“We want to see improvements in the human rights situation in Viet Nam”

10.12.2012 - Interview

Interview with Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner Markus Löning, currently on a visit to Viet Nam. Löning also wants to see changes in European asylum and refugee policy. Broadcast on Deutschlandfunk on 10 December 2012


Today, 10 December, is Human Rights Day. At the suggestion of Amnesty International, a human rights organization, some people today put a lighted candle in their windows to draw attention to all the people who can’t freely exercise these rights. Markus Löning, the Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner, is on a visit to Viet Nam, where he is now on the telephone. Good morning!

Good morning!

Mr Löning, what do you hope to achieve in Viet Nam?

Firstly, I want to discuss with the Government the very things you’ve just mentioned: freedom of expression, political prisoners – for they do exist in Viet Nam – censorship and the lack of religious freedom. The classic political freedoms are clearly subject to restrictions here. So I want to explain Germany’s views on this to the Vietnamese Government. And I’ll also be talking to a number of former political prisoners, dissidents, people who speak out courageously on these things.

Human rights are generally the last thing governments in countries with problems in this area want to talk about. What’s it like, to sit down for talks with representatives of these governments? From the sound of it, you’re still at the airport in Hanoi, but could you give me an idea of what line you plan to take? Plain speaking or a more diplomatic, softly-softly approach?

It’s really always a combination of both. Further developing and intensifying our relations with Viet Nam is in our national interest. This has both agreeable and disagreeable sides. One of the disagreeable sides is the human rights situation. It’s my job to explain to our Vietnamese partners that intensifying our relations means we want to see an improved human rights situation in precisely the areas I mentioned: freedom of expression, democracy and the rule of law as well as on issues with direct relevance to Germany and trade – things like shopfloor conditions, conditions in the factories, how employees here are treated.

So tell us how these talks work. Is it a matter of saying: if you commit to so and so, then we’ll do such and such?

No. It’s not a matter of “if ..., then …” at all. In these talks we make it very clear that we’re looking for progress, that we expect Viet Nam to live up to the international commitments it has made – it has ratified a host of UN conventions, after all – and meet its obligations. That’s exactly what we urge the country to do and we offer our help in developing the justice sector, for example, by providing training and other forms of assistance. But the political initiative must come from here. We point out what’s needed but without any “if …, then ...”. We don’t threaten with the big stick, we simply make clear that our relations will only flourish and thrive if the human rights situation, too, shows some improvement.

Is plain speaking by Germany on these matters a function of a country’s size and importance?I imagine there might be a difference here between Viet Nam and, let’s say, China.

Firstly, it’s clear that in all parts of the world Germany’s voice counts. Given our political and economic standing, what we say carries weight everywhere. Just recently I was told yet again – this time by Chinese dissidents – that what Germany says has an impact.

But does it also have consequences ?

Ai Weiwei tells us it was due also to pressure from us Germans that he was released from prison. And others, too, have told me, reported back that yes, during my time behind bars I noticed the difference, my family was not harassed, I received better treatment, I got out when I was supposed to get out, I wasn’t kept even longer in detention. So it certainly does have consequences, sometimes directly visible ones, sometimes ones that aren’t so directly visible. But the important thing is that we keep putting across a very clear message. We want our partners to respect human rights, we want to see improvements in the human rights situation. That’s the message we keep putting across, irrespective of what partner we’re dealing with. What we say to every partner is tailored to the situation in that particular country. We point to the specific deficits in the country in question.

Mr Löning, today the European Union is being presented in Oslo with the Nobel Peace Prize. But according to the human rights organization Amnesty International, especially the asylum and refugee policy of the EU’s 27 member countries is unworthy of a Nobel Prize. And let’s remember the appalling conditions in reception camps in many EU countries, the very limited opportunities for people to enter the EU legally, families torn apart by the deportation of some of their members – these are things we also see here in Germany. Is all that still Nobel Prize-worthy?

I can understand Amnesty’s criticism and up to a point I agree with it. The way we treat refugees in many parts of the European Union is really not decent. We need to do better. That goes for Germany, too. I’m thinking here of the debates we’ve seen over recent weeks and months triggered by the arrival of a few thousand people. But it’s important to realize, too, that the European Union is the most successful exercise there’s ever been in achieving lasting human rights improvements in a great many countries. Think of Portugal, Greece, Spain, three right wing dictatorships that now have democracy and the rule of law. Think of all the Eastern European countries where human rights have been respected for many years now and which have made remarkable progress here.If you look at the human rights situation in Poland, let’s say, and compare that with the situation in Ukraine and Belarus, then it’s clear what a huge difference the European Union has made in this area.

Does this mean that in future you may be making clear to your colleagues in the government – of which you’re a member, after all – what perhaps needs changing in Germany’s asylum and refugee policy?

On refugee issues I’ve always taken a very clear stand. I’ve been to see refugee camps of course, but I’ve also repeatedly pointed out that we as Germans, given the freedom and prosperity we enjoy, have a moral obligation to help people in tough situations. This is something we can do and should do. And we shouldn’t keep having hysterical debates and making allegations that simply have no basis in fact. Taking in a few hundred or a few thousand people is no problem for Germany, we should go ahead and do it.

That was Markus Löning, the Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner (FDP). As listeners might have guessed, we caught up with him at the airport in Hanoi.Mr Löning, thank you very much for managing to speak to us.

My pleasure. Thank you!

Good bye.

The questions were put by Doris Simon. Reproduced here by kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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