The Stakes of International Human Rights: Interview with Stavros Lambrinidis, European Union Special Representative for Human Rights

Conducted by April Xiaoyi Xu (PO ’18), Editor-in-Chief and Milo Kremer (PO ’20), Staff Writer

Transcribed by Milo Kremer


Stavros Lambrinidis has been the European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights since 2012. He previously served as Minister for Foreign Affairs of Greece and Vice President of the European Parliament. A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, Lambrinidis served as managing editor of the Yale Journal of International Law. On February 16th, Lambrinidis spoke with the CJLPP prior to his Ideas @ Pomona talk titled “What’s So Scary About Smart Girls? And Other Fun Questions About Human Rights.”


CJLPP: Your role as a Special Representative for the European Union (EU) is unique; you have an intentionally flexible mandate as a representative for human rights. How would you describe your role now?

Stavros Lambrinidis: I have been tasked with spearheading the EU’s human rights foreign policy. I would say that my role is to visit some of the most difficult countries in the world with some of the most serious human rights violations, and try to find the appropriate approach to bring positive change for the people on the ground. I also focus on countries that may be in the process of democratic, social or economic transition––places like Myanmar in 2011, or the Gambia since last year, or Guatemala, or Bahrain a few years ago, countries that could go either way, and depending how they go could affect the greater region as well. And finally, I also visit countries that actually have good human rights records, to build strong human rights alliances and help spread positive narratives and best practices.

The interesting thing with human rights in the past few years is that the “bad guys” have become much more effective at playing offense. So, until recently, they had been telling us that we have no right to intervene in their affairs, that we are violating their sovereign rights by doing so. But now they’re beginning to try to export their negative narratives and practices of human rights to others; they’re trying to increase their world influence, if you like. That being said, there are a number of countries around the world—in all cultures and in all regions—that are actually pretty good at human rights. Because you don’t read about them in the newspaper headlines—there are no massacres, no violent oppression—you rarely tend to notice or visit them. All the good countries from around the world have never actually gotten together to create a coalition of positive and inspirational stories about human rights. It’s about time they started doing so.

CJLPP: So you elevate the positive stories and try to find solutions to the negative ones? 

Lambrinidis: Indeed. The European Union, or anyone else for that matter, has the power to bring change from the outside. One of the things in human rights (as in much of foreign policy) is how you support civil societies and governments to take ownership of their own human rights agenda without you appearing to be in the lead. Because, in fact, human rights can rarely be “imposed” from the outside. So, if your goal in policy is to go and “plant your freedom flag” and declare to the world, “Look, I came to this country. It is now doing fantastic because of me,” hoping that people would focus on your work as opposed to the country itself, then you are doing a disservice. This is because the whole point is to make the country itself proud, not because it is under your own influence, but because it is under the influence of its own ownership—of its own peoples’ ownership—of human rights. What I do, in many instances, is to keep the lowest possible political profile when I go into different countries. This is a counterintuitive thing for a politician to do. But if you are going to do human rights well, then you cannot be appearing as though “the West” is going around telling others what to do. If you fall into that trap, then you muddy the waters before you even begin.

CJLPP: How do you think your role in this flexible mandate has changed since your appointment in 2012, and do you see it changing any further?

Lambrinidis: When I first assumed duty, I focused most of my time on the countries that were the biggest violators of human rights. And, five years later, I focus an increasing amount of my time on countries and on organisations that can create a coalition of good human rights stories.

In particular, civil society has seen its space in many countries shrink. Funding has been cut off or civil society activities have been blocked by some governments. Its reputation has been smeared; even when there is no direct repression of civil society, governments may still smear civil society’s reputation so that people are afraid to interact with or participate in it. Civil society around the world engages every day in actions that generate overwhelmingly positive narratives. Advocating for human rights is not all “Arab Spring”. The story peddled by many human rights violators is that whenever people revolt against an oppressive leader terrible things happen and thus they should stay quiet. Advocating for human rights can, in fact, be forceful and peaceful,  like in Burkina Faso or in Ghana, or in Korea where the candlelight vigils recently led to a peaceful change in the government. There is a very important stabilising role of civil society with respect to freedom of expression and assembly that allows for frustrations to be expressed before they reach the boiling point. So today I focus more on the positive stories, while still forcefully addressing the difficult and bad stories.

