ISSN 2330-717X

EU’s Ashton: Libya Violence ‘Shocks Our Conscience’


Catherine Ashton

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission

Speech before the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Council, 16th session, High Level Segment

Geneva, 28 February 2011

President, Madam High Commissioner, dear Ministers and dear colleagues,

We meet at time of historic change. Across Middle East and beyond people are standing up for that core human aspiration: to be able to shape their own lives politically and economically. They want their fund rights respected they want dignity, accountability, justice and jobs. We must heed these calls for they are just and they will not go away.

This Council therefore has a grave responsibility: to ensure that our often stated intentions are translated into real actions and real progress. What matters in the end is not the number of resolutions passed but results in the real world.

Right now our attention is focussed on Libya and rightly so. The fact that so many colleagues from across the world have gathered here today tells us something big – that what is going on – the massive violence against peaceful demonstrators – shocks our conscience. It should also spring us into action.

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

I am pleased that last Friday, this Council held a special session on Libya, showing an ability to react to events in real time. It was striking and welcome that this came about because so many groups had mobilised for it – from Asia, from Latin America, as well as Eastern and Western Europe. This is the United Nations at its best.

The outcome last Friday was a strong one. I am pleased that the Council concluded to form an independent international inquiry and also backed work underway in New York to suspend the membership of Libya of this Council. These are important steps but more is clearly needed.

This morning too, the message is clear: we condemn the grave human rights violations being committed in Libya. The violence and repression must stop. Those responsible must be held to account. Not just a European position but the view of the international community and its highest authority the UN Security Council.

On Saturday the Security Council unanimously adopted a strong resolution with important mandatory measures: an arms embargo, a travel ban and asset freezes for those responsible.

European Union members of the Council worked hard to achieve an outcome that reflects the supreme urgency and severity of the situation. Accountability and justice are essential and that is why I am pleased that agreement was found in the resolution to refer ongoing crimes to the International Criminal Court. As the European Union we will of course ensure swift implementation of the Security Council measures and we are already working on restrictive measures that will come into force quickly.

Of course, Mr President, it is not just in Libya that we need to ensure basic human rights. I recently made several visits to countries across the Mediterranean where people are claiming their rights and insisting that the old ways of doing things simply won’t do.

I met with government officials, members of opposition parties, civil society organisations, women’s groups and youth organisations.

I went to Tunis where I met groups that had not been allowed to be in the same room before; and to Cairo where I met the young people who had been in Tahrir square. My purpose was to listen and this is what I heard:

They said: “This is our country and our revolution. We want real change – and for the system to recognise the significance of that change.” And they said: “This is the beginning. We need to take time to get this right. We want genuine democracy, not just on the day that we cast our ballots but in the weeks, months and years to follow. We want jobs, economic opportunity and social justice”.

Mr President, we can and must salute the courage of people in the region for the peaceful and dignified way in which they have advanced their core demands.

But we can and must do more: we have to offer our full support, to do what the people of the region ask us to do. From a position of humility, knowing that our own histories are full of dark pages, and our own path to deep democracy wasn’t linear and wasn’t easy.

But with the conviction that in the ongoing transitions, full respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms is key. It is the only way to get sustainable security, to get justice and to get prosperity.

Mr President, human rights, we often say, are universal. That is why all violations wherever they take place are our concern and must be addressed by this Council.

And we know in countries, that people’s rights are at risk: in Iran where we’ve seen a steep rise in executions; in Belarus where we are concerned at the number of political prisoners; in the Democratic Republic of Congo where there are distressing reports of sexual violence; and other places besides.

The European Union is also deeply concerned at the situation in the Middle East, including the occupied Palestinian Territories. We are working hard reach our long-standing aim: a negotiated solution leading to two states

Some of the achievements of the Council perhaps do not receive the attention they deserve. Take the recent work on freedom of association; or the mechanism to promote the elimination of laws and practices that discriminate against women.

Still, this Council has some way to go in living up to the mandate it was given by the General Assembly. That is why we want a real, substantive outcome of the review process now underway concerning the work of the Council.

The test of success is simple: it is not whether we pass resolutions or create new procedures – vital though they can be. These are the inputs. What truly matters are the outputs: whether we make a difference on the ground, whether all the people are able to enjoy free speech, in Libya, in Iran, in the Cote d’Ivoire, in Belarus, in Burma/Myanmar, the DPRK, fair elections, the rule of law, equal rights, impartial administration.

Mr President, sometimes the European Union is accused of trying to “export” so-called European values to other countries. I reject that accusation. The rights to free speech, the freedom of assembly, justice and equality are not just European rights, they are universal rights. We must never fall into the trap of believing that people in other parts of the world are any less passionate about their rights too.

Kofi Annan’s in his 2005 report ‘In larger freedom’ said this: “Human rights are as fundamental to the poor as to the rich, and their protection is as important to the security and prosperity of the developed world as it is to that of the developing world”.

We are meeting today precisely because those rights inspire people in every part of the globe. What is true is that many countries lack the institutions able to defend and promote those rights. And that is why one of the great challenges facing us is to help countries build those institutions, to anchor and ensure full respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law.

We are living through historic times, and it is easy to be dazzled by the promise of change. Just as important is where we go from here, so I want to look at the possible direction of travel.

I believe we need to narrow the gap between the magnitude of the challenges facing us and in a sense the detail, the minutiae, of our political debates; between the expectations of those who put us here and our ability to deliver; between great statements of universal principles and what happens to individual people and to their lives; between the calm of being here in Geneva and events that are just two hours flight away.

Mr President, above everything it’s time to rise to the challenge. Thank you.

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