Eamon Gilmore is the European Union’s special representative for human rights.
In the last year, we have seen an avalanche of crises.
Afghanistan, where girls are denied education, and women their equality; Belarus, where there are now over 1,300 political prisoners; Myanmar, where a military coup has sent a democratically elected leader to prison and the Rohingya people continue to suffer; Ethiopia, which has descended into civil war; and Ukraine, where Russia’s aggression continues with mounting evidence of war crimes.
We are currently witnessing the highest number of violent conflicts since World War II. In such conflicts, human rights abuses add to the violations of international humanitarian law. What I saw in Bucha, Ukraine earlier this year, and heard from survivors, haunts me, playing in my mind like a newsreel from the 1930s.
Russian forces have reportedly forcibly deported children, they have weaponized rape and sexual violence, targeted civilian areas with indiscriminate shelling. The rulebook has been ripped apart and chucked out the window.
Of course, with all that we are seeing, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the tide of atrocity and abuse, which can, in turn, lead to defeatism. However, it is vital that we look to the future of human rights with a greater degree of confidence, energy, determination and optimism.
In the Human Rights Council and the United Nations, our diplomats are struggling every day to defend the very concept of human rights from those who wish to redefine them, so they are meaningless.
And as I travel around the world, I’m particularly shocked by the stories I hear from detainees and their relatives: tales of torture, the denial of access to lawyers, to loved ones, and accounts of being kept in conditions intended to break the human spirit.
The brutalization lays bare a shocking absence of humanity as the powerful seek to control, subjugate, even erase the humanity of others.
War crimes, as we have seen in Ukraine, Syria and Ethiopia, cry out for accountability — the victims demand it.
Freedom, equality and dignity shouldn’t just be aspirations or ambitions, but actions. And though this is challenging to achieve, it’s important to remember that much is already being done.
The European Union champions human rights more than any other major actor in the world, both politically and financially. Every day, our 140-plus EU delegations and member country embassies work to bring the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy to life.
Since its launch in 2015, the EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism, ProtectDefenders.eu, has supported nearly 53,000 human rights defenders and their families who are at risk. Through regular dialogue with over 60 countries or regional groupings, we have frank, detailed discussions about human rights both in non-EU countries and within the bloc — including, just recently, Saudi Arabia.
Our trade schemes also continue to be powerful tools in the promotion of human and labor rights, good governance and sustainable development. In my mission to Pakistan earlier this year, for example, I was able to raise the plight of women textile workers and encourage wage parity.
We tend to underestimate ourselves, and to overestimate the strength of others.
However, it’s important to recognize that repression is itself a sign of weakness. Human rights violations and abuses demonstrate latent instability and insecurity, and with new technologies available to document and record them, it’s now harder to get away with war crimes and to hide atrocities.
Politically, we’re also in a better position to hold perpetrators to account. Just three years ago, there was a real risk to the very existence of the International Criminal Court (ICC), with some countries threatening to leave and the U.S. sanctioning its top officials. Now, the ICC is leading the investigation into war crimes in Ukraine. We’ve also seen Russia unable to mobilize votes in multilateral settings in the face of international clamor for accountability.
However, we do need to be more innovative and proactive, not just reactive.
We need to improve cooperation with the rest of the world. We need to broaden the constituency for human rights and be mindful of the language we use, making it more understandable to all.
Human rights belong to people everywhere. They aren’t the preserve of states, institutions or experts. Better protection and respect for human rights and democracy around the world will reduce inequality, poverty and social exclusion, and it will serve peace. We must state this clearly and consistently.
The EU’s strategic and security interests and its values of human rights and democracy are indivisible. Today, as we tackle the implications of Russia’s illegal aggression on Ukraine, the bloc’s steadfast commitment is a reminder to the rest of the world that we can weather the storms together — but we need to keep pushing.