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Tirana Hassan's address to the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights - October 25, 2023


Thank you chair, honorable Members,

Thank you for having me today. Before becoming the Executive Director of HRW I had spent decades in countries documenting and responding to humanitarian crises and conflicts, from Myanmar to Bahrain to Egypt, and I have seen what type of change, principled and rights-based policy engagement makes to the lives of people who are living through unimaginable human rights abuses.

The European Parliament has been a principled and committed voice for human rights, at times speaking up when other EU institutions would not – or at least, not as vocally. Your resolutions, your positions in trialogues, your country visits, your outreach to ambassadors and others, all your efforts have played an important role in our collective struggle to ensure that human rights are respected. Your action has had real life impact for jailed human rights defenders (HRDs) and activists; it has contributed to preventing the adoption of abusive legislation, or to promoting positive reforms in many countries; and your scrutiny of other EU institutions has supported the betterment of EU action and unmasked wrongdoings. This subcommittee in particular has been the most proactive, giving voice to members of civil society – including many of my HRW colleagues – human rights defenders, and representatives of oppressed and persecuted groups. I sincerely thank you for that.

The European Parliament’s principled stance on many issues has helped underline the dangers of the EU’s shortsighted support for repressive leaders across the Mediterranean and beyond. We have seen short-term stability and migration management at the expense of human rights. This trade-off carries a high price: torture, jailing, extra judicial killings of perceived opponents and critics, erosion of people’s trust in the authorities and of hope for a democratic and rights-respecting future. Repressive leaders operate without scrutiny, without checks and balances. And when they do so, there is no stability. Egypt is on the verge of collapse precisely for these reasons, and I commend the principled stance that the European Parliament has repeatedly taken on Egypt, urging the other EU institutions to end their uncritical support for al Sisi’s brutal rule. Although so far this has been in vain, we must persist. Tunisia is another case in point, and your efforts denouncing the wrong approach taken by the Commission and some member states are not only appreciated, it is the right thing to do.

We are also appreciative of your work on China, including your numerous resolutions and hearings, your Sakharov prize to Ilham Tohti, your freezing of CAI, your calls for tough EU action, and your efforts for due diligence and forced labor legislation. The Chinese government continues to commit unspeakable abuses at home and persists in its efforts to rewrite the international human rights order abroad.

Your urgency resolution on India few months ago was also important as it broke the wall of EU silence on wrongdoings and growing abuses in India. We regret that European governments and the Commission remain reluctant to publicly raise concerns over the very worrying repressive trend under Modi’s rule. Politicians under his ruling party, the BJP, continue to use hate speech and fuel intercommunal violence. Human rights defenders and journalists are jailed and harassed, while NGOs and media outlets are being shut down. And India is the country with the most internet shutdowns in the world over the past five years. Democracies should not be afraid of scrutinizing one another, and European governments and institutions should consider the long-term price of turning a blind eye to an increasingly repressive government.

Many human rights defenders and victims of abuses look at the European Union with great hopes and expectations. The EU collectively, many of its member states, and this Parliament, continue to be very important players in the defense of human rights worldwide – and they have remained so when, for instance, the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council. 

The EU – as a bloc and through its member states – has promoted the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), encouraged other states to ratify the Rome statute, and deployed significant efforts to advance justice for international crimes, including through the principle of universal jurisdiction.

The EU’s remarkable efforts to promote accountability for crimes committed in Ukraine should be a blueprint to address international crimes everywhere. In this regard, we continue to press EU member states to provide adequate resources to the ICC’s regular budget, and to urge Ukraine to fulfil its commitment to ratify the Rome Statute. It’s a step that would further legitimize Ukraine’s demands for international justice.

The current situation in Sudan exposed the cost of the failure to address decades of impunity for abuses by both Sudan’s Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Now that the UN Human Rights Council established a full-fledged UN inquiry and the EU set up a new sanction regime on Sudan, it is urgent for the EU to roll out sanctions against both leaders, commanders and other entities of SAF and RSF involved in grave violations and to send the clear message that human rights abusers have no place in the country’s future leadership.

Indeed, it is against this backdrop that I must turn to the current situation in Israel and Palestine.

Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s heinous crimes shocked us all. They deserve firm, unambiguous condemnation. The victims and their families deserve our strong support and solidarity. Hostages must be released. And those responsible for war crimes must be held to account. There is never any justification for targeting innocent civilians.

But the very same principles are true when it comes to Israel’s response to crimes by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. You cannot cut food, water, electricity that are vital for the lives of 2.3 million people who have been living in a blockade for 16 years. You cannot wipe out entire innocent families, let a health system be destroyed, raze entire districts to the ground, refer to these people as “animals”. You can’t punish an entire population by preventing desperately needed aid from reaching them.

International Humanitarian Law is clear: atrocities from one side do not justify atrocities from the other side. No party to any conflict is above International Humanitarian Law. Israeli and Palestinian lives have the same dignity, deserve the same protection, and attacks on either should spark the same levels of indignation.

Regrettably, this was not the message of your resolution last week, despite the best efforts of many MEPs, including many from this subcommittee. It is not the message that this Parliament and some EU leaders sent to Israeli and Palestinian authorities, armed groups, civil society, civilians, to diaspora communities living in Europe, and the so called "global south". 

It is when crises happen that our commitment to human rights and International Humanitarian Law is tested. And it is in those moments that it needs to remain firmer than ever. I hope MEPs and other EU institutions will have a chance to reflect on their positions and rectify their message and action.

I’m glad to be here today and to be given a platform to say this. That is what it means to protect civic space to voice human rights concerns. And I know you have another hearing tomorrow on the same issues, so I’m not going to expand further on the situation, but I am happy to take questions.

But I do want to speak more broadly to the price of double standards in applying the international human rights framework and to the importance of promoting universal respect for International Humanitarian Law:

The first victims of double standards are human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, activists who often carry out their activities at great personal risk. They look at the EU as an ally, and often that is the case, and we have commended the EU’s support for them. But when that doesn’t happen, when extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, harassment are met with silence and inaction, when the EU openly supports oppressive leaders, activists on the ground feel let down in their struggle to protect human rights, and they question the EU’s commitment to human rights;

Double standards also risk undermining the EU’s own credibility as a principled foreign policy actor. The EU has made considerable efforts to advance accountability for a number of different crises around the world, including Myanmar, Belarus, Syria, Russia, Ukraine, North Korea and others. It has done so also by galvanizing the international community for votes at the UN. When double standards are exposed, the motives of the EU are questioned, and its credibility is eroded. Abusive governments like Russia and China can benefit from this politically, even when they bear little if any credibility speaking up against war crimes or for the protection of Muslims.

Finally, double standards weaken the entire international human rights system. When the world cares for some crises and not others, of some innocent victims and not others, when efforts for accountability do not depend on the abuses committed but on the identity of who the abusers are and who the victims are, the credibility of international institutions and international justice are affected.

Chair, honorable Members, impunity fuels abuses. That’s true for Russia as it’s true for China, Ethiopia, Sudan, India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and any other country or armed group in the world. Your work standing up for accountability and an international global order based on respect for human rights and International Humanitarian Law to governments and institutions in Europe and beyond is more important than ever. We trust that this subcommittee and this Parliament will continue to do so in the months to come, and we can only hope that the European people will confirm their commitment to human rights in the elections next year.

I’ll stop here, thank you chair, and I look forward to questions from the floor.

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