Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, a Theachtaí, agus a Sheanadóirí as an gcuireadh a bheith leo inniu chun cur síos a dhéanamh ar mo dhualgais thar ceann an Aontais Eorpaigh i dtaobh an phróisis síochána sa Cholóim agus i dtaobh cearta daoine ar fud an domhain. It is a great privilege to join this meeting to discuss with members the two mandates that I carry out on behalf of the European Union.
In February 2019, the Council appointed me European Union Special Representative, EUSR, for Human Rights. That mandate was renewed earlier this year until March 2023. Since October 2015, I have been the European Union’s special envoy for the peace process in Colombia, a position to which I was appointed by the then High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini. The current High Representative and Vice-President, Josep Borrell, has reappointed me to that role to run in conjunction with my terms as EUSR for Human Rights. The two roles are highly compatible.
Following my appointment in 2015, I had the privilege to attend regularly in Havana during the final stages of the negotiation of the historic peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC. I again attended in Havana in late 2016 for the renegotiation of the peace agreement following its defeat in a plebiscite. Since then, I have been accompanying the implementation of the agreement, initially through the last 18 months of the Government of President Santos and then the full term of President Duque's administration.
Three weeks ago, between 22 and 26 November, I was in Colombia to participate in events marking the fifth anniversary of the peace agreement. These were attended for two days by the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. I accompanied President Duque and the Secretary General on field visits and spoke on behalf of the EU. That week, and the presence of Secretary General Guterres, marked a significant milestone in the Colombian peace process, which urged all parties to acknowledge what has been achieved and to recommit to the full implementation of the agreement.
The Colombian peace agreement brought to an end the longest and bloodiest conflict in the Americas in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The conflict lasted for 53 years. Some 250,000 Colombians lost their lives, 6 million were driven from their homes, up to 100,000 are still missing and there are more than 10 million victims. The FARC has disarmed and formed a political party called Comunes. A total of 90% of its members are still in the process of reincorporation or reintegration, for which the EU has provided considerable financial support.
An innovative victim-centred system of transitional justice has been established, including a truth commission, a missing persons agency and a tribunal known as the JEP. The JEP, although subject to criticism and attack in its early years, is now firmly established and is proceeding to hear cases against both former guerrillas and state actors. It recently found the collective leadership of FARC to be guilty of crimes against humanity, a finding that has been accepted by most of the FARC leaders concerned.
The JEP was recently strengthened by the agreement reached between the Colombian Government and the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which provides for the continued existence and work of the JEP. It was also significant that the fifth anniversary event convened by the JEP was the first occasion at which President Duque, the former President Santos and the Comunes leader, Rodrigo Londoño, all met in the same place.
Other aspects of the agreement that have been progressing include the bottom-up process of integrated rural development known as the PDETs, which is also supported by the EU, and the recent decision to proceed next year with the election of 16 additional members of congress from the areas and populations that were worst affected by the conflict.
As we know from our experience on this island, however, the implementation of any peace agreement can sometimes be slow, frustrating and uneven. The Kroc Institute from the University of Notre Dame, which reports on the implementation of the Colombian agreement, states that by October 2021, 30% of the stipulations in the Colombian agreement had been completed; a further 18% are at an intermediate stage; and a further 37% have been initiated and 15% have yet to be initiated. There is considerable scope for improvement, which is why the EU consistently calls for the full implementation of the agreement, particularly because of its integrated nature.
At this stage, the EU's principal concerns include the alarmingly high number of killings of human right defenders, social leaders and former combatants, mostly in remote areas of the country, and the need for increased and improved protection and for accountability. In that regard, the EU has provided funding to assist the work of the ombudsman and for the establishment of a special investigations unit in the office of the national prosecutor. I hope to hold the next EU-Colombia human rights dialogue early in the new year, and these issues, especially those relating to human rights defenders, will be high on the agenda.
The second principal concern relates to the need to accelerate the process of rural development and land reform. The agreement sets a 15-year time horizon for this work, five years of which have elapsed. The implementation of this chapter of the agreement will require significant additional Colombian resources. Third, there is the continuing and growing problem of illegal drugs and other illegal economies, from which much of the violence stems. The implementation of the plans for crop substitution contained in the peace agreement will be key. There is also a need for a fuller discussion, in Europe and the United States particularly, on the relationship between the consumption of cocaine and violence in Colombia.
