Human Rights: Opening speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the 24th EU-NGO Forum on Human Rights

14.12.2022 EEAS Press Team

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Good morning to all of you. 

Many thanks, [EU Special Representative for Human Rights] Eamon [Gilmore], for your introduction, and nice words. 

I am very glad to be here with all of you and at the [EU-NGO Forum on Human Rights]. 

Three years ago – already three years ago, I remember very well - this was my first meeting with you in person. And after, the COVID-19 [pandemic] came, and we have not been able to have this meeting in the last two years. But here we are again. 

It was during my first day as High Representative - my first speech was here, at this Forum. It was my second event. My first event was to go to Les Invalides in Paris for the burial of 13 French soldiers killed in Mali. Then, the first public event in which I had the possibility of taking the floor and addressing the people as I am doing right now, was here - it was at this Forum. 

But it was three years ago, and many things have happened since then and not many of them for good. Let’s have a look at what has happened in these three years. Regrettably, [I am] sorry to say, I am not playing Cassandra, but most has not been good. Most have been negative.  

The human rights situation today in the world is much worse than [it was] three years ago. Allow me to summarise some facts that illustrate this very dire consideration, this very dire assessment.  

First, came the COVID-19. The COVID-19 is being said [to have] produced 6 million deaths - in fact, nobody knows how many. You have a look at the figures, and you see, “China – 5,000 [deaths]” - it is no reason for being skeptical. 

The Economist has a tracker that is being updated every day, where they follow the number of COVID-19 deaths: not only by the official figures but doing an analysis of extra mortality - how many people died comparing it with the five last years – the extra mortality caused by the COVID-19. They do that country by country, and the figure they present us is not 6 [million deaths], it is 20 million. It is an estimation. 6 [million] is our official figure but certainly, you can imagine how many people dying for COVID-19 have not been recorded in the official figures. They estimate 20 million, and in China, certainly, many more than this incredible 5,000 [deaths]. By the way, in China today, there is a big wave of new people dying.  

So, the COVID-19 is still not finished – one big tragedy from the point of view of people being killed. Is this a matter of Human rights? Yes, it is a matter of Human rights, certainly.  

The human rights consequences of the pandemic are still with us. For example, using data collection with the excuse of controlling the disease, as a new method of surveillance. Yes, it has happened and unhappily, it will stay there. “Let’s control the disease” – and in fact, “let’s control people.” 

The second big event against human rights is what happened against Belarus, in [the] summer [of] 2020. I remember very well.  Well, Belarus means that today [there] is about 1,500 people, opponents, in jail – quite a big number. Recently, [Alexander] Lukashenko released some of these prisoners, but we estimate that there are still 1,500 people arrested because they fight in the streets and they protest against a fake election. 

In Myanmar. Today, we are going to have the EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit. Myanmar will not be sitting among us.

I have been talking yesterday with several Ministers [of Foreign Affairs] of the Indo-Pacific countries and asked them about what is happening in Myanmar. All of them were very much skeptical about the possibility of recovering democracy in Myanmar. Brutal repression has completely vanished any hope for democracy to come back soon. And Myanmar is one of the biggest repression in the world. There is not a lot of news about Myanmar, and I hope that during this EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit, we will put the situation in Myanmar high on our agenda. 

As a result of this military coup, we estimate that 1,000 people [have been] killed, 4,500 [people are] in jail and during the protests, more than 6,000 people [have been] arrested. But the situation in Myanmar is today as dire as it was at the beginning. It is not news in the European press, certainly not – Myanmar, nobody talks about it. But these numbers are certainly staggering and the brutality of the military junta. Well, all military juntas are brutal, everywhere, every time. 

Then, one thing that has kept me very busy, very sorry and very frustrated is Ethiopia. Not enough people talk about it. We do not talk a lot about Ethiopia. Yes, from time to time, when there are peace discussions. But what is happening in Tigray is the deadliest war. We complain rightly about what is happening in Ukraine, but what is happening in Ethiopia is really awful. The figures that we have is that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are being killed. Can you imagine? And most of them by famine – not fighting, but by famine, cutting humanitarian support, cutting electricity, cutting any kind of public services. And that, for months and months. I remind you that this is being done by a government whose Prime Minister is a Nobel Prize laureate. 

