Crisis Won't Diminish European Foreign Policy

By Catherine Ashton

My job gives me the good fortune to meet presidents and prime ministers, to discuss the weightiest topics with the mightiest people. But those who leave the biggest impression are not usually those I greet in imposing buildings in front of the cameras. They are the men and women I encounter in city squares and dusty streets, in crowded schools and friendly homes. From Warsaw to Soweto, from Juba to Yangon, they are the people who have defied and defeated tyranny.

Last year, when I crossed the threshold of a human rights organisation in Tunis I joined an animated discussion among people who had never met each other before - yet each had spent their life dedicated to improving other people's lives. Now they had the chance to work together.

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Round the world, far away from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, and the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, these people strive to make a difference to their - and our - world. They may be motivated by a small injustice or a great crime. They may be aware of their rights, or unaware of the law. But common to them all is a willingness to overcome fear and oppression and to battle for a better world. These are the kinds of people I came into politics to help. They are the type of champions that I want to champion. The kinds I want the EU - and the European External Action Service (EEAS) - to work for.

Putting the promotion of human rights at the centre of the EU's foreign policy is therefore something I have focused on since I took up office. But as I have found in the last two-and-half years, over trips to nearly every continent and in countless meetings, to champion the kind of people that deserve our support requires that the EU overcome two key challenges, each one of which can undermine the struggle, their and ours, to build a better world.

The first challenge has to do with the EU's coherence. Too often I hear questions asked about whether the promotion of human rights can, in fact, be integrated into EU policies on aid, trade, climate change and enlargement. Or whether the EU can ever escape the kind of double standards that have caused problems in the past. But I am clear that we cannot succeed if we talk only about rights to those who want to hear it and otherwise keep silent. That we cannot forget human rights just because we are talking to governments about commercial relations or energy links. Ethics are indivisible.

That is why the EU's Human Rights strategy I launched earlier this month promises to place rights at the centre of the EU's "relations with all third countries" and to "promote human rights in all areas of its external action without exception", including "trade, investment, technology and telecommunications, Internet, energy, environmental, corporate social responsibility and development policy". When I met Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma/Myanmar earlier this year I could do so proudly, knowing that the EU had led the isolation of the Burmese government despite the undoubted benefits - not least commercial - that appeasement would have offered. We can now suspend sanctions and are trusted to find ways to support the transition, as the Burmese know we were on the right side of history beforehand.

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Catherine Ashton is the EU's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy & Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP). Article reprinted with permission from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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