CJLPP: Our next question is on international law. One perspective in international academic and media discourse is that there is a trend of proliferation of human rights. For example, Jacob Mchangama and Gugielmo Verdirame (founders of the Freedom Rights Project) write in a Foreign Affairs op-ed about how “when everything can be defined as a human right, the premium on violating such rights is cheap”. From a legal perspective, would you concur with that? And would you say that a narrower, more clearly defined set of rights would be more helpful in promoting respect for international human rights through more robust monitoring and enforcement?

Lambrinidis: Human rights are clearly defined in international conventions and often too in domestic constitutions and laws—they do not include “everything under the sky.”

The real challenge today is not, in my view, that “too much” accountability is being sought for the violation of human rights (thus “cheapening” them), but rather that accountability for even some of the gravest human rights violations—look at Syria, for example—and for other violations, is often increasingly difficult to come by. If a police force feels like it can beat up protesters with impunity; if a husband can kill his wife in a fit of jealousy with impunity because a government will not arrest him; if the military in a country like Myanmar feel that they can eject a whole people because of their religion with impunity; then, it is obvious that the next violator who wishes to do something like this will not feel restrained by legal considerations. The problem in these cases is that the major enforcer of human rights in any country is the judicial system in that country itself, and many legal systems (from arrest and interrogation to prosecution and judgment) are still weak. Internationally, there is the International Criminal Court (ICC), of course, but that is for the most egregious violations such as crimes against humanity and genocide. It is often difficult to reach that level of proof. Also, not all countries are signatories to the ICC. The EU is among the biggest supporters of the ICC. We require all of our members to be members of the ICC. Every year, we launch a diplomatic campaign with every single country in the world in which we ask that they sign on to the ICC, if they have not already.

But there are also cases of regional human rights mechanisms that strongly support human rights. Europe is the most classic example where you have the Council of Europe—a broad gathering of countries in all of Europe, including all EU member states but many more as well—that has the European Court of Human Rights. Every citizen within the Council of Europe, once they exhaust their remedies in their national jurisdiction, can then go to the European Court. The Court condemns those who violate the European Convention for Human Rights. The challenge with this court is enforcement; once the decision has been made, how can the court enforce it? There usually is a particular element of the violation, so the government has to pay some money, release someone wrongly imprisoned, etc., but the court also focuses on the broader root causes of the violation, the systemic failures in a country, and requests that the government address the them as well. This work is often much more difficult to enforce.

The African Union has its own court—the African Court for Human and People’s Rights—which is an entirely different kind of jurisdiction. It is a relatively new court. The EU is extremely supportive of it. That court is only now beginning to directly accept lawsuits from citizens of different member states of the African Union. But to use this court as a citizen, you first need your government to have agreed that citizens can directly bring cases in front of it. Relatively few African governments to date have agreed to that mechanism—but still a larger number than five years ago, when I assumed my duties.

Accountability is important in human rights. And, this is where the tension with civil society often comes in. Civil society, human rights NGOs, and NGOs in general tend to be the watchdogs of any government. Oppressive governments (non-oppressive governments too, sometimes) recognise that if they can in some way intimidate or silence their active civil society, then they can also avoid a lot of accountability.

I am glad for this question because it puts its finger on an important yet neglected feature of human rights. Human rights are not a romantic concept where some countries around the world got together one day and held hands and sang “kumbaya”. These rights are hard-core international law. They are legal instruments. The International Covenants of Civil and Political Rights and of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are legally binding instruments that have been signed and ratified by virtually every country in the world and transposed in domestic legislations (if not effectively transposed, then it is a violation of the conventions themselves). Many people don’t know that. They think that when people complain about human rights it is simply trying to impose my views or culture on yours. In fact, none of that is the case. It is instead an obligation to impose international legal obligations that everyone has accepted and that is what we are trying to do.

CJLPP: Do you see any other major limitations of the international human rights system based on your professional expertise?

Lambrinidis: One challenge in protecting human rights has to do with some peoples’ perception that not all rights are equally important in all countries, cultures, or political systems. But in fact, all human rights—economic, social, cultural, civil, and political—are interrelated and interdependent. So, it is virtually impossible to talk about respecting one kind of right without respecting another. Here is a practical example: There is a civil-political right of non-discrimination against women. But you can’t have non-discrimination against women if girls in a particular country are being forcibly married when they are young. If you are forcibly married young, in addition to being forced to do something you do not want to, you will, in the majority of cases, stop going to school as well. But education is a social right, without which a woman cannot fully exercise her civil and political rights. In that sense, although there are so many rights that you may see as separate and divisible, you must understand that there is no way for these rights to be effective unless they are seen as a unified whole.

