Speech by Mr Erkki Tuomioja, Foreign Minister of Finland, at the EU Annual NGO Forum on Human Rights

Speech by Mr Erkki Tuomioja, Foreign Minister of Finland, at the EU Annual NGO Forum on Human Rights

Helsinki, 7 December 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to welcome you to Helsinki to the eighth EU NGO Forum on Human Rights with the title "Mainstreaming Human Rights and Democracy in European Union Policies". The Forum is organized by the Finnish Presidency in cooperation with the European Commission. The first NGO Forum was held seven years ago in 1999, during the previous Finnish EU Presidency. During these years the basic objective of the Forum has not changed: it is a unique possibility for the civil society, EU institutions and Governments to exchange views on the EU's human rights policy. It is also an opportunity to receive feed-back on how EU objectives have in fact been realized and what effects our initiatives have had on the ground.

This year such exchange of views is particularly welcome concerning the current priority areas of the EU´s human rights policy. In line with the Operational Council Programme for 2006, promoting the coherence and consistency of the EU´s human rights policy through effective mainstreaming has been a priority. This Forum will in particular address human rights in relation to crisis management and combating terrorism - both very topical issues also in our daily work.

Another dimension is coherence between internal developments in the EU and our external action. The EU can only be a fully credible promoter of human rights, if it is seen to respect the same standards itself. This challenge is very relevant when discussing human rights and counterterrorism, but also other issues on the agenda of this Forum. No country is perfect in terms of human rights, and I hope that the establishment of a Fundamental Rights Agency, working in close cooperation with the Council of Europe and without questioning the primacy of the Council of Europe as the universal guardian of human rights in Europe, can be a step in the direction of strengthening the EU´s tools with regard to human rights development in its own area. Perhaps next year, the Fundamental Rights Agency will already participate in the next NGO Forum to be organised under the Portuguese Presidency.

Yet another aspect of being coherent is making sure that the EU´s attempts to promote human rights form a logical entity with democracy promotion and work in the area of the rule of law and good governance. Human rights and democracy cannot be separated - and nor should the efforts to promote them be seen as separate tracks.

Both the Austrian and Finnish Presidencies have emphasized gender aspects in promoting human rights and have in particular campaigned for women human rights defenders. I am happy to acknowledge the presence of many of them here today. I want to wish you every success in your important work.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me now turn to the themes of this Forum in more detail.

The EU commends the extremely important work of human rights defenders worldwide. The EU is committed to continuing its actions in support of all human rights activists who - often at the risk of their own lives - take action to help others. The EU launched early this year a global campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders. The campaign complements the implementation of the EU Guidelines on human rights defenders, adopted in 2004. The purpose of the campaign is to ensure that women who are defending human rights are allowed to operate according to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and other international human rights standards. The purpose is also to give adequate EU support to human rights activists working in difficult and often dangerous situations.

During the Forum we will have the possibility to hear about experiences and to highlight what specific challenges women human rights defenders face as well as hear these women's views on the kind of support that they need.  An effective way to show support is to make contacts between the EU and human rights defenders visible, thus sending a message to the surrounding society that the EU values and supports the work of human rights activists including women human rights defenders.

The theme of women human rights defenders continues from where the NGO Forum left off last year when the focus of discussion was on freedom of expression. It is often by defying the restrictions set upon the right to freedom of expression that human rights defenders promote their cause.

Defending human rights can take many different forms. Among the best known women human rights defenders I refer to Aung San Sui Kyi who still continues to be held in house arrest under severe restrictions, and Anna Politkovskaya, whose tragic murder was undoubtedly related to her work to defend human rights,  in relation to the conflict in Chechnya and otherwise.

However, the EU must have enough sensitivity to also recognize the cause of the numerous not so well-known human rights defenders. Democracy and human rights cannot be simply imported or imposed onto any society. This is why the support for the work of the civil society, the local defenders of the democratic cause and human rights, is such a priority.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The EU attaches great importance to guaranteeing the full and effective protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in Europe and in the wider world, in the context of the fight against terrorism.

The EU has committed itself to making Europe safer, allowing its citizens to live in an area of freedom, security and justice, and combating terrorism globally while respecting human rights. It is important that the signals given by the EU are coherent in this respect.