Fourth, the Covid-19 pandemic has also impacted on implementation. The impact of the pandemic on the informal economy in Colombia, together with pre-existing inequalities, contributed to the large-scale strikes and public protests that took place in the country in the second quarter of this year and resulted in large numbers of peaceful protestors being shot dead. I travelled to Colombia in June of this year and met the strike committee, representatives of young people and business leaders, as well as the president and the leadership of the police. I urged respect for the right to peaceful protest, for accountability and for dialogue between the authorities and strikers and protesters.
During my most recent visit to Colombia, a few weeks ago, I was struck by the strong appreciation at all levels for the support of the international community for peace in Colombia, and by the particular welcome for the EU's role in this support. As we know in Ireland, international support for the peace process was essential. In the case of Colombia, the role of the UN has been central, with consistent interest and support from the Security Council, of which Ireland is now a member.
In that context, I express my recognition of the role Ireland has played. Over the years, Irish civil society organisations, churches, trade unions, development agencies and parliamentarians from North and South have regularly visited Colombia to express support for peacebuilding and for the defence of human rights, all of which contributed to the climate in which it was possible to advance peace negotiations. The decision by the Government to open a resident embassy in Bogotá has greatly increased Ireland's visibility and presence. I express my thanks also for the secondment of an Irish official to work with me on Colombia and on my human rights work, to which I will now turn.
Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are in the DNA of the EU. They are included in the treaties, they are conditions for membership of the EU and they are reflected in the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the Union. All the EU's trade agreements and the framework agreements with countries outside the EU contain human rights clauses and obligations. The EU's system of trade preferences for third countries requires compliance with core human rights conventions.
The EU, together with its member states, is the largest financial contributor to human rights and democracy in the world. The European instrument for democracy and human rights alone commits to €1.5 billion over the next six years. One example is the funding the EU provides to protect and support human rights defenders. ProtectDefenders.eu provides support through civil society organisations such as Front Line Defenders, which is headquartered In Ireland, and has helped more than 46,000 human rights defenders in the past five years alone. Another example is the election observation missions that are organised by the EU, 98 of which were organised in the course of the past five years.
In 2012, the Council decided to create the office of the EU Special Representative for Human Rights as an added dimension of the EU overall effort. On my appointment, in 2019, the role was widened to put greater emphasis on international humanitarian law and international criminal justice. More recently, when the new EU action plan on human rights and democracy for the period 2020 to 2024 was unanimously adopted by member states just a year ago, I was given responsibility to guide its implementation.
In carrying out my mandate, I principally engage with governments, usually at ministerial level. Some of this is through formal human rights dialogues and some I chair on behalf of the EU, such as in recent times with Brazil and the African Union. Other engagements occur through bilateral visits and bilateral meetings, and of course, during the pandemic, much of this was carried out virtually.
I also represent the EU at multilateral human rights forums and events. Earlier this week, for example, I spoke at a civil society conference on human rights in the Middle East and north Africa; this morning, I spoke at Finland's parliament to its advisory board for international human rights; and tomorrow, I will speak in Geneva on the human rights dimension of the digital future.
Engagement with civil society is also an essential part of my work. Last week, I participated in the opening panel of the annual EU-NGO forum, and yesterday, I met civil society and opposition leaders from Belarus. I relay the appreciation they expressed to me regarding the adoption by members of parliament throughout the EU, including in Ireland, of individual Belarus political prisoners. I take this opportunity to express my feelings about the prison sentences handed down in the past couple of hours against opposition leaders in Belarus. Some of these prison sentences are politically motivated and they are brutal.
I again repeat the European Union's calls for the release of political prisoners in Belarus and for accountability for those organising and administering the repression.
I do not want to summarise all of my engagements but it may be of interest to the committee for me to give some examples of my work. Between 27 November and 2 December, I visited Brazil, where I co-chaired the EU-Brazil human rights dialogue and visited Belém in the Amazon region to meet with civil society and indigenous representatives and with courageous human rights defenders. The visit enabled me to underline the EU’s expectations that Brazil will deliver on its commitments at COP26 and the nexus between environmental protection and human rights. I might also mention that Roger Casement was British consul in Belém in 1908 and 1909 and that it was there that he prepared his report on the human rights abuses in the rubber industry.
