MEP: EU leaders ‘too weak’ on human rights


The EU and its new, six-month French Presidency must push harder on issues such as good governance and human rights in the international arena, including with Russia and at the Olympic Games in Beijing, Socialist MEP Ana Maria Gomes (Portugal) told EURACTIV in an interview.

Ana Maria Gomes is a career diplomat with wide international experience. She is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Ms. Gomes: as an MEP you followed the presentation of the French Presidency by President Sarkozy last week in Strasbourg. We are now discussing Foreign Minister Kouchner’s subsequent address to the Foreign Affairs Committee. What do you think of this presidency? 

If you were to take President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Kouchner by their word, it’s a quite ambitious presidency. I would say you would draw that more from President Sarkozy’s statements than Minister Kouchner’s, who was quite restrained on some issues that were put to him by members of Parliament in the Foreign Affairs Committee. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so we will see in six months how the French Presidency has delivered. 

I think we can use all this energy and ambition in a very good way. Europe needs this to push for certain issues. From what I can see by working in foreign affairs – combining defence, human rights, security and development – in areas such as defence and security, the Presidency is very well prepared and has done its homework. The proposals put forward by the Presidency in these areas seem to make absolute sense and will be very much supported by this Parliament in all the proposals. 

I agree with what Mr Kouchner said: we cannot have diplomacy without being prepared in defence and security issues as we have all these obligations, including the responsibility to protect. But there is one area which was discussed in the Development Committee – and I find the French Presidency in this area quite defensive and low profile, to say the least. They were almost retracting. It is the area of development cooperation. It is shocking for some of us that the words ‘good governance’ and ‘human rights’ never show up in the working paper that has been prepared by the French Presidency for their development aid strategy. 

Mr Kouchner says you need to shake hands with your enemy because this is the way to make peace. 

Yes, I am a career diplomat, so I am used to shaking hands with the devil. I don’t shy away from it. But if you are a real defender of human rights, you may shake hands, but you never give up confronting the dictators and the violators of human rights and their responsibilities. And you never miss an opportunity to make them face punishment for what they do. And you certainly don’t compensate them politically. 

That’s why I pointed out the very bad start that we could see for instance in the G8, where we had several European leaders, including Mr Barroso of the Commission, side-by-side with Meles Zenawi, the dictator (Prime Minister) of Ethiopia. At the same time they were asking for tougher sanctions on Zimbabwe – for very good reasons. 

How can we be credible in the eyes of the Europeans? In the eyes of the Africans? In the eyes of all the world? If we are asking one thing of one dictator and at the same time compensating with political recognition of a dictator like Meles Zenawi, who manipulated elections in 2005 according to the report of the European Union election observation mission – which I chaired by the way. So I know what I am talking about… He is oppressing his people. He actually arrested all the opposition leaders and kept them in jail for almost two years and he is invading Somalia, for instance. 

What kind of message, what kind of credibility do we have? And then I asked a question, how do we now act? In the face of Sudan, not only these two people who have been indicted and not submitted to the International Criminal Court, but now (President of Sudan) Omar al-Bashir himself, who everybody knows is responsible for the tragedy in Darfur. Are we going to do business with him as usual? That’s the question I asked. 

I was somewhat uncomfortable with the reply of Mr Kouchner. Of course the court has indicted him. It’s not correct to wait on whether the judge will uphold the accusations and in the meantime do business with him as usual. I think this requires strong measures. Political ones. And strong reinforcement of the AU/UN hybrid mission in Darfur, which is suffering from many things – including the fact that they don’t even have one third of the troop levels needed on the ground. So Europeans should do more for Darfur. 

President Sarkozy has defended his decision to go to the Olympics in Beijing by saying we need China to help in Sudan, putting pressure on Iran, etc. But from your words, one gets the feeling that you think he is not putting enough pressure on these countries. 

I must tell you I am not one of those people who has ever advocated the boycott of the Olympic Games. I am one of the people who has always looked at the Olympic Games in Beijing as an opportunity to be converted on human rights, in China namely, as well as Tibet. So I am not criticising Mr Sarkozy for deciding to go there. He didn’t need to go there. Other European leaders aren’t going there. That doesn’t mean boycotting. 

Since he is going, he now has additional obligations. He has the obligation to raise the issue of human rights, very clearly and very loudly. They are the main concern in our relationship with China. It’s not just about China and human rights in China. It’s about the role China plays in strategies such as Darfur. China, together with Russia, vetoed the sanctions on Zimbabwe, which were deserved and necessary. Also the role China plays in a country like Burma. It is a country which is illegitimately repressed by a junta that prevents international assistance for the cyclone victims. 

China is a permanent member of the Security Council – that means obligations, including obligations to fulfil human rights. China might not like it, but that is what comes with being a permanent member. So I don’t think we should shy away. I don’t think we should boycott the Olympics, but use every opportunity to confront our Chinese friends with the criticisms we have to level at them. It is also about China fulfilling its obligations in the WTO and on fair trade. 

Mr Kouchner said something about reinventing a new language to speak to Russia. Do you think this is necessary? 

I don’t know if you need to invent a new language. But yes, we do need to engage much more with Russia and we should not shy away from confronting Russia about its obligations. We all understand the need of Russia to assert itself as a big power, and it is the main supplier of energy to Europe. But we cannot accept blackmailing. Russia vetoed the sanctions against Zimbabwe. Is this compatible with its obligations in the Security Council? I heard the excellent speech President Medvedev made at his inauguration. He was full of human rights, civil liberties, freedoms, etc. OK, so deliver! That’s the message that we must tell him. 

Basically European leaders… 

are weak!…

…refrain from getting involved in human rights issues, because they are doing their own business on a national level with China, with Russia and with other players… 

That’s an element. We need strong European leaders who are strong in our values and strong in the strategy and tactics to achieve it. I don’t think we have such strong leaders at the present. I am not criticising the French Presidency in particular. I would say in general, starting with the Commission. But I think there is a role to play by the European Parliament. We are playing our role. That is why I am hopeful that the French Presidency will have the energy and the leadership to achieve success in most of the fields that they see as priorities. 

You are Portuguese but you don’t seem to be in favour of Mr Barroso being re-elected from the way you just spoke. 

No. I think it is too early to say what is going to happen about Mr Barroso. I am Portuguese and I know Mr Barroso very well. We happen to have been members of the same Marxist/Leninist/Maoist party some decades ago… I think he is a very able competent person. He’s a Europeanist. He is personally a very ambitious person. I don’t think he has shown the ambition for Europe that I would have liked to have seen from a President of the European Commission. I think someone who was put in this position – I mean coming from a party that has just been severely defeated in the national election – was obviously put in that position to please everybody, and not to push for a Europe with ambition and with the principle to stand up for his values and his interests, and the interests of peace and security and development in the world. So my assessment of his chairmanship of the Commission at this stage is mixed. I would have wished to have seen more ambition. 

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