EUW Commissions day - 4th October 2007
It’s an honour to have been invited to address you today, and I thank you for the invitation.
The title of this Commissions Day, Cry Freedom, evokes the great film of the same name about the evils of apartheid. South Africa may now be a beacon of democracy in a troubled continent but, as this event recognises, so many millions of people in the world are still denied the basic freedoms we in Europe take for granted.
But throughout history, courageous people have been stirred into action to defend the inalienable right to freedom. And so often, women have taken the lead in resisting oppression and advancing the cause of human rights. In our own country, we think of pioneers like Elizabeth Fry and Emilie Pankhurst, who were fearless in their pursuit of building a more humane and just society. Abroad, we admire the unswerving fortitude of women like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, so present in our thoughts last week, or the Damas de Blanco in Cuba, whose peaceful campaign of resistance to the Castro dictatorship was recently awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Needless to say, they were denied permission to travel to accept this honour.
British people are more sensitive than most to perceived interference with our civil liberties – what might nowadays be deemed human rights – as is manifest by the vigorous debate on identity cards. The freedoms we enjoy are the accumulation of centuries of English legal wisdom and traditional custom. Whether they were secured against tyrranical monarchs or haughty governments, our rights matter to us. Individual freedom has also been a rich seam running through the history of the British Conservative party.
And Britain’s role in spreading freedom around the world has, in my opinion, been second to none. This year we’ve marked two hundred years since the abolition of the slave trade. As the British Empire waned, we helped countries on the cusp of independence build new democratic and legal institutions. Westminster, as the Mother of Parliaments, is considered the world over a role model for national legislatures. And our long tradition of a free press, with its healthy disrespect for the hubris of politicians and celebrities alike, marks us out as a society in which dissent and scrutiny is an essential part of public life.
Britain’s history of progress, however, counts for nothing unless we continue to highlight injustice and promote liberty. And today, as you have recognised in holding this Commissions Day, the threats to human rights around the world are many and varied. Slavery may have been officially abolished, although it persisted in some African counties like Mauritania till very recently, but the trade in human beings – people trafficking – is alive and well, and demands innovative policy solutions to stop it. Democratic institutions and legal safeguards – in particular, sadly, in former British colonies in Africa – have been all too often disregarded and dissolved by force. Political plurality is a rare phenomenon in much of the developing world. And so many journalists who seek only to report the truth are faced daily with the threat of arrest or death.
The protection and promotion of human rights forms an important part of my work as a Member of the European Parliament, where I’ve also served as the Vice-Chairman of the Human Rights Subcommittee. My particular field of expertise and interest is foreign affairs, but long gone is the day when foreign affairs were the preserve of diplomats in national capitals. In our globalised world, foreign affairs is diplomacy, trade, human rights, environmental protection, immigration and security all rolled into one. It is also especially salient in London which I represent with its over 100 diverse communities more than 10000 strong, for whom often matters affecting their countries of origin are more important than our UK domestic policies. Recently with Ann Main MP I co-founded the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh to reach out to the 600000 British Bangladeshis and one of my first projects was to campaign for the release of the 2 former lady Prime Ministers of that country to prepare their own defences, the lifting of the military backed state of emergency and rapid return to Parliamentary democracy in what was traditionally a secular country in which women in particular enjoyed some of the highest levels of freedom in the Islamic world.
One of the many benefits of the end of the Cold War was that viewing human rights through the prism of geo-strategic and ideological objectives became increasingly unacceptable. For example, the silent suffering of the people of East Timor under Indonesian occupation appeared to be a price worth paying for stability in a volatile South East Asian region dominated by China communist expansionism and where America had just lost a war. Similarly, the caudillos of Latin America were all too frequently indulged by the West as bulwarks against communism. And the strategic importance of South Africa in a continent where the Soviet Union was rapidly increasing its influence undoubtedly gave succour to the apartheid regime. Things have moved on thus last week an official Chinese delegation visited the European Parliament where they were told in no uncertain terms to cease support for Burma’s brutal military junta and worse still cease to act as apologists for the Sudanese government responsible for the atrocities in Darfur. China for the record now is the EU’s second greatest trading partner. I have transmitted similar messages when last in Moscow to the Russians regarding their support for the Iranian regime, where people are publicly hanged for so called sexual misdemeanours.
This realignment in the early 1990s was complemented by the growing influence of the European Union in the post-Cold War world now a Union of 27 member states close on 500 million people. This was because many of the countries of Eastern Europe, experiencing their first taste of freedom for decades, saw EU membership as a long-term strategic security and foreign policy goal. But it was also a by-product of the increasing pace of European economic integration, and the belief among its key leaders that the EU was much more than simply a giant marketplace – it was a community of values, of freedom and democracy and human rights, and these shared common values should be projected outwards at every opportunity. And of course the EU was not merely employing fancy words to justify its raison d’ętre. It could point to the transformation in countries like Portugal, Greece and Spain, until the 1970’s run by military juntas. And it could point to the indestructible link between political freedom and economic prosperity, a reality first elucidated in the modern age by a great Scottish economist – and no, I don’t mean Gordon Brown (much as he may consider himself one) but Adam Smith of “Wealth of Nations” fame.