We went to Ethiopia for the first visit of the College of the Commissioners, because Ethiopia was a light of hope in Africa and the Ethiopian government was presented as one who made peace in Tigray with the Eritreans, and things looked very good. Some months later, the war started. You can discuss politically who is to be blamed for the reasons for the war to start, but the result is that for months and months there has been a continuous violation of human rights at a massive scale. We talk about 800,000 people being killed. There is not such a mortality in any other place in the world caused by a war. 

In Afghanistan, the Talibans returned to power and we can see all the appalling consequences. Remember, last Summer – not this last Summer, the other one -, with the fall of Kabul. Kabul was in the front pages of all newspapers. It was very interesting to see people running to the planes and trying to get a place in the plane, and grasping the wings of the plane, and falling. This was like a movie, no? And everybody was watching that.  

Then, Kabul fell and now, Afghanistan has disappeared from the front pages. Nobody talks about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is still there, and we have people in Kabul, and we spend a lot of money trying to provide humanitarian support to the Afghan people. But you cannot feed 40 million people – maybe you can feed some of them, but you cannot bring the girls to school. And this is for me, the most frustrating thing that has happened.

At the beginning, the Taliban promised us that they were not preventing the girls from going to school. It was part of the first discussions and the first talks about a [minimal] engagement with this government. But they have completely unfulfilled their promises, and now the situation in Afghanistan is really appalling. Girls are denied their education, and this is putting the foundations for an awful future – not only for the girls, but for the whole country. And the other day, they were saying – the Taliban government said – that they were going to erase women from society. It is difficult for me to understand how this perversion can invade the minds of the people; how can women be confined in their homes; how can they be publicly lashed in executions. This is again the reality in Afghanistan. 

Then, the war has returned to Europe with this war in Ukraine. The Russian army made the war, tried to win the war. They were pushed back. They have been rejected. And now, what we witness in Ukraine is no longer a war, in the sense of armies fighting each other on the frontline and soldiers being killed in a face-to-face confrontation. No, what we see in Ukraine is not a battlefield between armies. It is simply the destruction of a country systematically, the destruction of all civilian infrastructures that allow people to live. Not the soldiers in the battlefield, but people in their houses – no electricity, no water, no heating. Millions of people being thrown into the darkness and the cold. 

One can discuss: “What were the political reasons? What happened in the nineties? Did the West managed well the post-Soviet era or not?” You can discuss whatever you want but nothing justifies putting millions of people in the cold and in the darkness in the middle of winter.

This is an assassination of millions of people by the cold.  

And this happened: civilians are being shelled, bombing any facility, cutting electricity. Can you imagine? 10 degrees below zero without glass on the window, without electricity, no heating, no water. This, certainly, is a war crime. 

I have been in Bucha. I have seen what happened there. What is happening now is less noticeable because you do not see corps in the streets killed by bullets. But it is much more awful because it makes hundreds of thousands of people facing [the risk of] being frozen or [forced] to leave. And they will have to leave.  

You see forced deportations, kidnapping of children and this, unhappily, will continue during the winter.  This is a clear violation of humanitarian law. You can say whatever you want. You can have more or less sympathy for one political regime or [another]. But nothing justifies what Putin is doing in Ukraine. And I think that this Forum has to discuss about it, has to have this issue – Ukraine – very high in your agenda. 

And Ethiopia also, please. Pay a lot of attention to what is happening in Ethiopia. 

Well, there is a lot of work to be done. We need to stand for democracy, for human rights, for free media – abroad and here – and defend them from the attacks. 

Every time I go and travel around the world, there are some sentences that are part of my speeches: fight against corruption, fight against disinformation and protect the rule of law. It is something that comes automatically to my mind: fight against corruption. Well, [the] fight against corruption is something that has to be done at home, here. 

It looks like corruption is a bad grass. It grows everywhere and we need to be controlling everything.  

I remember one socialist politician in the 19th century in Spain who said: “to fight against corruption, you have to be continuously surveying people; you have to nominate the best one, and then you have to survey them as if they were not”.

And, what has happened in the European Parliament – we should not hide it – shows how serious it is, how important this issue is for our political system. And, then, when [you] see people laughing at us, saying: “ha ha, you were complaining about corruption in my country, and look what is happening in your country”. Well, at least here we discover [it] and we act, and there is accountability. It is a big difference. 

We have to be very vigilant. What has happened in the European Parliament – I am a former President of the European Parliament – shows how important and how serious this issue is.  

