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Catherine Ashton

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission

Speech on the Annual Human Rights Report

European Parliament

Strasbourg, 13 December 2011

Tomorrow the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought will be awarded to five representatives of the Arab spring, from Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria.

Unfortunately not all of them will be there with us tomorrow. Our two Syrian friends, are still fighting for their rights and for obvious reasons they could not come to Strasbourg.

The Arab spring is a good example of the universality of human rights and of peoples' aspiration to live in democratic systems.

This year's winners embody the dramatic changes that have defined the past 12 months, and I wish to pay tribute to them now.

Whether through dramatic acts of self-sacrifice, stoic endurance in prison, or daily confronting injustice, they remind us of the true meaning of courage. By drawing cartoons or organising online they remind us that courage does not have to involve heroics. It is about speaking the truth and refusing to be intimidated.

This is the case too of this year's Nobel Prize Winner from Yemen, Mrs Karman, whom I had the opportunity to meet just ten days ago. She deserves all the recognition that she is now receiving as a result of her struggle for women's rights.

It is also the case of the group of Afghan women whom I met at the beginning of the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn. They are real inspiration to all of us.

Speaking out fearlessly is something that has defined the careers of many in this House, and none more so than President Buzek. Under him, the Parliament's work on human rights has significantly increased and I take this opportunity to thank him for his dedication.

2011 has been a particularly active year for human rights in the European Parliament. The subcommittee on human rights, chaired first by Heidi Hautala and now by Barbara Lochbihler, has developed a great number of activities, including the De Keyser report on democracy, which inspired me, in particular on the idea of the global and coherent approach on Human Rights and on democratisation and civic participation.

The historic developments in our Neighbourhood have significantly advanced human rights. The bringing down of longstanding repressive regimes has led to the formation of new Governments and to free and fair elections. The continuing violent crackdowns in Syria, repression in Belarus, and protracted conflicts, including in the Middle East, require us to keep up the pressure.

The events of this year have served to highlight the vital links between human rights and democracy. It has led to a new approach for the EU, which aims to provide greater support to partners engaged in building "deep democracy".

That is where the right to vote is accompanied by effective freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion or belief, under-pinned by impartial justice, public security from accountable protection forces, and access to a competent and non-corrupt civil service.

We have also continued using our financial instruments to promote and protect human rights. In 2011 the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) funded more than 1200 operations in more than 130 countries.

Even in the toughest environments, where basic rights and freedoms are the most repressed, we have been able to provide assistance to civil society. To give just a few examples:

Our funding has been used to fight media and cyber-censorship to keeping information flowing out of Syria or North Korea

In Uzbekistan, Belarus and Egypt it provided legal defence for hundreds of political opponents arbitrarily imprisoned, it also supported their families and their lawyers, who risked imprisonment for taking up the cases;

It supported the rehabilitation victims: those having undergone torture in Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka, and those affected by the campaigns of mass rape in East Congo or Libya;

And it supported democratic transition: in Morocco, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Burma/Myanmar or Libya - also helping support and observation of elections in Niger, Peru and Zambia.

We have also kept up its work to advance human rights on the multilateral stage in 2011. The UN Special Session on Libya, which made the historic recommendations to suspend Libya from the Human Rights Council was a turning point in allowing th HRC to respond to emergencies.

Several times this year the EU raised the human rights situation in Syria, in the HRC and the General Assembly building an alliance of countries from all regions, including the Arab world. Our role was instrumental in establishing the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the human rights situation in Syria.

In June, we secured the adoption of an HRC resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus, with whom we have tried to engage to improve its human rights record.

I continue to highlight the human rights situations in North Korea and in Burma/Myanmar – reflecting the developments on the ground. I expect the new civilian government in Burma will push ahead with political reforms and reengage with the international community. I hope Aung San Suu Kyi will be finally able to come to this Parliament to receive the Sakharov prize she was awarded 21 years ago.

We continue our efforts to build consensus on freedom of religion or belief. I have also maintained my focus on promoting LBGT rights through the implementation of the EU’s toolbox.

Promoting and protecting the universal rights of freedom of religion, belief and sexual orientation are central to the EU’s approach.

We have also begun work on a campaign on Forced Marriages Mr. President, when I was engaged in taking legislation through on forced marriage in the country I know best, I was surprised to learn that 15% of those who call the help lines on forced marriages are boys: either young boys forced into marriage with a girl they've never met or young gay men forced into marriage for reasons of I don't know what.

