Speech by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton before the Human Rights Council

Mr Pres­i­dent, Dear Min­is­ters, Dear col­leagues,
We meet at a time of his­toric change. Across the Mid­dle East and beyond, peo­ple are stand­ing up for that core human aspi­ra­tion: to be able to shape their own lives, polit­i­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly. They want their fun­da­men­tal rights respect­ed. They want dig­ni­ty, account­abil­i­ty, jus­tice and jobs. We must heed these calls. For they are just – and will not go away.

This Coun­cil there­fore has a grave respon­si­bil­i­ty: to ensure that our oft-stat­ed inten­tions are trans­lat­ed into real action, real progress

What mat­ters in the end is not the num­ber of res­o­lu­tions passed, but results in the real world. Right now, our atten­tion is focused on Libya – and right­ly so. The fact that so many col­leagues from across the world have gath­ered here today tells us some­thing big. That what is going on – the mas­sive vio­lence against peace­ful demon­stra­tors – shocks our con­science. It should spring us into action. I am pleased that last Fri­day (25 Feb­ru­ary), this Coun­cil held a spe­cial ses­sion on Libya, show­ing an abil­i­ty to react to events in real time. It was strik­ing and wel­come that this came about because so many groups had mobilised for it – from Asia, Latin Amer­i­ca, as well as East­ern and West­ern Europe. This is the Unit­ed Nations at its best.

The out­come last Fri­day was a strong one. I am pleased that the Coun­cil con­clud­ed on Fri­day to form an inde­pen­dent inter­na­tion­al inquiry – and also backed work under­way in New York to sus­pend the mem­ber­ship of Libya of this Coun­cil. These are impor­tant steps. But clear­ly more is needed.

This morn­ing too, the mes­sage is clear: we con­demn the grave human rights vio­la­tions com­mit­ted in Libya. The vio­lence and repres­sion must stop. Those respon­si­ble must be held to account. This is not just the EU’s posi­tion. It is the view of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty and its high­est author­i­ty: the UN Secu­ri­ty Council. 

On Sat­ur­day, the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil unan­i­mous­ly adopt­ed a strong Res­o­lu­tion, with impor­tant manda­to­ry mea­sures such as an arms embar­go, a trav­el ban and asset freezes for those respon­si­ble. EU mem­bers of the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil worked hard to achieve an out­come that reflects the extreme urgency and sever­i­ty of the situation.

Account­abil­i­ty and jus­tice are essen­tial — that is why I am pleased that agree­ment was found in the Res­o­lu­tion to refer the inves­ti­ga­tion of the on-going crimes to the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court. As EU we will of course ensure swift imple­men­ta­tion of these Secu­ri­ty Council’s mea­sures. We are already work­ing on EU restric­tive mea­sures that should come into effect very soon.

Of course, it is not just in Libya that we need to ensure respect for basic human rights. I recent­ly made sev­er­al vis­its to coun­tries across the Mediter­ranean where peo­ple are claim­ing their rights and insist­ing that the old ways of doing things sim­ply won’t do.

I met with gov­ern­ment offi­cials, mem­bers of oppo­si­tion par­ties, civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions, women’s groups and youth representatives.

I went to Tunis where I met groups that had nev­er been allowed to be in the same room before; and to Cairo where I met the young peo­ple who had been in Tahrir square. My aim was to lis­ten and this is what I heard:

“This is our coun­try and our rev­o­lu­tion. We want real change – and for the sys­tem to recog­nise the sig­nif­i­cance of the change. Also: “ This is the begin­ning. We need to take time to get the tran­si­tion right.” And then: “We want help. To ensure we get the first real elec­tion of a ruler in 7000 years. But more than that, to get gen­uine democ­ra­cy, not just on the day we cast our bal­lots, but the weeks and months after that too.” “We want jobs, eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties and social jus­tice, only then can we be real­ly free”.

We can and must salute the courage of peo­ple in the region for the peace­ful and dig­ni­fied way in which they have advanced their core demands.

