EU Official Speaks on Human Rights
Issue   |   Wed, 04/20/2016 - 00:58
Sophia Salazar '18
EU Special Respresentative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis ’84 spoke on the challenges facing human rights and strategies for supporting human rights in Fayerweather Hall on April 19.

The European Union Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis ’84 gave a talk titled “Rights Without Borders? Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Today’s European Union” at Amherst College on April 19.

Lambrinidis was appointed in July 2012 as the EU’s first thematic special representative. Before this position, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece, Vice President of the European Parliament and Director General of the International Olympic Truce Center. Lambrinidis graduated from Amherst as an economics and political science double major and went on to earn his juris doctor from Yale Law School.

The event was hosted by president Biddy Martin and organized by Director of Conferences and Special Events Patricia Allen. Lambrinidis’ lecture lasted approximately an hour and ended with a 30-minute question-and-answer session with the audience. Lambrinidis opened by describing the challenges facing human rights today before delving into strategies the EU is using to help uphold human rights.

“Human rights work may be deeply frustrating because there is so much human suffering and so much repression, but it is not desperate work,” Lambrinidis said. “We can make a difference.”

Some of the challenges Lambrinidis laid out included the difficulty of promoting human rights to other countries and encouraging these countries to take ownership of the concept, especially when human rights are associated with the West. Lambrinidis said that one important goal was “to make sure that societies in each different region, in each different country, are empowered to make human rights their own business.”

Lambrinidis emphasized building human rights on the ground in each country through civil society and independent institutions such as judiciary systems. He expressed the difficulty of speaking with countries that less supportive of human rights, but noted that simply having this discourse could lead to positive future developments.

He said he worked to “have them understand that they are not being told, they are being encouraged to change, and, if they are ready to do so, the European Union will support them … financially and with technical help.”
He said that international cooperation is the most effective strategy.

“The best way to address the attack on the universality of human rights is to ensure that it is not just us who are talking human rights,” Lambrinidis said. “It is, in fact, an international coalition of very different cultural, political or regional backgrounds that supports it.”

He spoke about a recent visit to China, mentioning an incident in which 300 lawyers had been arrested, noting how counterproductive this was for a country trying to build itself on the rule of law. During the trip, he spoke with officials regarding China’s position on human rights. The conversation focused on “whether or not human rights in the Chinese mind is something that the West has devised to cure … the communist system, to overthrow the government … or whether it is something that is more benign that maybe should be considered without having an existential breakdown hanging over their heads,” Lambrinidis said.

Another topic Lambrinidis spoke about was the common presumption of conflict between security and human rights. Instead, he advocated a model of sustainable security and seeking proactive conflict prevention. After stating the importance of civil society, Lambrinidis said that public opinion has become desensitized to human rights violations that are not as overtly dramatic as other parts of the news cycle such as decapitations by the terrorist group ISIS.

The last challenge Lambrinidis spoke about was holding the United States and EU to a high standard of human rights, condemning the detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, xenophobia and racism as detrimental to the advancement of human rights.

“The biggest weapon we have when we go around the world and try to promote human rights is our credibility,” Lambrinidis said. “We have to make sure that our job in-house is done effectively in order for us to be able to work effectively with partners outside of our house for a more peaceful world.”

Lambrinidis said that human rights are not simply morally desirable but “extremely realistic and important in creating peace and security.”

The lecture then shifted its focus to the strategy the EU is implementing to support human rights globally, with education as a key component.

“People around the world can exercise human rights if they know about them, and in many cases they don’t,” Lambrinidis said. “A remarkable amount of our effort is placed and has to be placed in getting people to know those rights.”

He said it was important to change the minds and the hearts of people rather than the pure letter of the law.

“I am on a mission to discuss with people and explain that this is not a desperate business — that people do get released, that governments do change their policies, that repression does not always last,” Lambrinidis said. “The European Union is at the forefront of this effort. Not as a leader … [that] would be the death of our effort, [but as] a convener of human rights powers around the world who can make a difference.”

A brief question-and-answer session followed, spanning topics such as the Syrian refugee crisis, the uniqueness of the U.S. death penalty and the relationship of businesses and human rights.

“How we can unite the powers of good around the world?” Lambrinidis asked, concluding the talk. “There are too many. Often isolated, often afraid, often intimidated. We have to not simply point fingers but also join hands.”