Our external credibility depends a lot on how we will be dealing with that. And, remember, corruption needs someone who corrupts and someone [who is] being corrupted, a couple. Someone is not a “corrupt” but is a “corruptor”. And we have to fight both sides.

On this dire scenario – it is the way it is – we have been trying to do our part. The European Union has been trying to do its part in order to fight against it.  

First, allow me to say that I am happy to be enabled to introduce the Global Human Rights Sanction Regime. I was asked for it during my hearing at the European Parliament. We needed a Global Human Rights Sanction Regime, we have it. We have the legal instrument. We agreed with the Member States. It was not easy but now this legal instrument exists, and we have started using it. 

Now we can go after any violation of human rights everywhere in the world. We do not need a specific legal framework for each specific country. We have – across the board – one that can be used everywhere. And we have used it on Monday, at the Foreign Affairs Council. We used [it] for sanctions on Iranian authorities for the brutal crackdown on the brave women in Iran and for the “legal assassination” – the death penalty – for a couple of demonstrators and for the tragic death of Mahsa Amini. 

We have prolonged the sanctions against the Chinese individuals and entities responsible for the mass detention and persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang. We have been using all our political capacities – or channels - to put the spotlight on human rights violations and promote accountability, and this goes through our work at the Human Rights Council. And here, the European Union, believe me, we are relentless. We initiate and we lobby for hard hitting resolutions. 

It is not always easy, because the countries that the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, they do their political calculations in order to support - or not - initiatives. But we do our best in order to make sure that this Council fulfils its mandate and has the resources to do its job. 

We also work on the ground. We have been supporting transitional justice in Gambia, in South Africa, in Somalia and Colombia with tailor-made solutions. I am just citing these specific cases where transitional justice is playing such an important role.  

When I was at the European University Institute in Florence, we discussed a lot with my fellow professors about how to implement [transitional] justice, when you go from a system in which human rights are permanently violated to one in which - more or less - things become normal, what do we do about what has happened in the meantime? What do we do with what has happened in Colombia for the thousands of people killed? How do you implement justice? There is no peace without justice, but, how do you manage to bring justice to the victims? Certainly, you need tailor-made solutions: it is not the same thing in Colombia that in South Sudan or in Somalia.  

We are funding what we call the Special Mechanism for Post-Conflict Solutions. I want to mention Kosovo. The Kosovo Specialist Chambers,  with the former President of Kosovo [Hashim Thaçi] - now in the Hague waiting to be judged. And our police mission in Kosovo [EULEX Kosovo] was in charge of arresting him. [They] arrested him when he was President in office and sent him to the Hague to face justice.  

We have also an impartial and independent mechanism for Syria. When we met three years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was struggling, and some countries were threatening to leave this body. And remember, the United States were imposing sanctions on the officials of the ICC. It looks incredible but yes, the [Donald] Trump Administration was imposing sanctions on the officials of the International Criminal Court.  

We, at the European Union, have been standing with the ICC, defending its independence and providing them funding for them to work. We are funding the work of the ICC in Ukraine, for example. But the ICC has overcome a lot of difficulties and was ready to launch this investigation within days of the Russian invasion in Ukraine.  

And now, as you know, there is a polemic about: do we need something more than the ICC in order to fight impunity in Ukraine? I presented - together with the [European] Commission - a proposal to the Ministers [of Foreign Affairs], and they are discussing [about it]. On Monday, we were discussing about it - without a result - [and about] which is the most efficient way of fighting impunity: the ICC; “we need something more”; “it is possible to build something more”. This is an interesting discussion that, for the time being, has not a concrete answer.  

But be sure that in order to fight impunity, we need to do more. We need to do much more. 

That is why we are setting today a new Global Observatory on the Fight against Impunity. I am sorry to say that one of the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) who has been involved on the European Parliament scandal is called “Fight Against Impunity”. Sorry, but it is the way it is. But we are setting a new Global Observatory on Fighting against Impunity, and we are going to allocate €20 million for that.

This Observatory will gather information and build knowledge about genocide, about crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations. They are there. I have not mentioned Palestine, for example. But what is happening in Palestine – I am sorry, I have to say, although I know that it will bring me a lot of criticism. But yes, we have to remember what is happening in Palestine. During this year, more than 100 Palestinian people have been killed by the Israeli security forces. I do not deny that there are security issues. I think, and I issued a lot of statements condemning and expressing our strong concern about the high level of violence in the occupied territories in the West Bank.

