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Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier during the Bundestag debate on the topic "Strengthening the European Union's human rights policy"

30.11.2006 - Speech

Mr President. Members of the Bundestag. The fact that today's debate on the human rights situation should have a prime slot in the parliamentary week sends out a signal which will be understood in the public. Let me assure you that the Federal Government and the Federal Foreign Minister also understand its significance.

Kofi Anna recently tried to come up with a succinct formula for the importance of human rights policy. He said: we will not enjoy development without security, we will not enjoy security without development, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights. This same relationship is the guiding principle for the human rights policy of the Federal Government and the Federal Foreign Minister.

As representatives of our country, we are committed to promoting and defending human rights consistently, in our bilateral relations, in multilateral institutions and in the European Union. This I will return to shortly. I believe it is fair to say that, over the years, German human rights policy has developed some unmistakeable hallmarks. What we advocate is the universality of human rights. We oppose attempts to relativize these on the grounds of cultural tradition or low levels of development. We advocate the indivisibility of human rights, the political, economic and social sort as well as the cultural kind.

One current example of this is the German-Spanish initiative we have heard about, which seeks to ensure a universal right to water. Just a few days ago, the new United Nations Human Rights Council expressed its unanimous approval of this project, which received considerable support from every region of the world.

We are also committed to opposing discrimination in any form, just as we are to opposing racism and intolerance on religious or other grounds. We wish to resolve specific human rights problems as far as possible through dialogue and cooperation. As all of you are aware, discretion is often the better part of valour. But it is of course equally clear that we must see serious and systematic violations of human rights for what they are, and describe them as such.

In taking on the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 January 2007, Germany will, on the one hand, adopt a leading role in the field of protecting human rights in this arena too. Let me assure you that we will do our utmost to ensure that the European Union accedes to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as we have envisaged during discussions on the European Constitutional Treaty.

On the other hand, of course, we will be involved in creating appropriate conditions for the work of the new European Fundamental Rights Agency. There have been lengthy discussions on this. Ultimately, we, the Federal Government, decided to support the idea to set up the Fundamental Rights Agency. But we take the reservations of the German Bundestag very seriously – this is why I mention this here – and are making considerable efforts in Brussels to ensure that the project does not overlap with other types of human rights bodies or, most importantly, result in confusion as to competencies. I believe – and I know that many here share my views – that the Fundamental Rights Agency should complement the Council of Europe effectively without duplicating its activities.

The EU's international human rights policy has become a visible element, indeed a hallmark, of European policy. In discussions with third countries today, the European Union almost always speaks with a single voice where human rights are concerned.

It can only do this credibly when we in Europe also make efforts to protect human rights. This is why, for example, we send human rights observers along on the missions which take place as part of the European Security and Defence Policy. These observers are charged with ensuring that human rights are respected, not only by third parties, but also by European personnel. As part of the German Council Presidency, we will continue to call for the abolition of the death penalty and rigorously oppose torture and the use of child soldiers.

This includes establishing clear positions with regard to the protection of human rights when combating terrorism. It is precisely because we condemn terrorism so strongly that we must be sure to observe human rights and the rule of law in fighting it.

As German Foreign Minister, I will in the coming six months be required to, and intend to, hold numerous dialogues on human rights and consultations between the European Union and third countries. These will of course also serve as an opportunity – and I say this precisely in view of the motions we are dealing here today – to highlight and discuss the situation of Christians and religious minorities. I for one will make efforts – and we will work towards this ‑ since this is an important aim – to establish the sort of dialogue which the EU has now begun with China with other states – perhaps eventually even Iran, a state to which we currently seem to be bound only by conflict and deep-rooted problems.

The negotiations on a strategic partnership with Russia, which will hopefully still take place –this is currently being discussed in Europe as you know – will, and indeed, will have to, include a comprehensive treatment of human rights issues. We will of course insist that any extension of the strategic partnership between Europe and Russia should entail an extension of democracy and the rule of law.

The same of course goes for – and I say this in the wake of my visit to Central Asia – the initiative which Europe is planning as part of its Central Asia policy. I hope that we will be able to open human rights-related dialogue with Uzbekistan during the German Presidency. I can assure you that I myself experienced during my visit to Central Asia just how difficult such talks are and how much tenacity is needed to bring them forward. But I also saw that talks of this kind can bring rewards. Following my visit, for example, the Uzbek Government released a journalist whose case we had discussed. He had been sentenced to six years in prison. The Government has now announced that the International Red Cross will once again be allowed access to Uzbek prisons. It has also agreed to enter into human rights-related dialogue with the EU. But do not misunderstand me: the accusations regarding the events in Andijan remain as serious as ever. If, however, these announcements lead to concrete policy, this would be a step forward.

The third and perhaps most important task we face involves the newly-created United Nations Human Rights Council. As you know, Germany has, at the request of a number of parties, been a member of the Council right from the start, and can thus help to shape the framework conditions for its work. In this way, it may be possible that this new committee will enjoy more credibility than the former Commission on Human Rights had at the end of its period of activity.

I would like to say with all due caution that current experiences in the Human Rights Council show how much work is still needed to convince some parties of our understanding of human rights. We are currently witnessing the ever more confident rise of a group of states in which there are deficits regarding the protection of human rights, a development which challenges our understanding of human rights. As previous votes quite clearly show, our vision of human rights often simply does not have a majority in the Human Rights Council.

This tendency indicates that globalization is bringing with it shifts in the balance of power which do not facilitate work for international bodies concerned with the protection of human rights. But this does not diminish our resolve. Rather it gives us greater reason, together with the other European states which are members of the Human Rights Council – namely all of them – to further focus our efforts on protecting human rights.

President Norbert Lammert: Mr Minister, will you take a question from our colleague, Bundestag member Däubler-Gmelin?

Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Yes.

President Norbert Lammert: Please go ahead.

Herta Däubler-Gmelin (SPD): Mr Minister, you are probably as concerned as we are to see that one of the problems of the Human Rights Council concerns voting practices. Votes tend to be cast on a regional basis, whereby regions orientate themselves towards what we, according to our understanding of human rights, would call the countries “most behind”, rather than towards human rights themselves, whether by our definition or a more global one.

Now we are seeing the European Union following this same practice of bloc voting. Can you see how this practice might be made a little less rigid during the coming six months of the German Presidency, how we might achieve greater European self-awareness in human rights policy? Can you see how, it might be possible, as it was during negotiations on the Rome Statute, to reach an agreement with like-minded countries from other continents which is oriented towards human rights issues and not the policy of individual regions?

Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Ms Däubler-Gmelin, that was a focus of the speech which I gave at the inauguration of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Let me assure you that I will make great efforts to this end during the six months of Germany's Presidency of the European Union. I hope that it will be possible to halt the occasional manifestations of individual loyalties among Member States towards some regions, a practice which hinders a united European vote in the Human Rights Council, and demonstrate a more unified European stance in future.

This is just one requirement; but there are others. We must also fight to preserve the system of special rapporteurs, since they provide us with a reliable description of the human rights situation in individual problematic countries. We need to develop a reliable system to obtain regular information on the human rights situation in every country. Thank you for your question.

If I might make one last comment: we must create the conditions for these elements in the Human Rights Council together with the other European states. We can only do this – and this applies to the last point, too – if the agenda for Human Rights Council meetings allows for more than lengthy debate on the Middle East conflict alone. We must significantly extend the spectrum of topics which are dealt with in the Human Rights Council in the weeks and months to come.

In all of these efforts – and this includes those to establish suitable conditions for the work of the Human Rights Council – I count on your support, the support of the German Bundestag.

Thank you.

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