Statement by Minister of State Roche at the European Parliament on EU preparations for the 60th Session of the UNCHR
As a former UN Human Rights fellow and Chairman of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace , I am particularly pleased that my first address to this Parliament should be on the EU's preparations for the forthcoming session of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The General Affairs and External Relations Council Conclusions of 10 December 2002 contain concrete recommendations as to how the Council and European Parliament can work more closely to achieve openness and transparency in the EU's Human Rights Policy.
The Council is committed to putting those recommendations into practice.
Enhancing the dialogue between Parliament and the Council on human rights issues is an important focus of the Irish Presidency. Today's session is a valuable part of that discourse. This is an area where we can make real progress.
Intrinsic value of human rights
The European Union has always been determined to assume its international responsibilities. The Union's size, wealth, history and geography all point to our playing a prominent role in the period ahead.
Human rights will remain at the heart of that role. A concern for human rights is at the core of European integration. We are more, much more than an economic area or an alliance of convenience. Ours is a Union of values. These values are essential conditions for membership. They are a compass that helps guide our external relations. We are committed to the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for universal and indivisible human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. There can be no compromise or denial of these principles.
Europe has been to the fore in developing the concept of universal human rights.
It was in Europe that the idea of protecting human rights via written norms was elaborated. The Magna Carta (1215), the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) are all landmarks.
The attachment of Europe to human rights is not an abstract one: it was forged in the bitter experiences of European History, our common history. We need only look back on our own history to understand why the Universal Declaration on Human Rights refers in the starkest language to: “... disregard and contempt for human rights” that “have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. That sense of outrage has been used positively in the past half century to construct a Europe that has learned from, and not forgotten, its history.
This Presidency believes strongly that human rights have a strategic part to play in confronting the major challenges of our time. There is no need to emphasise the close relationship between peace, security and stability on the one hand, and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law on the other.
Our Presidency will reflect the central importance of human rights in our external actions.
Our Union can be rightly proud of the achievements of the last 50 years. We must never become complacent. There is
no part of the globe which is absolutely free from human rights abuses. None of us in Europe is without fault. Acts of racism, xenophobia and intolerance, have not yet disappeared in our own societies. Believing in human rights means being ready to accept criticisms and working every day to strengthen respect for the freedoms that we all hold dear. We must remind ourselves each and every day that human rights are not "for export only".
If human rights within the Union are respected absolutely, unquestionably and visibly, our foreign policy will be more effective and persuasive. We will only be in a position to demand respect for the basic principles and values upon which all individual integrity and human decency are founded from the international community when those principles and values apply without equivocation in our Union.
Role of Commission and EU co-operation with UN
The UN Commission on Human Rights has played a pivotal role in the promotion and protection of human rights. It has been the standard-setter establishing monitoring mechanisms. The international community should rightly take pride in the Commission's unique contribution to this
process and to the progress that has been achieved since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While much has been achieved however more remains to be done.
The EU remains committed to co-operating with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN human rights mechanisms, Special Rapporteurs and Representatives as well as Treaty bodies. The EU will reinforce its efforts towards achieving the United Nations Secretary General's goal that the rights of all women, men and children should be “at the heart of every aspect of UN work”.
59th session of Commission on Human Rights
Before addressing the preparations for this year's Commission on Human Rights, I would like to briefly address the outcome of last year's session because it is indicative of the challenges that we face next March and April in Geneva.
The 2003 session of the Commission was challenging. The beginning of the Commission was overshadowed by the looming war in Iraq. That war started during the Commission's second week, yet, remarkably, the atmosphere, while occasionally fractious, was a significant improvement on that of 2002. There was a more positive approach by all groups on a number of issues which had caused serious difficulties previously, most notably the follow up to the Durban World Conference on Racism and the rights of the child.
The return of the US to the Commission was another positive and welcome development.
The EU again played a positive role at the Human Rights Commission. On individual country situations the Union successfully tabled resolutions on the human rights situations in Burma / Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Turkmenistan and North Korea. A resolution on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Arab Territories was also adopted by the Commission.
The EU also agreed a Chair's statement on Colombia.
However, initiatives from the EU on Chechnya and Sudan were defeated and our resolution on Zimbabwe fell to a “No Action” motion.
A number of important EU initiatives fell in 2003. This was in significant part due to the composition of the Commission. It also reflects the unwillingness of some regional groups to accept any condemnation of their members. It also reflects very large number of proposals coming from the EU.