I visited Ukraine in October to meet Government Ministers, to visit eastern Ukraine and to engage with human rights defenders and representatives of the Tatar community from the illegally occupied Crimea. While there, I expressed the EU’s support for Ukraine with regard to Crimea and the areas of eastern Ukraine not controlled by the Government. I saw at first hand the hardships being faced by people living in those areas and the fragile nature of the ceasefire, which has led to the concerns regarding the mobilisation of Russian armed forces on the Ukrainian border which are now to the fore.
In early October, I visited central Asia to speak at the civil society forum. I also had discussions with the Presidents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan about the human rights situation in each of those countries and about the regional response to the crisis in Afghanistan and how the human rights situation in that country should be addressed.
In November, I co-chaired the European Union-Africa Union human rights dialogue with African Union Commissioner Bankole. Inevitably in that dialogue, we discussed the conflict in Ethiopia. That conflict was also among the issues I discussed with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, during the first ever European Union-Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR, strategic dialogue, which we held in early October. While I have had regular contact with High Commissioner Bachelet and the European Union is a strong supporter of her office and very active at the Human Rights Council, when High Commissioner Bachelet attended the European Union Foreign Affairs Council earlier this year, it was agreed that our relationship and co-operation should be put on a more formal and strategic footing. We intend to have the next meeting of this strategic dialogue early in 2022.
In my human rights dialogues, I usually meet with the representatives of civil society and, when possible, parliamentarians. In Brazil, for example, I met with the chairpersons and members of the human rights committees of the Senate and Congress. In Ukraine and Kazakhstan, I met with the chairpersons of the justice and foreign affairs committees.
There have been many significant developments during my mandate. These include the resumption, even during the Trump Administration, of the EU-US consultations on human rights, which had been in abeyance since 2015. The relationship with the US on the issue of human rights and democracy has significantly improved over the past year. We have also seen the resumption of a human rights dialogue at local level with India after a seven-year lapse and the holding of the first ever human rights dialogue between the European Union and Saudi Arabia in September of this year. Other developments include the adoption last December of the EU global human rights sanctions regime and the commencement of sanctions for human rights violations under that regime. The EU has shown support for the International Criminal Court, ICC, over the past three years in the face of threatened withdrawal by some countries and the sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration on senior officials of the court. I was directly involved in discussing the ICC with the then US Administration and I welcomed the decision by the new Administration to remove those sanctions.
In this relatively short presentation, it is possible only to touch on some of the countries and issues with which I engage but, before moving on to committee members' questions and observations, I want to draw a few conclusions from my work as special representative for human rights.
The first relates to the rise in authoritarianism throughout the world. All across the world, we are seeing democracy under pressure with consequences for human rights, such as the shrinking of civil society space and restrictions on fundamental freedoms such as freedom of the media, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. The Varieties of Democracy, V-Dem, study, which measures the health of democracy and freedom over time, states in its last report that 68% of the world’s population now live under either absolute autocracies or electoral autocracies and that the levels of democracy and freedom experienced by the average global citizen are back down to levels last seen 30 years ago.
The second relates to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on human rights, on the most vulnerable and especially on women. It will take a long time to unwind many of the emergency measures. The third relates to the several human rights crises which have emerged in the past few years including the repression in Belarus to which I have referred, the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan, the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Ethiopia and the coup in Myanmar.
However, there are also positive trends. We have never been closer to the global abolition of the death penalty. Last year, just 20 countries carried out executions. That is 20 too many, but we need now to collectively think about what more is needed to complete abolition. A second positive trend relates to the lessons the world is learning from the Covid-19 pandemic including the importance of multilateralism and the UN institutions and, in the human rights field, the renewed emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, which is also reflected in the EU's action plan. Related to this is the emergence of business and human rights as an area of particular interest. I know that this is a topic to which the committee has been giving some attention in recent times and I welcome that. It is also one which is receiving a much higher priority at EU level. I look forward to exchanging further with the committee about that. I thank the committee again for its invitation and attention. I am happy to respond to the questions and observations of members.