By Jillian Carson, Program Coordinator, ISHR
On Thursday October 3rd, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), the Blinken European Institute and the Harriman Institute hosted Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s first appointed Special Representative for Human Rights at Columbia University.
Mr. Lambrinidis is an attorney who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece. He also previously held the post of Vice-President of the European Parliament, and from 2004 to 2009, served as Vice-President of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. Mr. Lambrinidis graduated from Yale Law School and, early in his career, served as Chairman of the Committee for Human Rights in the Bar Association of Washington, D.C.. Mr. Lambrinidis took office on September 1, 2012 and his mandate will run until June 2014. He and the EU delegation to the United Nations visited New York for the opening of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly.
Challenges in Human Rights and Foreign Policy
Mr. Lambrinidis spoke candidly about some challenges his office and human rights policy face in today’s global community. Part of the challenge the European Union (EU) will face, he noted, will be to find a balance and consistency in human rights policy for the EU and for each member state. These consistencies include, for example, how internal policy is presented externally. Each state must recognize their own internal challenges in this regard. No state perfectly protects and promotes rights, a false sense of exceptionalism, often promulgated by Western countries, actually works to undermine their credibility in the international arena. Another concern relates to the complexities in ensuring consistency in the reactions to other states’ violations of rights; are the reactions to external human rights violations consistent and, more importantly, proportional? A state’s favoritism or criticism towards certain states may be seen as based on economic considerations, weakening the ability of that state to speak authoritatively about protections and promotion of human rights abroad. Regarding proportional responses, Mr. Lambrinidis also noted that, when possible, it is best to “win” a country’s respect for human rights and human rights practices, rather than resort to the use of force. Lastly, Mr. Lambrinidis is concerned with ensuring that there is consistency in EU policies on community, regional and domestic levels throughout the EU member states.
Mr. Lambrinidis also spoke of his concern over the “false dilemma” of arguments that attack the universality of human rights and place human rights at odds with culture, religion or ethnicity. He urges that states must formulate a better argument to truly defend the universality of human rights in theory and, more importantly, in their practice and proliferation. He asserts that it is often repressive, nationalistic regimes pronouncing that human rights are a “Western construct.” By conceding to these narratives or failing to offer robust counter-arguments, we undermine those advocates within these societies fighting for their rights.
An important part of the Special Representative’s mandate will be to renew the EU’s commitment to a genuine partnership with civil society. Mr. Lambrinidis expressed concern about the “shrinking space” of civil society in domestic and foreign policy. The failures of human rights advocacy often result from a lack of collective and pervasive action. By engaging EU governments and civil society actors at local, regional, and international levels, Mr. Lambrinidis hopes to empower these groups to take ownership of human rights at home, protect them from hostilities, and defend their value domestically and internationally.
Finally, Mr. Lambrinidis stressed the importance of promoting economic and social rights alongside civil and political rights. In many countries, the lack of basic human rights, such as the right to food or health care, radically hinder the populations’ ability to fight for their civil and political rights. He urged that recognition of these challenges; meaningful partnerships; and cooperative strategies between the EU, the US, and other international human rights defenders will help address a broader range of human rights issues and improve the effectiveness of human rights rhetoric and practice worldwide.
Successfully Promoting and Protecting Human Rights
Since taking office, Mr. Lambrinidis and his delegation have demonstrated their commitment to the integration of human rights into EU policy and have achieved a number of successes. He shared a few of these accomplishments. Guidelines and instructions have been created for all EU delegations for protecting and promoting LGBT rights, as well as the promotion and protection of freedom of religion. After past failures, the EU, as part of the Commission on the Status of Women, adopted conclusions on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls in March of this year. Guidelines have been published in response to these conclusions. The EU Special Representative will continue to focus on the intersection of business and human rights, drawing from guiding notes published with a focus on the oil, gas, and other extractive industries, as well as information technology and temporary employment services business sectors in the EU.
The EU has established the office and position of the Special Representative for Human Rights to ensure that human rights will play a central role in in EU foreign policy. Mr. Lambrinidis explained that the importance of this integrated approach draws from the reality that human rights violations lie at the root of most conflicts and thus, viable solutions must involve their promotion and protection. The Special Representative will be tasked with monitoring and expressing the coherence and practice of EU human rights policies, a daunting task considering the 28 member states and the countless religious, ethnic and cultural identities that comprise the EU. However, Mr. Lambrinidis stressed his optimism in the strength and capability of human rights-focused foreign policy in Europe and globally.
For a full audio recording of the EU Special Representative’s talk at Columbia, click here.
Jillian works at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights as a Program Coordinator for the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program. She is an alumni of the Human Rights Studies Master’s Program, with a concentration in Indigenous rights. Her thesis and subsequent research focuses on the right to education for First Nations in Canada and the function of transitional justice mechanism in Canadian reconciliation processes.