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Foreign policy should be based on a principled approach to human rights

Strasbourg 30/03/2009
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Some governments take an active approach to human rights in their foreign policies. Others are more cautious or even oppose what they see as meddling into the internal affairs of others. My view is that European governments should also pursue the values enshrined in international treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter, in their external relations.

The United Nations Charter makes clear that the protection of human rights is not only a national but also an international concern and responsibility. This principle has been further confirmed in international and regional human rights treaties. The European Convention itself includes the possibility of bringing inter-State complaints.

While action for human rights began by being principally channeled through international organisations and mechanisms, such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe, governments are increasingly raising human rights in bilateral contacts.  If seriously pursued and with the intent to improve the protection of human rights, this should be welcomed.

The Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has underlined that State parties should pay attention to violations by other States parties: “To draw attention to possible breaches of Covenant obligations by other States parties and to call on them to comply with their Covenant obligations should, far from being regarded as an unfriendly act, be considered as a reflection of legitimate community interest.”1

States have an obvious self interest in stability and peace, not least among their neighbours. Experience has shown that repression and human rights violations often lead to unrest and sometimes even armed conflict which in turn affects the broader region. One consequence may be the arrival of large numbers of refugees.

In other words, there is a link between respect for human rights and international security which no government can ignore.

There is also a compelling, principled argument for caring about human rights in other countries. People who are oppressed and silenced cannot defend their own rights, but they should be able to rely on those in freer societies to protect their interests in the spirit of human solidarity. I have met individuals in such situations who have testified to the enormous importance of knowing that people or authorities in other countries are informed and care.

However, for governments to raise human rights issues in international fora or bilaterally is often seen as controversial and even provocative. This is partly because the concept of human rights has taken a moral dimension: those who violate the standards are seen not only as making mistakes, but guilty of unacceptable, unethical acts.

This is why it is so important that governments are sincere when they criticise others. This was not the case when, for instance, the former US administration lectured others on human rights while approving torture of persons apprehended abroad. The signals that the new administration in Washington will put an end to such hypocrisy - and has already begun to confront its own failings - are welcome indeed.

Dialogue between governments on human rights is often positive. The original idea of the UN Human Rights Council’s “peer” review, later called the Universal Periodic Review, had obvious merits. However, some governments have been sadly selective, commending the performance of allies and ignoring reports by independent human rights bodies that show quite a different picture.

In-depth knowledge is crucial for meaningful dialogue. Too often, approaches are made without sufficient information and can easily be dismissed as politically motivated. Today, there is no lack of information; it is possible to find facts from reports issued by international agencies and non-governmental organizations, though these reports have of course to be read with a critical eye and are not always up-to-date.

It is also essential to be consistent. Much of the unfortunate politicisation of human rights is based on an unequal response to similar problems in different countries. For instance, the European semi-silence on the US torture during the Bush administration was damaging, as is the continued lack of strong initiatives to respond to the mass killing in Darfur. There have also been unfortunate cases of stereotyping certain countries, positively or negatively.

The methods to be used in an active foreign policy based on human rights require both a thorough reflection and a clear explanation. The choice of silent diplomacy may not always be understood, even when there are good arguments for keeping discussions confidential. There have also been cases where quiet diplomacy has been used to cover passivity.

Boycotts and other sanctions are often not effective and can even worsen the situation for the victims, although in some cases the threat of punitive action has helped to put the problem more firmly on the domestic agenda of the country in question. While such action should not be excluded in very serious cases, the general trend is to try to solve the problems through other methods.

One approach is to include human rights promotion in overseas development programmes. Some such assistance is channelled through non-governmental organizations. This is usually positive, but it is essential that this support be free from partisan political ambitions and does not compromise the impartiality of recipients.

Indeed, advisory services and technical assistance are almost always welcome. Yet to be effective they need to address the actual problems competently. They can be combined with monitoring and frank discussions.

Several governments in Europe are now guided by a strategy directive for human rights in their foreign affairs policy, in some cases approved by parliament. This has proved to be an effective way of clarifying basic principles and priorities. The adoption of such directives and reports on their implementation have provided a sound basis for in-depth discussions on human rights in foreign relations.

Thomas Hammarberg


1. Human Rights Committee, General Comment 31