But we can and must do more: to offer our full sup­port. Only to do what peo­ple from the region ask us to. From a posi­tion of humil­i­ty know­ing that our own his­to­ries are full of dark pages, and that our own path to deep democ­ra­cy wasn’t lin­ear or easy.

But with the con­vic­tion that in the on-going tran­si­tions, full respect of human rights and fun­da­men­tal free­doms is key. Because it is the only way to get sus­tain­able secu­ri­ty, jus­tice and prosperity.

Mr President,

Human rights, we often say, are uni­ver­sal. That is why all vio­la­tions, wher­ev­er they take place, are our con­cern and must be addressed by this Council.

We know that in sev­er­al coun­tries, people’s rights are at risk: in Iran where we have seen a steep rise in exe­cu­tions; in Belarus where we are deeply con­cerned at the num­ber of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go where there are dis­tress­ing reports of sex­u­al vio­lence — and many oth­er places besides.

The EU is also deeply con­cerned at the sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East, includ­ing the occu­pied Pales­tin­ian Ter­ri­to­ries. We are work­ing hard reach our long-stand­ing aim: a nego­ti­at­ed solu­tion lead­ing to two states.

Some­times this Coun­cil has seemed resolved only to be irresolute.

Some of the achieve­ments of the Coun­cil per­haps do not receive the atten­tion they deserve. Take the recent work on free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion; or the mech­a­nism to pro­mote the elim­i­na­tion of laws and prac­tices that dis­crim­i­nate against women. 

Still, this Coun­cil has some way to go in liv­ing up to the man­date it was giv­en by the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly. That is why we want a real, sub­stan­tive out­come of the Review process now under­way con­cern­ing the work of this Council.

The test of suc­cess is sim­ple: it is not per se whether we pass res­o­lu­tions or cre­ate new pro­ce­dures – vital though they are.

These are the inputs. What tru­ly mat­ter are the out­puts. The real test is whether we make a dif­fer­ence on the ground: whether all the peo­ple of Libya, Iran, Cote d’Ivoire and Belarus, Burma/Myanmar and DPRK are able to enjoy free speech, fair elec­tions, the rule of law, equal rights and impar­tial administration.

Mr President,

The Euro­pean Union is some­times accused of try­ing to “export” so-called Euro­pean val­ues to oth­er coun­tries. I reject that accu­sa­tion. The rights to free speech, free­dom of assem­bly, jus­tice and equal­i­ty are not Euro­pean rights: they are uni­ver­sal rights. We must nev­er fall into the trap of believ­ing that peo­ple in Africa, Asia or Latin Amer­i­ca are less pas­sion­ate about their rights.

Allow me to quote Kofi Annan’s 2005 report, “In larg­er free­dom”. “Human rights are as fun­da­men­tal to the poor as to the rich, and their pro­tec­tion is as impor­tant to the secu­ri­ty and pros­per­i­ty of the devel­oped world as it is to that of the devel­op­ing world”.

We are meet­ing today pre­cise­ly because those rights inspire peo­ple in every part of the globe. What is true is that many coun­tries lack the insti­tu­tions that are able to defend and pro­mote those rights. That is why one of the great chal­lenges fac­ing us is to help coun­tries build those insti­tu­tions that will anchor and ensure full respect for fun­da­men­tal rights and the rule of law.

Mr President,

We are liv­ing through his­toric times, and it is easy to be daz­zled by the promise of change. Just as impor­tant is where we go from here, so I should like to look ahead to a pos­si­ble direc­tion of travel. 

To live up to our promis­es, we need to nar­row the gap: 

  • between the mag­ni­tude of the chal­lenges fac­ing us and the minu­ti­ae of our polit­i­cal debates;
  • between the expec­ta­tions of those who put us here and our abil­i­ty to deliver;
  • between vault­ing state­ments of uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples and indi­vid­ual lives;
  • between the seren­i­ty of Gene­va and events just two hours flight from here.

I repeat: what mat­ters is not per se the num­ber of res­o­lu­tions passed but the results we achieve togeth­er on the ground.

Thank you very much 

Coun­cil of the Euro­pean Union 

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