« Renewing our political will to better defend the rights of the defenders » (en)


Berna, 10.06.2014 - Allocuzione del Presidente della Confederazione Didier Burkhalter - Fa stato la versione orale

Oratore: Presidente della Confederazione, Didier Burkhalter (2014); Didier Burkhalter; OSCE CiO, Didier Burkhalter (2014)

1. Introduction

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to welcome you here to the federal capital of Switzerland, Bern. The fact that this high-level conference has been co-organised by the present and future chairs, Switzerland and Serbia, as well as the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is significant. Switzerland and Serbia have advocated for continuity, planning certainty and sustainability for the OSCE right from the beginning of the preparations of their consecutive Chairmanships. By co-organising this event, we demonstrate our shared commitment to human rights.

The protection and promotion of human rights and the strengthening of the rule of law is deeply anchored in the Swiss Federal Constitution. Article 54 stipulates that the promotion of human rights is a fundamental objective of Swiss foreign policy.

But the promotion of human rights is a task that not only falls to states, it concerns everyone. As members of civil society, we all have a crucial part to play in strengthening and better implementing human rights.

2. The need for better implementation of human rights

The basic task of human rights policy has changed over time. Sixty years ago, the challenge resided in the definition and codification of civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The question then was to know which rights were universal, which rights were inherent to us as human beings, and how to convince as many states as possible to recognise these rights.

Since 1945 a huge body of international human rights treaties and instruments have been developed and adopted. Supplementary instruments to protect human rights have been put in place at the regional and national levels. The problem with human rights protection now is not a lack of norms, but a lack of effective implementation. Priority must therefore be given to implementation.

Human rights are inherent to all human beings and they are universal. But there is a gap between the public commitment to human rights and the reality. We, as part of the international community, have the obligation to close this gap. Human rights need to be respected on the ground and not only on paper.

The reality of human rights is never a given. It is not something that can be acquired once and for all. Quite to the contrary: human rights and their implementation need to be constantly be fought for, renewed and defended.

Think for example about the right of peaceful assembly. Everyone in this room has been concerned with this right at some point in their lives. Pride parades have been banned in some countries, law-enforcement agencies have intervened and fines have been imposed on those exercising this right in others. People have to be able to exercise this right, which is the basis for democracy throughout the OSCE region.

The Swiss OSCE Chairmanship has chosen to focus on implementation as one of its ten priorities. We consider this to be of fundamental importance, also in the framework of the OSCE: there cannot be any lasting and sustainable security without respect for human rights. Therefore, all countries in the OSCE region have a duty and an interest to take part in this discussion.

The implementation of human rights norms first and foremost needs one thing: political will. Political will to live up to those promises that were made in the past and that have since been regularly renewed. Political will to accept and encourage the involvement of civil society in our efforts to better implement human rights.

Civil society organizations and human rights defenders around the world are playing a leading role in this respect. For their courageous work they deserve our respect and our attention.

In this context, I would like to mention the important work of the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. Its members provide unbiased and verified information about security incidents and human rights violations and are tasked with supporting the government in implementing de-escalation measures.

They are the eyes and ears of the international community in Ukraine and they contribute to the de-escalation of the situation. The detention of eight of these monitors is unacceptable and they must be released. I call on all sides to jointly work towards their immediate and unconditional release.

Aware that conflict makes the whole civilian population - women, men and children - particularly vulnerable to human rights violations, the OSCE has consistently advocated for dialogue to overcome the Ukraine crisis. I welcome the importance that President Poroshenko is attaching to national and international dialogue.

At the request of President Poroshenko, I have agreed to send Heidi Tagliavini, an experienced Swiss diplomat, to Kiev. She represents the OSCE Chairmanship in a tripartite Contact Group that also includes Ukraine and Russia. In the past two days, this Contact Group held three meetings on the implementation of President Poroshenko’s peace plan. The group has developed a common understanding of the milestones that must be reached to implement the peace plan and compiled a list of the most urgent tasks that must be accomplished to de-escalate the situation in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The participants of the Contact Group have agreed to continue talks in the same format.

Those who are working relentlessly to make the world a better place should not have to fear for their liberty and for their lives. The tragic killing of an ICRC delegate last week in Libya is a shocking reminder that this is far from universally recognised. Switzerland condemns this murder and calls upon all conflicting parties to respect the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law.

3. From the Helsinki final act to the present via the Budapest Summit

Ladies and gentlemen,

There is no long-term security and stability without respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Security in the OSCE does not only mean the absence of war. Instead, it is a comprehensive approach to security that includes political and military security, economic and environmental security as well as human security.

It was the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 that recognised for the first time that violations of human rights constitute as much a threat to international security as weapons, economic crises, and environmental degradation. Switzerland was a bridge-builder already in the early days of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE).

Together with other neutral and non-aligned states, it played a crucial role on the road to the Helsinki Final Act. Since then, Switzerland has traditionally advocated a vision of security that puts the well-being of humans at its focal point. Accordingly, the leitmotiv of the Swiss Chairmanship is “Creating a Security Community for the Benefit of Everyone.”

The Helsinki Final Act is not only a founding document, it is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue with civil society that has lasted for nearly 40 years. The Helsinki movement and human rights defenders across Europe found legitimacy in the Helsinki Final Act. It was a document of hope that ultimately helped to end the Cold War peacefully by, for instance, giving legitimacy to the Polish Solidarność movement that played such an important role in the peaceful transition process in Poland. Exactly 25 years ago, the courageous commitment of the Solidarność-movement led to the first free elections in Poland – the same year the Berlin Wall fell and with it the Iron Curtain.