China, to give you another example, is a country that has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in an otherwise oppressive civil-political system. The Chinese Communist Party controls the economy; it brought a lot of people into relatively cheap jobs––in the process it created a lot of new social and economic inequality––but they had been in destitute situations so these jobs were relative improvements. Getting people out of poverty is of course a good thing. But without freedoms, you are assuming that human beings have, or are entitled to satisfy, only base animal needs, which is in clear conflict with the notion of “human dignity” upon which all human rights are based. What’s more, the question with regards to China, if you’re going to go from a country where things are “made in” to a country that is proud of having things that are “designed in” the country (a stated Chinese goal), then can you possibly achieve this without freedom of thought and expression? Is it possible to make that transition unless, for example, you have a free press to exchange different views or free universities, like Pomona, where people can throw out any controversial, irreverent or politically unpleasant to the ruling party idea they have and explore those ideas with each other to agree or disagree? That transition is not possible without such freedoms. There are crucial connections across rights.

Another challenge of the international system is that human rights have become very politicised. If you listen to human rights debates, you will see that it often deteriorates to, “the West says this because they are arrogant imperialists” or, on the other side, “you violate this or that right, therefore you must be a ‘misogynist,’ a ‘racist’ or a ‘fascist’.” When people tell me that human rights are a Western concept that are being manipulated to impose Western values on others, I tell them that their argument is untrue and dangerous. Indeed, were that argument to take hold, then every country in the world according to its own interpretation of its own culture could pick and choose what rights to apply. And that, by definition, would be the end of the international human rights architecture.

The reason that this is an entirely false argument is because human rights have never been a battle between different cultures or political systems, or regions, or ideologies. They have instead always been a battle within these different systems. Human rights have always been the universal language of the powerless against the cultural relativism of the powerful, within any different region, political system, culture or religion of the world. A woman being abused by her husband in Los Angeles, or in Athens, or in Beijing, or in Riyadh or in Brasilia—she would probably never tell you: “you have no right to intervene on my behalf, please leave me alone to be abused because human rights are not universal; they are Western constructs”. She is the powerless. The husband doing the abusing, and the government who refuses to arrest him, will often tell you to keep away because there they have “special family values” that you don’t understand or respect. Those people are the powerful.

To anyone who is trying to regionalise or relativise human rights, I remind: the notion of human dignity––upon which all rights are based according to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 70th Anniversary we celebrate this year—belongs equally to the traditions of the north, the south, the east, and the west. If you go to any culture, to any religion, and ask them if they are based on protecting human dignity, they will emphatically say yes. That is what human rights are based on. To those who try to politicize human rights—to make it an issue between the Right and the Left—I propose that this is not a matter of “Right” or “Left,” but a simple matter of “right” and “wrong” when treating other human beings.

CJLPP: In your 2013 speech at the Institute for International and European Affairs (IIEA), you said that you are a “fanatic advocate” of cooperation between European political institutions and NGOs on human rights issues. What do you see as some challenges and some advantages of cooperation projects among individual states, regional organisations, and NGOs?

Lambrinidis: I would say that one challenge governments face is that they have to learn how to take criticism. They also have to learn how to take expertise and support from civil society that may not have come from a governmental representative. Civil society often supports; it does not always criticise. Governments have to learn how to accept both things. Sometimes you get resentful about a good idea because it did not come from you. Other times you get criticism, and you immediately shut your ears.

Being half serious, when some major human rights NGO calls my office to see me, I know that it is almost never to tell me what a terrific job I am doing! [Laughter] Now, I wouldn’t mind every once in a while hearing that not everything is a disaster. But here’s the thing: Civil society can be nice to governments if it wants to, but it does not have to, that’s not its role. And that is the challenge that governments face. In oppressive systems, or in systems that may not necessarily be oppressive but have yet to learn how to work with their citizens, or in systems where there is a presumption that democracy ends at the ballet box and does not instead begin there, in all those systems, governments often have trouble tolerating citizen action. Then, of course, you have the extremes: governments simply trying to repress civil society. That is a big challenge that we face.

Civil society itself also faces challenges. Some of these challenges are objective, such as finding funds to do their work and to pay their employees. In some countries, civil societies are just poor. There are no funds that one can get other than from the government, or through outside funding. That is when often civil society is unfairly accused of being “foreign agents” or “spies” of foreign interests, even though others simply support the causes that civil society itself has claimed as its priorities, not causes imposed by outsiders. Unfortunately, this outside support can be emphasized by governments to undermine civil society. Civil society around the world is beginning to discuss more extensively how it can fundraise effectively through individual citizens and the private sector within its borders as well.

CJLPP: To what extent do you see the private sector as an important supporter of human rights?

