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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 report on Human rights in the world and the EU's policy on the matter

European Parliament

Strasbourg, 17 April 2012

Since 1983, when the European Parliament began adopting an annual report and resolution on human rights, this House has done more than any EU institution to focus on the issue.

So while we may sometimes disagree about how best to champion the respect for human rights globally, we stand united in our aim: to see a freer world, where people's dignity is respected – wherever they may be from– and for the EU, and the External Action Service in particular, to play a key role in supporting people's struggle for their rights.

Allow me now to turn to the report before us today by Richard Howitt.

First of all, I want to congratulate Mr Howitt for achieving a consensus across the political spectrum on his report.

The report is essential reading for me, my colleagues in the Commission and my colleagues in the Council. The very first paragraph of the Howitt report is about coherence between the internal and external policies of the EU – one of the main themes of my Communication of December. This is a particularly important theme for the Parliament this week, since on Thursday you will hear statements from the Council and Commission on EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights.

"Coherence" might sound dry, but it simply means seeing that human rights are woven into everything we do, in Europe and beyond. It means making sure that people everywhere benefit from the same universal rights, regardless of who they are or where they live.

I’d like to highlight two themes where we must uphold the universality of human rights:

Role of women – I met Michelle Bachelet yesterday to talk about the role of women and to sign our agreement with UN Women.

Discrimination against people of faith, including Christians, as well as those who have no religious belief. Tolerance is at the root of the EU. That is why the EU needs to strengthen its policy on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, which is so fundamental to a free society.

The Howitt Report also underlines the need for Accountability.

This is vital - especially in the most serious situations. That is why the EU works continuously for the widest possible ratification, acceptance, approval or accession to the Rome Statute. This work is making progress. So far, the EU has signed three bilateral agreements including ICC clauses; it has initialled another three; and it is negotiating another 15. The EU has also included ICC clauses in many of its ENP Action Plans.

The EU has the power to promote human rights through its engagement by placing countries and regimes on a range that runs from engagement to isolation.

The scale of the challenges facing human rights remains huge.

Human Rights have never been more important or driven so many changes:

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, men and women, young and old, representing the whole of society, have found the courage within themselves to assert their fundamental human rights. Some of them gave their lives for freedom, dignity and a better future. I should like to pay tribute to them now.

The changes that they brought about have required the EU to develop a new response to a changing neighbourhood, and we have risen to this challenge. Human rights and deep democracy have been at the heart of this new approach. Our partnership with our neighbours is all the stronger and healthier for it.

Work at the UN Human Rights Council, can help to reinforce and support such positive and domestically-driven developments.

ts 19th session, which concluded on 28 March, the EU resolution on Syria was adopted with a record vote of 41 in favour, out of as possible 47. The EU's resolution on human rights in Burma/Myanmar was adopted by consensus, as was the EU resolution on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The session was a success for the rights of individuals who too often find themselves marginalised and ostracised. The successful Panel on 'Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity' was a remarkable achievement, for which all credit is due to South African leadership. Together with Ban-Ki Moon.

It us unacceptable that 80 States still criminalise same sex relations between consenting adults, and that seven even foresee the death penalty. This is incompatible with international human rights law.

It was important that Barbara Lochbihler and Laima Andrikiene were able to attend the HRC, where they addressed EU Heads of Mission, and met with a wide range of international representatives. This was just another example of the important role that the European Parliament plays in promoting human rights in the world.

My Communication of last December was designed as a contribution to the ongoing discussion within and between the EU institutions on a more effective and comprehensive approach to human rights and democracy. Now that you have had time to consider its proposals, I look forward to discussing with you the shape of our future strategy.

As I confirmed at AFET on 20 March, work is in hand to pave the way for appointment of a Special Representative for Human Rights as part of a package to put into practice the Joint Communication. It is important that this person be somebody with a strong track record and on in international human rights.

At the same time, as was discussed at the Gymnich meeting, we want to agree a political declaration on what we want to achieve. And we want to have an action plan for how to put this into practice. This will bring together new initiatives, and others already launched. I am happy to confirm that the network of human rights focal points is nearly complete: 116 EU Delegations already have one, and many have two, in both their political and cooperation sections.

On all of this, I want to work closely with you. The review of EU human rights policy was first announced in this House. The appointment of a Special Representative was championed by this House. So it is natural that ongoing work on human rights and democracy should be in full cooperation with this House. I have written to the chair of the Human Rights Sub Committee Barbara Lochbihler to ask her to work with me to ensure the fullest possible participation in the drafting of the Joint Declaration.

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