Over the years, OSCE participating States have reiterated the crucial role of civil society. Twenty years ago, at the Summit of Budapest, participating States officially recognised the important role of civil society and the need to defend the rights of human rights defenders.

Human rights defenders play a key role in bringing about political change. By contributing to the protection of particularly vulnerable groups, campaigning for justice and demanding that those in power assume responsibility for their actions, they contribute to the creation of a society in which the voices of the weak are also heard. The results of their work are not always as impressive and visible as the changes brought about by Solidarność, but they are always equally important.

When defending a member of the Roma people, bringing this person’s case to court, pleading for respect for rights and possibly obtaining remedy, a lawyer not only contributes to respect for this individual’s rights, but also promotes human rights, the rule of law, and to a functioning democracy.

These men and women, working to increase awareness and respect for human rights, often take high risks to help their fellow citizens to live their lives in dignity. They need and deserve our respect and support.

The fact that the situation is getting more difficult for civil society actors should be of concern to all of us. Human rights defenders face numerous challenges every day, and in many countries in recent years they are being confronted with shrinking space for manoeuvre - also within the OSCE area. What we believed to be an “acquis” is being challenged today in many regions of the world.

Violations of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and the frequently precarious situation of women human rights defenders are inacceptable.

As they work to ensure the full and comprehensive protection of rights and freedoms and actual compliance with relevant commitments and obligations, human rights defenders are being subjected to all kinds of constraints and intimidation, and may themselves become victims of severe repression. We must do our utmost to protect them.

There is still a long way to go to fulfil the commitment we made 20 years ago in Budapest when we “emphasised the need for protection of human rights defenders”. This is why the Swiss OSCE Chairmanship decided to host this conference today, thereby underlining and renewing our political will to reinforce the protection of human right defenders.

4. Better defend the rights of the defenders

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We firmly believe that human rights defenders are key stakeholders in any democratic society.

I recall the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani, saying that human rights defenders should be identified by their activities rather than their status. To be a human rights defender, it is not important who you are, what counts is what you do to defend human rights.

The creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling working environment is essential to ensuring that human rights defenders are able to carry out their mission of promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law effectively and free from fear and intimidation.

Switzerland has long advocated better protection for human rights defenders and intervenes with governments that hinder or threaten them in the course of their work. Switzerland is particularly active at the following three levels:

1. First, at the multilateral level, Switzerland has actively supported the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, that came into force in 1998. It has done so in the UN Commission on Human Rights and continues to support resolutions presented at the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

In order to monitor the situation of human rights defenders, Switzerland provided political and financial support for the creation of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. Since then, it has always supported the periodic renewal of this mandate. Switzerland also supports activities within the framework of regional organisations, not only the OSCE but also the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States and the African Union.

2. Second, at the bilateral level, Switzerland promotes the position of human rights defenders during its bilateral human rights consultations with partner states. By addressing human rights objectives and concerns systematically in bilateral consultations, we aim to strengthen our human rights policy in line with our constitutional mandate.

3. Third, at the project level, Switzerland supports NGOs working to protect human rights defenders, such as Peace Brigades International, the World Organisation Against Torture, Frontline and the Martin Ennals Award.

In order to strengthen the policy we have pursued so far and in order to standardise current practice, Switzerland issued the Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in December 2013.

These guidelines offer a concrete set of instruments for a better defence of the rights of the human rights defenders.

With these guidelines, Switzerland reaffirms its determination to provide better and more effective protection for these courageous men and women. These guidelines aim to draw attention to the problems that human rights defenders typically face, to promote a common approach that will provide more effective protection for human rights defenders, and to set out specific approaches for providing effi¬cient support to them.

Political will is crucial for the implementation of commitments. The launch of the ODIHR Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is an expression of this political will.

Switzerland fully supports the ODHIR guidelines. They are in line with Switzerland’s activities in this large region covered by the OSCE, from Vancouver to Vladivostok. These guidelines will be a helpful tool for the OSCE participating States in order to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society. Allowing the voices of human rights defenders and civil society to be heard - even when these are uncomfortable voices - is at the basis of a well-functioning democracy.

I encourage you to make good use of these guidelines in your different national contexts. International instruments for human rights, democracy and the rule of law as well as political commitments can only help improve people’s lives if their implementation is accepted and promoted by states at national level.

5. Conclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Nelson Mandela once said that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”. Our commitment to defend and to promote human rights is something we owe to our shared humanity. Protecting those who defend these rights is a moral imperative and our common duty.

The two priorities of the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE in the human dimension are strengthening the dialogue with civil society and the implementation of commitments.

Supporting the ODIHR in developing and promoting guidelines on the protection of human rights defenders corresponds exactly to those two priorities. They are not only Swiss priorities but are also an integral part of the joint work plan of Switzerland and Serbia. I am pleased that the next chair of the OSCE sits with us on this panel today and will endeavour to continue our commitment in the same spirit next year.
I would like to conclude by warmly thanking Ambassador Janez Lenarćić, and all those who work beside him, for the achievements they have made over the past years.

On this occasion, I would like to express my sincere thanks for the departing director of the ODIHR, Ambassador Janez Lenarčič. Through your able leadership and visionary approach, the ODIHR has strengthened its position on the international scene and fulfilled its mandate despite the increasing budgetary constraints and diverging views on the role of the Office among participating States.

Your tireless engagement in assisting participating States in implementing the Human Dimension commitments has brought all of us forward. I wish you, Ambassador Lenarčič, all the best for your future endeavours.

Switzerland will continue to support the ODIHR in pursuing its invaluable efforts with strength and independence.

I wish you two days of fruitful debate.

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