Lambrinidis: It can often, if not always, be an important promoter of rights. Take, for example,  a huge American or European business that goes to a foreign country and employs a number of subcontractor companies from that country to produce goods. If that business insists on equivalent labor standards and human rights that it applies in its own home country, or as prescribed in the International Labor Organization conventions, then it can make a huge different in promoting universal human rights. In some instances these businesses do insist on abiding by these standards and rights, and they are leaders in human rights. In other instances, they do not, taking a more short-sighted view of both their long-term reputation and “making a profit.” In that case, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights of 2011 say that they have also to be held accountable.

CJLPP: Moving on to the final part of our interview today, we would like to ask some more personal/career-oriented questions. How did you decide to pursue a career in law? We are especially interested in your perspective as a fellow liberal arts college graduate from Amherst College.

Lambrinidis: If I’m honest, I have to say that I chose to go to law school because I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life! At Amherst I majored in political science, psychology and economics. That is an indication that I had multiple interests, but no specific “professional” focus. As I approached graduation, I was aware of the prospect of having to immediately return to Greece if I didn’t do something else. I thought that, lost as I was, the closest thing to not being a physicist, or a chemist, or any of those things that my brain was not wired to do, was going to law school. Going to law school opened so many doors. When I graduated, I became a lawyer at a major law firm in Washington D.C. doing a lot of international trade and arbitration work. At the same time, I participated in many pro-bono human rights cases as a young associate with the D.C. Bar Association. When I eventually went back to Greece, I had developed both a “technical” background in dealing with complex legal and policy matters and a political understanding of things to engage in politics there. I also suppose that, for a number of personal reasons and experiences, in every single part of my career the sense of responsibility to protect the weak against political injustices was always part of my DNA.

In college and law school I also learned how to listen to and understand others’ perspectives. In some way, to do the job I’m doing now, you have to be fundamentally able to listen and to understand what the other person feels—if they are the oppressed or even if they are the oppressor. In my job, I have to sometimes go to very dark places. I have to talk to some very dark-minded people. And I have to understand where they are coming from. Because, to have the slightest chance to influence them to change, you need to first know what makes them tick—to then decide how to best persuade or, if need be, pressure them to change things to the better. You also need to feel and understand, from the people who demand a better life from their leaders, what they are seeking and what they truly need.

CJLPP: Do you have any suggestions for students who are interested in pursuing a career in international human rights law? Do you think that US law schools are doing a good job teaching international law?

Lambrinidis: US law schools are obviously a way to go—as a foreigner, that was the rather risky path that I chose, given that a US J.D. degree guaranteed no stable career path either in the States or in Europe. There are also European law schools that are highly advanced in international law—in Strasbourg, the Netherlands, Brussels, and elsewhere––that teach many of their courses in English. I would encourage anyone who studies in the States to try to take a semester abroad in Europe, or to use the Erasmus Plus programs where the EU can cover costs for your fellowship to study at a European university. I would certainly encourage trying your hand with civil society organizations in the US and abroad, by volunteering to combat some issues. Now, you may think that human rights work might not be your thing, that if you choose to do human rights you will have to wake up every morning weeping because of the suffering of people in the world. In fact, you can be someone who is extremely committed to fighting injustice without needing to be in the field every day dealing directly with people’s suffering. You could be someone who enjoys being behind the desk, writing the legal brief that will save the DREAMers from deportation, for example.

Do not assume that there is one path to enter international law. In order to find what your path may be, try a lot of different paths. Do not always assume that you must go to the most remote places in the world to do human rights. Participate in human rights here! Be active in your community. If the free, quality Press in the United States or in Europe is under threat because it is being intentionally maligned, or because its credibility is under attack from the presumption that every outlet, from an extremist blog to a mainstream newspaper, espouses “fake news”, then stand up and protest that, try to identify and to show the difference. Push to isolate politicians who try to weaken and to bend to their own will independent institutions that provide the checks and balances in a democracy. Simultaneously, understand and try to promote media education so that people begin to learn from an early age how to distinguish facts from misinformation. Another example: if a court is being politicised or controlled by corruption, as is the case in many countries in the world, then stand up. The moment you lose checks and balances in any society is the moment that the powerful win over the powerless. The reason that democracies have managed to be such a success is because they recognise the coexistence of the powerless and the powerful and have thus set up mechanisms to prohibit the powerful from always imposing their will on the most vulnerable and on minorities. At least, that is the way it should work.

CJLPP: Thank you so much for your time and expertise, Mr. Lambrinidis.

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