Turning to thematic resolutions, the EU initiatives on the death penalty and the rights of the child were adopted by the Commission. One of the more emotive issues addressed at the Commission, a Brazilian resolution on Human Rights and Sexual Orientation, which was co-sponsored by the EU ran into vigorous objection in particular from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. This issue was remitted to the 60th session of the Commission and is likely to be very sensitive in the forthcoming session.
African Group opposition to Western Group nomination of Australia as Chair
Before turning to the EU's preparations for the forthcoming Commission I wish to mention the decision by the African Group in Geneva to challenge the nomination of Australia as Chair of the session.
In line with the current system of geographical rotation, the Western Group has nominated Australia as its candidate for Chair of the next session of the Commission on Human Rights. The African Group in Geneva have indicated that they intend to call for a vote. We are very concerned about this development and its negative impact on the Commission on Human Rights. Australia enjoys the full support and endorsement of the EU and all other members of the Western Group. Accordingly, the EU has called on the African Group to reflect on their decision in advance of the election which is due on 19 January next.
I hope that the African Group can be dissuaded from calling for a vote on the Chair of the Commission. In making this call I am guided by the need to work constructively with the African Group at the forthcoming session of the Commission on Human Rights and to improve relations with the Group generally in that forum.
Preparations for forthcoming session of the Commission on Human Rights
Against the background outlined above, I would like to give you as much information as I can about the current state of the Council's preparations for the Commission on Human Rights.
Time does not permit me to touch on every aspect of the Commission's work. However I do wish to share with the Parliament the essence of our approach as Presidency.
At a general level, the Human Rights Working Group – COHOM - has been working since last Autumn on improving the Union's performance based on our experience from last year's session.
The first meeting of the Human Rights Working Group (COHOM) of the Irish Presidency will take place on 21 January next. In advance of that meeting, the various Common Foreign and Security Policy geographical working groups have been asked to present their priorities and recommendations for action this year. With the help of this input the Human Rights Working Group meeting on 21 January will identify countries which may form the subject of EU initiatives at this year's Commission. COHOM is also likely to request detailed reports from EU Heads of Mission on the human rights situation in these countries.
I should stress that no final decision on any initiatives has been taken. The Human Rights Working Group will take a final decision at a further meeting on 4 February next. If there are any particularly controversial issues outstanding, these will be considered by the Political and Security Committee, and if necessary, be decided at Council level.
The expressions of the Union's concerns in regard to the human rights situations in countries will not be confined to formal resolutions.
In the traditional statement under agenda item 9 – human rights situations in various parts of the world, the EU will refer to a number of country situations in the context of a thematic approach. The Presidency intends to keep this draft as concise and targeted as possible to ensure its maximum impact.
Another effective approach is the type of human rights dialogue that the Union has entered into with China and Iran.
As regards thematic resolutions, again no final decision has been taken. However, the EU is again likely to table resolutions on the death penalty and on children's rights.
Preparations have also begun for a number of EU statements, including one on the follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights, Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, the right to development, Economic, Social and Cultural rights, civil and political rights, integration of the human rights of women and the gender perspective, Rights of the Child, Contemporary forms of slavery and Human Rights Defenders. This list is by no means exhaustive. It does give you some indication of the very thorough engagement which is envisaged by the EU in this year's Commission on Human Rights.
The timing of this session of the Parliament is welcome because it means that the Human Rights Working Group will be in a position to take into account the deliberations of the Parliament in framing the Union's priorities for the Commission. The European Parliament's suggestions as to initiatives are most welcome.
A major aim of our Presidency is to achieve a fruitful and effective session of the Commission. The climate of confrontation which increasingly characterises debate in the Commission on Human Rights is a problem which we will address with Partners. It is a problem that must be resolved. A distraction that the Commission does not need.
The actions of the European Union in the field of human rights are clearly perceived by part of the international community as being suspect. Unfortunately, the very principle of the universality of human rights and the conviction that they cannot be constrained or limited by any social, economic and/or cultural exception are being called into question. Ireland will work to counter this perception during our Presidency.
I would like to conclude by reiterating the importance and central position of the question of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the Union's external relations policy. Peace, security and international stability are founded on full respect for fundamental rights. This is not empty rhetoric: it reflects the objective recognition of a reality that that should be clear to all. It is also a reality that is destined to have an ever more decisive influence on Governments' external policy choices. It must also inform the strategies of international organisations.
In conclusion, I wish to thank the Parliament for the opportunity to outline the Council's preparations for the 60th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights and look forward to further developing the dialogue between the Council and Parliament, in this vital area, which is so close to the heart of all democrats.