Minister reiterates France’s commitment to human rights

Thirty-first session of the Human Rights Council – Speech by M. Jean-Marc Ayrault, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development

Geneva, 29 February 2016

Thank you, Mr President,

Mr President of the United Nations General Assembly,

Mr President of the Human Rights Council,

High Commissioner for Human Rights,


Ladies and gentlemen,

We are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Human Rights Council and the 50th anniversary of the two texts that represent, for all of us, a shared foundation: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

This anniversary should be an opportunity for an uncompromising evaluation and collective remobilization. Human rights are under greater threat than ever before. And the Syrian people are paying the highest price. For the last five years, the Damascus regime has been relentlessly committing crimes against humanity. It has been torturing, murdering and starving people with complete impunity. It has been dropping barrel bombs and firing chemical weapons. There have been 260,000 deaths in five years; most of them civilians, the bulk of them killed by the regime. Over four million refugees have been driven into exile in desperation.

Alongside the crimes of the Syrian regime, let us not forget the barbarism of Daesh [so-called ISIL], which is terrorizing the Iraqi and Syrian people with rarely-equalled cruelty and depravity, and striking terror into the heart of Europe. We need to fight it resolutely; it’s a priority. In the face of these crimes, a ceasefire in Syria is crucially important. The fragile truce that began a few days ago offers a glimmer of hope. But it is still too weak. We need to take action for humanitarian access, a political transition and respect for human rights, while not easing the pressure on the parties to the conflict, especially the Syrian regime and its allies, so that they finally respect their international obligations in terms of humanitarian law, but also while continuing to denounce acts of violence and gather evidence. This is the mandate of the Pinheiro Commission, set up by our Council, which will ensure that, one day, justice is done. It deserves our full support in combating impunity.

The issue has been referred to the French courts. I encourage all countries which can to do the same. We need to go further, to ensure that all criminals are tried. The Security Council must refer the issue to the International Criminal Court, because there can be no lasting peace without truth or justice. Unfortunately, Syria is not the only place suffering from mass human rights violations. But let us be clear about this: the Syrian tragedy is the measure by which our human rights action will be judged.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Human rights violations are not limited to crimes committed in war-torn countries. They are also more insidious on every continent. An increasing number of governments are restricting public and individual freedoms in the name of security, political stability or even cultural idiosyncrasies, including in countries that claim to be democracies. Journalists, lawyers and the leaders of voluntary organizations are arrested. Non-governmental organizations are prevented from operating. Even in Europe, people are once again tempted to build walls, even though history teaches us that walls have never solved anything. Faced with the risk of regression, we must continue to be guided solely by the universality of human rights, which is enshrined in international treaties to which we freely acceded. Yes, I repeat: freely. Let us never forget that; and it imposes an obligation on us: to comply with them and never turn back.

Tunisia has never turned back. Even in the midst of a transition, and as the target of terrorism, it has adopted a constitution that protects fundamental freedoms, including freedom of belief and gender equality. It has maintained an open political space. This is a brave decision, and an example for all of us.

France will not turn back either. After the attacks of 13 November, the French government declared a state of emergency. This is an exceptional measure, authorized by law for a limited period, under the supervision of the judicial authorities; obviously it is not supposed to be extended indefinitely. We have heard people’s concerns. My country is open to dialogue. But much more than that, it wants to have this dialogue in full transparency, for it is doing its utmost to reconcile the legitimate security of its citizens with the preservation of public freedoms, to which the French Republic is deeply committed.

France and Europe also need to shoulder this responsibility, in order to combat the rise of populism and the return of nationalists and welcome, in dignity, the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and persecution. This crisis is testing the unity of our societies and our continent. It is weakening our ability to defend a model and principles, in particular the right to asylum. We should not underestimate this challenge, but it is up to us to confront it boldly and with respect for the principles of solidarity and responsibility on which Europe was built. France is fully committed to this approach.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I came here to reaffirm France’s commitment to human rights. They are, and will remain, a core principle of our democracy and our diplomacy. France has always been on the side of human rights defenders. Now more than ever, the doors of our embassies are open to them. Now more than ever, dialogue with our international partners is necessary. Supporting countries that wish to improve their human rights protection system is one of France’s long-term priorities. For all these reasons, France is running for re-election to the Human Rights Council from 2018.

As it runs for re-election, France has four aims:

Firstly, it aims to strengthen the protection of civilians and respect for humanitarian law during conflicts. Lessons must be learnt from the Syrian crisis. France, with its partners, will shortly refer to the Security Council the issue of protecting healthcare workers in conflict zones. It will continue to work tirelessly towards regulation of the right to veto at the Security Council in the case of mass atrocities. As ever, it will shoulder its responsibilities as a permanent member of the Security Council to prevent massacres, as it did recently in Mali and the Central African Republic.

Secondly, it aims to continue fighting for women’s rights, which – it should be acknowledged – are seeing a tendency towards regression. We should all be working harder than ever to achieve real equality between men and women in all areas. Such equality requires, for example, ensuring that women have access to contraception and combating forced or child marriages. This equality can be conquered through tireless effort and should encourage us to combat all forms of discrimination, including those from a previous age that are still experienced all too often by LGBTI people.

Naturally, France aims to step up the fight against the death penalty – an old but essential battle. For although an increasing number of countries have abolished the death penalty or established a moratorium, this practice, which reflects above all a failure of the justice system, has not become any less common. On the contrary, in 2015 a record number of executions were carried out worldwide.

Lastly, France aims to advance economic and social rights, especially by promoting corporate social and environmental responsibility. Our duty is to fulfil our citizens’ aspiration for decent working conditions and a healthy environment, for themselves and for future generations. Our duty is to combat climate disruption, which undermines fundamental rights, by implementing the Paris agreement. There is no time to lose; we must act now.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are at a crossroads. For the past 50 years, we have been building an international human rights system together, in reaction to violence against humanity, which we wanted to banish forever. This shared system is fragile. Our responsibility is to defend it in each of our countries against the temptation to turn back. Firstly, beyond stating principles, it is the duty of all of us – France first and foremost – to ensure that these principles are applied in practice and to combat all inequalities and all forms of discrimination, without wavering. And secondly in this forum, where, more than ever, we need to question one another uncompromisingly, and to develop and enforce the law together.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You can count on France’s voice and commitment./.

Published on 27/04/2016

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