries such as Poland.
The Foreign Office has a dedicated £6.5 million human rights and democracy programme for the coming year to complement the €1.1 billion available through the EU’s Democracy and Human Rights Instrument (EIDHR) for the period 2007 to 2013. Our support to strong action taken at UK as well as EU level hinges on our belief that democracy is intrinsically linked with human rights – one cannot survive without the other. There is a correlation between countries that are secure and prosperous and those that enjoy participative democracy: we believe that such societies are more prosperous in the long run, and are not a threat to each other.
Jeremy Browne MP (Liberal Democrat, Taunton Deane) is Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with responsibility for human rights. Edward McMillan-Scott MEP (Liberal Democrat, Yorkshire & Humber), is European Parliament Vice-President for Democracy & Human Rights and founder of the EIDHR. Edward McMillan-Scott MEP (Liberal Democrat, Yorkshire & Humber), is European Parliament Vice-President for Democracy & Human Rights and founder of the EIDHR.Tagged in: arab spring, Aun San Suu Kyi, burma, Cathy Ashton, coalition, david cameron, eu, Foreign Office, human rights, Nobel Peace Prize, poverty, william hague
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter