Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during the debate in the Bundestag about the Human Rights Report of the Federal Government

12.12.2019 - Speech

When we talk about progress, we are sometimes guilty of deluding ourselves in dangerous fashion. When the body of human rights was first anchored 71 years ago using the words indivisible, inalienable and universal, this was a huge step forward. There can be no doubt we have achieved much in the meantime in our efforts to make this vision a reality.

However, there is sometimes a tendency to simply take the progress we have made for granted. Recent years have shown above all else that nothing is automatic when it comes to progress on human rights. In fact, what we are seeing now is a worrying pushback, what is more, all around the world. In a growing number of countries – yes, also in the West – human rights are coming under increasing pressure.

To see how far we are from real universality of human rights, we need only glance at the many conflicts we are currently dealing with: prisoners in Syria are tortured to death. More than a million Uighurs are interned in camps in China. The voicing of critical opinions is brutally suppressed, for example in Venezuela. My speaking time is simply not long enough to continue this list.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Simply lamenting this pushback is little help. Rather, what we need is new resolve not merely to defend human rights, but to expand and strengthen them. We saw for ourselves how difficult this can be in April when we had the presidency of the United Nations Security Council. In that chamber, we saw persistent endeavours to call the unquestionable into question when negotiating a resolution on the fight against sexual violence in conflict, and what is more, these endeavours were coming from countries we would never have expected to take such a stance. However, the resolution was eventually successfully adopted. This shows that even when things get tough, it is still worth working everywhere to promote human rights, above all else at the United Nations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The fight for human rights is one we need to continue with resolve. We will do precisely that, particularly from January 2020 when we have seats in both the Human Rights Council and the Security Council of the United Nations. For us, this is an opportunity and one we want to use.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The major challenges of our time, whether the digital transformation, globalisation, migration or climate change, do not just ignore borders but in fact all have a massive impact on the implementation of human rights worldwide. The only possible response to this is that we need something akin to an alliance for human rights at international level. We launched such an alliance here in Berlin on Tuesday at a major conference in the Federal Foreign Office held as part of the Alliance for Multilateralism.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we want to remain able to act, it is important for us to present a more united front in Europe. Only if we in the European Union take a clear position on human rights issues will we be able to successfully defend these values and above all keep hold of our credibility. That is why we didn’t just preach this at the last meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council but we actually launched a project to up the European Union’s credibility, namely a sanctions regime to counter human rights violations. This is an area where the European Union can do more and in the future it will do more. That is what we agreed.

Ladies and gentlemen,

However, credibility also means being credible at national level. The world believes in Germany’s ability to play a leading role to strengthen human rights. This is a role we want to play. To do so, we need to be credible. We need not just to point the finger at others but to ensure that we ourselves achieve the goals we have set at national level.

The current Human Rights Report of the Federal Government shows that we cannot simply rest on our laurels. The first Interim Report on the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights just made this plain. More than half of the companies are not yet meeting the criteria laid down in the National Action Plan. Just under a fifth of companies are currently performing human rights due diligence.

That is why, ladies and gentlemen, we have started to talk about potential statutory regulations – not as a method of state control but as a way of rewarding good behaviour on the part of companies and calling the black sheep to account. That, too, has something to do with credibility.

Ladies and gentlemen,

But, taking it further, this is also not enough because no country can solve these problems by itself. That is why we hope to create a European Union action plan on responsible corporate governance. Our EU Council Presidency next year will be a good opportunity to move this forward.

Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle once deemed the greatest enemy of progress to be inertia. He was right. We cannot sit back and relax but we need to keep working around the world for what was formulated 71 years ago: human rights for all – universal, inalienable and indivisible.

Thank you very much.


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