The EU remains firmly committed to the absolute prohibition of torture, which must guide our own actions and is being raised with third countries. During the year, the EU has campaigned globally to strengthen the mechanisms to prevent and eradicate torture. The existence of secret detention facilities where detained persons are kept in a legal vacuum is not in conformity with international humanitarian law and international criminal law. The European Union has also expressed its concerns regarding Guantánamo Bay, and called for it to be closed as soon as possible

The EU´s strength is the variety of tools it possesses in order to promote its objectives. The capacity to integrate the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law into crisis management operations represents a comparative advantage for the EU in this area. During the year, work on the mainstreaming of human rightsinto the common foreign and security policy, including European security and defence policy, has continued. However, much remains to be done.  The protection of human rights must be systematically addressed in all phases of ESDP operations, both during the planning and implementation phase, including by measures ensuring that the necessary human rights expertise is available. In this respect, the experience from crisis management operations with a particular human rights component, such as the Aceh Monitoring Mission, should be duly taken into account on a lesson learned basis.

More work must be done to consider how the issue of transitional justice can be better integrated into EU crisis management, reflecting the importance of addressing the question of past human rights abuse in transitional and post-conflict situations for sustainable peace and stability.

Work must also continued to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in the context of European security and defence policy and gender mainstreaming. Through conclusions adopted in October, the Council underlined aspects such as participation by both men and women, adequate training and monitoring of commitments made.

The human rights analysis in arms export decisions has received more and more attention. The Finnish Presidency has taken the view, that the respect of the human rights situation should be a guiding criterion in all arms licensing decisions. Arms export and arms control should be seen as components of the broad human rights agenda.

The Finnish Presidency has proposed to the Council the adoption of the Common Position replacing the existing Code of Conduct, the Common Position would have a legally binding character and thus strengthen the human rights criterion contained in the Code of Conduct even more.

The EU supports the process of an Arms Trade Treaty. The United Nations General Assembly has decided on the operational start of this process, by inviting the Secretary-General to seek Member States views and to establish a Group of Governmental Experts. This is a very welcome development. I am convinced that the Arms Trade Treaty should contain strong references to existing international human rights law as well as to respect of human rights in the country of destination.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Council has worked actively during the Finnish Presidency to adopt a regulation on the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, in cooperation with the European Parliament. This instrument is an essential tool in the EU´s human rights policy. The presidency has strived to ensure that the new human rights instrument can start to operate at the beginning of the year 2007. All parties have expressed their willingness to reach an agreement on the regulation and we hope a positive result will be achieved when the Parliament votes on the issue next week. This would ensure the continuation of the work financed under the instrument at the shift of the year.

The Instrument combines the promotion of democracy and human rights and complements the activities under the other EU financing mechanisms in third countries. While geographical instruments also cover human rights aspects - for instance in terms of institution building - the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights will mainly concentrate on civil society and more flexible ways of support, including human rights defenders´ activities. The timing of this Forum is quite right from the point of view of hearing expectations towards the new Instrument as well as more effective ways for the EU to integrate human rights with democracy promotion in practice.

Ladies and gentlemen, 

The Finnish EU presidency is soon approaching its end - but our efforts to promote human rights are not. Our presidency has clearly demonstrated to what extent human rights form an integral part of the international agenda today. Relevant human rights concerns should indeed be raised in a coherent manner at all levels. Furthermore, let me also stress that there would even be no way of avoiding these questions because of the constant interest towards human rights shown by the media, the civil society and, indeed, individual people around the world. Let me just mention in this context the situation of Darfur, and the efforts of the international civil society and the media to draw adequate attention to the acute humanitarian and human rights crisis there.

Our Presidency has also shown once more in very clear terms that the effective promotion of human rights can only be achieved together with others. Both interaction at multilateral fora - the UN, the Council of Europe etc - and with the civil society is necessary. 

Enhancing transparency has been among the general priority themes of the Finnish presidency, and particularly relevant in the context of human rights. Let me also use this opportunity to refer to the EU Annual Report on Human Rights, covering the period until June 2006,  that was adopted by the Council in October. I hope this report, which is intended as a tool to promote the transparency of the EU´s human rights policy, could be useful also for the purposes of the discussions at this Forum.

With these words I wish you a successful seminar.

Thank you.