The notion of a community representing the apogee of human rights is not without its critics. First, there are those who would like to see the European project as nothing more than a vast trading zone – they contend that it is not the business of the EU to extend itself into such areas. Then there are those who believe that human rights are so fundamental and inalienable that they can’t be codified, that they’re not for any government or authority to bestow or curtail. And then there are those who believe that an absolutist interpretation of human rights goes against the grain of natural justice. It’s hard not to have some sympathy with the belief that someone who infringes another’s human rights has automatically forfeited his own, to a greater or lesser extent.
For good or for ill, modern Europe’s approach to human rights has always been a legalistic one, with charters, binding laws and courts to adjudicate infringements. In Britain, this sits somewhat uneasily with our experience of centuries of common law underpinned by an independent judiciary. Today, we see the potential weakness of this one-size-fits-all approach in the legal constraints placed on the British government by various European strictures, especially with regard to combating terrorism.
The debate on anti-terrorism measures in the European Parliament is still often emotive and unrealistic. No-one disputes the importance of human rights – who would ever say otherwise? But an absolutist defence of civil liberties plays into the hands of terrorists who know no limit to their nihilistic aims. They seek to divide us. To defeat them we must use the means at our disposal, including new technology and advances in data retention. It is of paramount importance that law enforcement authorities have the tools they require to protect us. They must not be hamstrung either by excessive and unnecessary bureaucracy or by an unbending devotion to human rights – however well intentioned.
Despite the realities of this situation, many of my fellow MEPs appear to rejoice in taking the moral high ground over the ‘war on terror’. This was most apparent recently when the European Parliament launched an expensive and inconclusive inquiry into the extent of member states’ cooperation with the US over CIA “extraordinary rendition”. Frankly I would have been concerned if EU countries had not cooperated with the US. But I was equally perturbed by attitude of the European Parliament’s left, which consistently fails to grasp the existentialist threat posed by terrorists to our way of life. Surely it’s also our human right not to be blown up on the Tube?
Nevertheless, aside from the terrorism debate, the European Union is doing much to promote human rights around the world, and to make respect for fundamental human rights and democracy a precondition not only of EU membership but also of an enhanced relationship with the EU. This is why Belarus is excluded from the formal structures of cooperation that exist between the EU and its neighbours. It’s also why Turkish aspirations to join the EU are apparently running into the sand, despite the UK government in particular and the European Commission’s zealous support for Ankara. Further afield, the EU has taken the lead in proposing travel ban and arms export sanctions on tyrannical regimes like Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the military rulers of Burma, who, if they hadn’t already realised, are just beginning to see that the desire for freedom can be suppressed but never extinguished.
One of my main bęte noirs where I have been active in the Parliament has been Iran, which, aside from trying to develop a nuclear weapon, has an appalling human rights record. Executions of homosexuals, adulterers and teenage girls caught having sex are common. The regime is cracking down on what people wear, what they do in their free time and even what kind of facial hair men should sport.
The generals in Burma have presided over two decades of misery and wanton human rights abuses, so it’s no surprise to see it’s rated as the world’s most corrupt country. In Zimbabwe the levels of deprivation and political thuggery are apparently increasing at the same rate as inflation, and I’ve long been calling for more concrete measures beyond the fairly tame package of sanctions at EU level.
However, we often fall into the trap of criticising from afar without realising that human rights abuses occur much closer to home. Whether we’re talking about trafficking of Eastern European women to be impoverished sex slaves, or the ongoing practice of female genital mutilation in Europe’s immigrant communities from the Horn of Africa, or forced marriages and honour killings, or political violence, human rights abuses in and around Europe are still alarmingly common. And yet here in Europe, we can go beyond harsh words of criticism, we can actually get something done – with laws, with campaigns and with the promise of better relations, or the threat of isolation to our neighbouring states who fail to act. Moreover, Europe’s leaders have been quick to realise that abuses of human rights in neighbouring countries can lead to high levels of inward illegal migration and social problems associated with displaced people as we saw after the Western Balkan conflicts and the brutal civil war in Algeria.
The apparent impunity of sex traffickers catering for a rising demand for commercial sexual outlets and its widening acceptance in the UK is a serious problem with up to 4000 women trafficked into the UK every year, many of whom are EU nationals but few are prepared to testify against their evil gang masters resulting in only 30 convictions last year under the Sexual Offences Act since 2004. My Constituency London is home to the “Poppy project” which aims to rescue escaped prostitutes and encourage them to speak out. The EU is also acting by beefing up the resources in Europol dedicated to co-ordinating the fight by law enforcement agencies and the introduction of measures to make these offences serious crimes throughout the 27 member states.
As European Parliament Rapporteur for the European Neighbourhood Policy, or ENP, my work touches on the importance of seeing human rights not in isolation but as part of a wider package of relations with our close neighbours. This is driven by conditionality because the carrot of EU aid and trade advantages works as well as the stick, otherwise the EU would never have grown at the rate it has in the past four years. The prospect of a long-term accord with the EU can be a powerful force for progress in all but the most intransigent regimes, of which Belarus is sadly the most prominent example, although the trends towards authoritarianism and lack of respect for fundamental rights in Russia are cause for great concern as well. And the case of Belarus shows how seriously the EU takes human rights – it is at the very heart of the EU’s vision of its neighbourhood. There’s clearly much progress to be made, but our experience of the past 20 years in Europe teaches us that while you can take away people’s freedom, you can never quench their desire to be free.