And there you come [in], you, the civil organisations. The civil organisations have an important role in defending human rights and in fighting against impunity, not only on the functioning, but also in the governance of this Observatory that we are creating. And it will work through a consortium of civil society organisations, and our CSO-led Secretary.  

Because we know that protecting human rights is not possible without the support of civil society and without the support of human rights defenders. It is impossible to do that without the strong capacity of reaching this society everywhere, every day. And this cannot be done by administrative organisations. This cannot be done alone by civil servants. It needs the complicity, and the engagement, and the everyday commitment of people like you.

It is impossible to protect human rights without a civil society that has human rights defenders. Human rights need human rights defenders. And many of you in this room are working exactly on that. I do not want to praise you, but it is true: your work is vital. You give voice to those who suffer from repression. You document human rights violations. Some of you have had to leave your country and fled to exile. But your continuation and your continuous engagement to call [out] human rights violations in your country is absolutely necessary.

I know that among you, there are three Afghan human rights defenders attending this Forum. They are a good example. The other day, I was meeting with a group of Afghan women who explained to me what would have been their situation if they had stayed in Afghanistan. Thankfully for them, they fled. But many of them, many women had to stay.  

I want also to welcome the representation here of the Russian NGO “Memorial” and the Ukrainian NGO “Centre for Civil Liberties”. You have been awarded the Nobel Peace Price. This is a recognition of your work documenting the massive Human rights violations that are happening, as I said, in Ukraine, and what I have seen when I was there. Well, but what I have seen is nothing compared with what I have not seen. You may see something, but what you have not seen is much more awful.

Words cannot do justice. Words cannot bring justice. What is needed is work. Not just words, but work. We need the resources. We need the engagement. We need to support to the people who are committed. And we need justice because without justice, it will not be peace. “No paz sin justicia” is something that I heard in many places, in particular in Colombia. 

I know that the work of the human rights defenders is especially dangerous and often it touches their lives. In 2021, according to our figures, at least 360 human rights defenders were killed in 35 different countries. And that us an additional reason to support you [even] more.  

[Over] the last seven years, according to my records and reports, we have been providing support to more than 58,000 human rights defenders. How? With advice, with energy grants, and, sometimes, with temporary relocation. We have recently renewed our commitment to fund human rights defenders [with] another €30 million for the next three years. So, as you said, my [EU] Special Representative [for Human Rights], dear Mr [Eamon] Gilmore, I think that you can count on us.  

Next year will be the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This will be a historic moment to recommit ourselves to this landmark document and the vision that this document has enshrined for everybody in many places.  

But we have to discuss, also, about what human rights means today, not 75 years ago.  

Human rights are universal values, but they can be considered [through] different approaches. I have a lot of discussions with people around the world who consider that we pay too much attention to individual human rights and not to social human rights. And we have to listen to these words because, yes, individual human rights – political rights of individuals – are certainly important and absolutely necessary. You cannot put them aside. But even political rights are not enough. Social rights, collective rights have to be paid a lot of attention [to].  

We need to consider that the right to education, to health, the right to have a job, the right to have a decent life [are] also human rights. There [is] a confrontation of political approaches. Some countries claim that the important things are the collective, the social human rights – and they are. [But] we also say that [they cannot be] detrimental [to] individual political rights.

When I was a young left boy in Spain, in my country, we used to make the difference between “las libertades reales” and “las libertades formales” - the real freedoms and the formal freedoms. Both are important. Formal freedoms are fundamental, but formal freedoms have to bring the real freedoms to the fact that you are able to live a decent life. You can choose your government freely every four years, but if this does not bring any kind of improvement [to] your material conditions of life, it is not enough. But, to say that in order to have better conditions or life you have to renounce your individual freedoms is not good, [it] is not true.  

We have to work on both sides, at the same time. Political freedom, individual freedoms, political liberty, and, at the same time, the capacity that the political [system] [that is] based on multiparty competition and human rights, rule of law, accountability, independent judiciary, has, at the same time, to deliver better conditions of life. Otherwise, people will not value as much as needed a political system based on political freedom.  

So, we have a lot of work to do. I am sorry to have depicted this dire situation, but it is what it is.  

And I want to thank from the bottom of my heart all of you [for] the work that you are doing. [We] continue offering our support.  

Thank you for your work, Mr. [Eamon] Gilmore, and thank you to all of you. 


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