Thank you for that introduction, and welcome to you all.
As Minister for Human Rights at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it is a great pleasure to meet so many of you who are dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights across the world.
It is also my pleasure to extend a warm welcome to our expert panel members, who will shortly lead a discussion on protecting civil society space - a topic that is integral to human rights, and of crucial importance to all of us in this room.
Thank you also to the Foreign Office choir, who later will put our theme to music, with a South African protest song and a piece dedicated to Nelson Mandela - poignant reminders of the sacrifices that civil society has made in the cause of human rights.
Today, we’ve come together to mark Human Rights Day - celebrated every year, to remind us that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the common standard to which every country must aspire.
And a time for the British Government to reconfirm our commitment to that common standard.
The United Nations’ theme for this year - ‘Human Rights 365’ underlines that human rights are for all people, in all places, at all times. And this is what we must all strive to defend.
I’m struck by the many ways in which today is being marked.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is remembering victims of the Holocaust as he visits Auschwitz Birkenau. He will be pledging - as we did along with the governments of 54 other countries in Stockholm 15 years ago - the British Government’s commitment to the sacred and vital duty to: uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it; to encourage the study of the Holocaust in all its dimensions; and to fight all forms of prejudice and hatred.
Today, also marks the end of 16 days of international activism to end violence against women and girls. I’m proud that our network of missions and posts has staged events across the world to send out a clear message: that violence against women and girls must end everywhere - and forever.
This June, the UK gathered together an unprecedented 120 countries and 900 experts, many of you in the room today, to send out a clear message that together, we can eradicate sexual violence in conflict. The remarkable and inspiring stories we heard from human rights defenders and civil society activists who attended the event reinforce our belief that the power to effect change lies with people. The Report of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict is being published today.
The UK does not defend human rights only because it is the right thing to do.
What the Prime Minister said two years ago, remains true today:
“When a government respects its citizens’ human rights, that makes for a more stable country - and that is good for all of us”.
So, our responsibility to promote and protect human rights overseas is integral to our national interest - because of their vital role in contributing to international peace, security and prosperity - all of which benefit Britain.
Indeed, many international crises are arguably caused by human rights violations, and solved by democracy.
…Because democracy and the rule of law are crucial to allowing people - both individually, and through civil society organisations – to thrive and contribute to their country’s success.
…And because self-interest in a vigorous national and global civil society is increasingly how nations compete in today’s globalised economy. Innovation, creativity, and a thriving “knowledge economy” rely on a strong civil society.
Last month’s Afghanistan Symposium in Oslo, and last week’s London Conference on Afghanistan, underlined how sustainable progress relies upon the energy of Afghan civil society. And how empowering Afghan women to play an active role in political processes and holding the government to account will be a key enabler of Afghanistan’s future success. I want to thank Kate Allen and Amnesty for their unwavering work on this issue.
Yet, over recent years, around the world, we have seen a deepening repression of civil society.
While all states can and should have laws which regulate civil society organisations, we have seen how these laws can be abused to limit the ability of civil society to operate.
Look at Russia’s so called Foreign Agents Law - where the important work of Russian NGOs is undermined by a Soviet-era label that generates mistrust and subjects their activities to special scrutiny.
Or The Gambia, where individuals can now be imprisoned for up to 15 years for ‘publishing false information’. And can face life imprisonment if convicted under the new ‘aggravated homosexuality’ bill.
And in Ecuador, organisations can now be dissolved for virtually any minor violation of the law.
These examples serve as a sharp reminder that we must remain active in defending of civil society across the world.
So you may ask what are we doing about it?
This year marked the UK’s return as a voting member of the UN Human Rights Council. We have played an influential role - in Geneva and New York - to help the international community shine a light on human rights violations in many parts of the world, not least in Syria, North Korea and Iran.
The Council has also achieved some notable successes on difficult thematic issues, including the UN’s second ever resolution on sexual orientation.
Through our membership of the Council, the UK is using its influence to push for change; and to oppose the push-back from those who regard civil society as something to fear.
For instance in September, in the face of strong challenges from countries who tried to restrict it, we supported a text on protecting civil society space, which I am pleased to say, was ultimately passed.
We also work through the European Union, whose member states share our concern for civil society around the world.
For example, today the UK joined its EU partners, along with Norway and Switzerland, in publishing a joint strategy to support human rights defenders in Afghanistan.
This will make a real difference, and achieve a great deal more than countries acting individually.
The EU’s current Action Plan on Human Rights, which helps to coordinate its activities around the world, makes support to Human Rights Defenders a priority. And we want this to continue in the next Action Plan - with a stronger focus on actions to address the specific issue of shrinking civil society space.
This is an area where our Embassies and High Commissions are already hard at work. Particularly in their support for human rights defenders - by observing trials, visiting those imprisoned, lobbying for their release, and raising concerns with the authorities, amongst other actions.
Another important tool for us is our dedicated human rights and democracy fund - currently helping local civil society organisations to run 70 human rights projects, across more than 40 countries.
For example, last year we funded a freedom of expression project in Vietnam to provide recommendations to government on media regulations - and as a result, the revised regulations increased the protection of local journalists’ rights;
In Zambia - we funded a project to run public TV and radio debates in order to galvanise public engagement on social justice issues. This reached over 400,000 people and enabled Zambians to speak up for government transparency and accountability;
And this year in Burma, in order to protect freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression, we have worked with local partners to train media professionals about accurate and responsible reporting of faith-based conflicts.
But while we are achieving a lot, we clearly don’t have all the answers.
So, over the next couple of hours, whether at the panel discussion, or with our officials staffing the stalls around the room – I would strongly encourage you to share with us your ideas for protecting civil society space.
So, I will leave you with this final thought: as we look to 2015 and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the United Kingdom is absolutely committed to working with and protecting civil society:
To protect individuals from discrimination, violence and intimidation;
To lend you our diplomatic strength and influence;
And to speak up - both in public and in private - for those being denied a voice.
Because the honest partnership we have is crucial:
If we are to develop a genuinely effective long-term and sustainable strategy;
If we are to help every individual and every country reach their full potential;
And if we are truly to achieve our collective security and prosperity around the world;
As the Prime Minister said, that is “good for all of us”.
But I’d like to end by congratulating Malala Yousafzai, who will be receiving her Nobel Peace Prize today. I’m sure you’ll all agree, this inspiring woman truly captures this year’s theme:
… that human rights are for all people, in all places, at all times.
And this is what we must all strive to defend.
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