“Human rights policy requires staying-power” - Interview with Markus Löning, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid

Markus Löning talks about his priorities as Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights: an end to capital punishment, universal respect for human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of the media, and a key role for human rights in Europe’s foreign and security policy.

There’s been a Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy since 1998. Your predecessors include such diverse personalities as Günter Nooke, Tom Koenigs and Claudia Roth. How will you be making your mark in your new post?

Human rights policy requires staying-power and hard, unrelenting toil. And I’m convinced it’s vital for our international credibility that we make human rights an integral part of our foreign and development policy. This is something to which the German Government is clearly committed. That means we must campaign harder than ever for the death penalty to be abolished in all parts of the world. This is an issue that must be raised again and again with the authorities in countries like China, Iran or Iraq. And it’s also unacceptable that countries to which we give large sums in development aid should systematically violate human rights. I’m not arguing for willy-nilly aid cuts. But we do need to point out to those in charge that oppression is not something we can tolerate. That applies particularly to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, often the first target of oppressive regimes.

Where do you see the greatest challenges right now for human rights policy?

There’s certainly no lack of challenges. Two areas are of particular importance, I feel. Firstly, we must emphasize both in international bodies and in our bilateral relations with other countries that human rights are universal and apply the world over. That means we must take a clear stand against any attempt to water them down. Secondly, I see freedom of expression and the media as a human right that highlights many issues of great relevance to today’s world, for this is a right that must be respected by not only governments but notably also by large companies such as google. And of course it’s a challenge to gear our work more than was the case in the past to information sources like youtube or facebook. However, the biggest challenge facing our human rights policy is still how to improve the situation of those who are victims of human rights abuses. That will be the measure of our success.

You’ve long experience of European affairs. Do you think Europe’s really pulling its weight on human rights?

The Treaty of Lisbon certainly strengthens the EU’s common foreign and security policy (CFSP) as an instrument. But how effective it will be in practice will depend, I believe, on whether human rights have a key role to play in this new CFSP architecture. They are the EU’s cultural core. It’s my firm belief the EU will develop its own profile in foreign policy only if it views protecting human rights as a key dimension of its foreign policy competence. And I see it as my job to drive this message home in Brussels.

German foreign policy aspires to be both value-based and interest-oriented. Is this always possible in practice?

They’re both entirely compatible, as I see it. It’s in our own best interest that our foreign policy should reflect the values we believe in, the values also our Basic Law requires us to uphold. Take economic policy, for example. It’s often claimed there’s a contradiction between what we want for German business as well as people in Germany in the form of jobs and our human rights goals. I believe that’s quite wrong. For if we want to ensure an attractive long-term investment environment and markets for German companies abroad, stability is of the essence. And that is something ultimately no dictatorship can offer. Countries that respect and protect human rights are not only our best partners but also the best partners for German business.

As Federal Government Commissioner you’re responsible not only for human rights but also for humanitarian aid. In recent years the need for humanitarian aid has been growing all over the world, natural disasters have had ever graver consequences. Where do you see the biggest challenges for the future?

I don’t think I can give any definitive answers as yet. But I have the impression that the earthquake in Haiti gives us some pointers as to the strategic direction we should be heading in over the next few years. We need to step up prevention especially in regions where there are multiple factors that could exacerbate humanitarian problems – poverty, for example, and especially what Amnesty International calls the plight of the cities, where infrastructure is completely lacking. The impact of climate change is certainly also a factor. It makes sense here in my view for all actors to work together – both on disaster prevention and disaster management. Humanitarian aid during the acute phase and long-term development cooperation need to be effectively dovetailed.

Last updated 06.04.2010

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