In Brussels, we have been working to put in place the arrangements foreseen by the Treaty of Lisbon to put human rights firmly at the centre of our policy. We are committed not only to guarantee but also to promote their universal respect by all.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights has contributed to promoting consistency between the EU's internal and external policies. The EU accession to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms will be a cornerstone for future developments.

With the creation of the EEAS, we have begun to work more closely with the European Parliament, with Member States and civil society. The Department created within the EEAS on human rights and democracy is currently being reviewed to make it more effective. We have established a network of focal points in all EU Delegations that contribute to delivering our EU human rights policy goals.

Mrs Lochbiler met Heads of EU delegations at the beginning of this month and I hope that human rights are at the core of the activities of the people on the ground.

Each of our EU Member States have played their own part to play in bringing their national legislation in the line with EU standards of full compliance with all relevant treaties and conventions on human rights in the wider United Nations framework.

The indivisibility and universality of human rights is increasingly being challenged globally. We will continue to counter this. The ongoing economic crisis, should not be used as a pretext for those who want to dilute certain rights-

All that I have just said has helped to inform the review of EU human rights policy that was first announced before this House. I am pleased that my contribution to the debate will be tabled this week]. I would like to outline some main points about it now.

The text I will table this week is a contribution to an ongoing debate. It is necessarily concise, meaning that not every detail is reflected, but I hope it offers a good basis for future work with Parliament and Council.

A number of MEPs have been involved in the process from the beginning, as when the DROI Chair attended the EU NGO forum in July 2010, which produced a first set of recommendations for inclusion.

Since then there have been various informal meetings and contacts with the Parliament, including of course with the Human Rights Sub-Committee, which contributed greatly to the process. I want to thank Richard Howitt for the work that he has done.

Though much of the discussion about the review of our policy has centred on process, we should also focus on the substance.

Crucially, I want the outcome of the review to deliver a strong reaffirmation of what the EU stands for: the universality of human rights as binding international commitments and norms. The message must continue to go out that human rights are non-negotiable and inviolable.

Against that backdrop, I have identified four main priority areas for action:

First, overhauling the EU's delivery mechanisms. I want to make our policy more effective, adapting it better to the specific circumstances of each country coupled with a global campaign based approach . A key element here is the strengthening of relations with civil society, so that NGOs are better engaged as full partners with the EU.

Second, achieving a joined-up approach in our policies. This is the idea that I have spoken of so often, to break down the traditional silos, and have human rights running as a silver thread through a truly integrated range of external policies.

Third, building strong partnerships, encompassing the whole world: multilaterally - working through the UN and the ICC; regionally - developing work, for example with the Arab League; and bilaterally - through our dialogues.

Fourth, speaking as one, which does not mean with a single voice – rather a coordinated and consistent message; ensuring that the invaluable work of the European Parliament and EU Member States is brought together to the benefit of the whole.

I propose to use thematic campaigns to deliver on specific cross-cutting themes. This has already been done to great effect in support of the ICC and the abolition of the death penalty. I believe the approach can be extended, for example to promote the rights of women, by setting realistic, time limited, achievable, objectives.

I am keen to make the best possible use of tailor-made country strategies on human rights, which should be driven by recommendations made locally. Whilst we should stand firm on the universality of human rights and the global standards that apply to all, I believe this will allow us to deliver more across the board than a one-size-fits-all approach for 150 countries. It should allow us to make the most effective use of our assorted tools, while engaging with due respect with the views of our partners. EU Delegations are well placed to take this forward.

I want to work closely with all my Commission colleagues, to bring human rights fully into the key community policies, such as Development and Trade, building on recent Communications on the future of development (Agenda for Change), budget support, Corporate Social Responsibility and the Neighbourhood Policy.

I agree with you Mrs Lochbiler that the Parliament has a key role to monitor, assess and provide political accountability for the EU’s actions in the human rights field.

Our financial support for human rights must go beyond the EIDHR and should be reflected in other EU’s financial instruments. I will work to ensure that human rights are taken into account consistently in the programming of all EU external financial assistance.

It is clear that in order to be credible when we raise human rights concerns with others, we must make sure that our own house is in order.

I am determined to instil a human rights culture in the EU's emerging diplomatic structures. We already have an active EU training policy, but there is much more to be done in this direction and we are ready to take that forward.

And I am open minded on the idea of the appointing an EU Special Representative for Human Rights to act as a catalyst and to raise our profile internationally.

I look forward to discussing these proposals with you over the coming months and get your views.

This Parliament, this House of democratically elected representatives from all over the EU is a champion of Human Rights, in the EU and in the world. Your reports and your opinions inspire us and help guide our work. It is for this reason the being in front of you today is not merely my obligation, it is my privilege.

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