31st session of the Human Rights Council Geneva, Speech by Jean-Marc Ayrault, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development of the French Republic, (February 29, 2016)


We are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Council and the fiftieth 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.

President of the United Nations General Assembly [Mogens Lykketoft],
President of the Human Rights Council [Choi Kyong-lim],
High Commissioner for Human Rights [Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein],
Ladies and gentlemen,

We are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Council and the fiftieth 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 a thorough evaluation and collective remobilization.

* * *

Human rights are under greater threat than ever before. And the Syrian people are among those paying the highest price. For the last five years, the Syrian regime has been relentlessly committing crimes against humanity. It is torturing, murdering and starving people with complete impunity. It is dropping barrel bombs and firing chemical weapons. There have been 260,000 deaths in five years; most of these were civilians killed by the regime. Over 4 million refugees have been forced to flee their homes in despair.

Alongside the crimes of the Syrian regime, let us not forget the barbarism of Daesh, which is terrorising 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.

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:

  • By continuing to put 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.
  • By continuing to denounce abuses and gather evidence. The work of the Pinheiro Commission, set up by our Council, should ensure that, one day, justice is done. This Commission deserves our full support.
  • By combating impunity. The issue has been referred to the French courts. I encourage all countries to do the same if possible. We need to go further: to ensure that all criminals are tried, the Security Council should refer the issue to the International Criminal Court. There can be no 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 can be more insidious.

Throughout the world, an increasing number of governments are restricting public and individual freedoms, in the name of security, political stability or cultural idiosyncrasies, including in countries that claim to be democracies. Journalists, lawyers and heads of associations are arrested. Non-governmental organizations are prevented from operating. Even in Europe, people are once again tempted to build walls, even though history has taught us that walls never solved anything.

Faced with the risk of regression, we should continue to be guided solely by the universality of human rights, which is enshrined in the international treaties to which we freely acceded. Freely, let us never forget that. We are committed to upholding them and never turning back.

Tunisia has not turned back. Even in the midst of a transition, and as the target of terrorists, 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 on 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; it is not supposed to be extended indefinitely. We have heard people’s concerns. My country is open to dialogue. More than that, it wants to have this dialogue. For it is doing its utmost to reconcile the security of its citizens with the preservation of public freedoms, to which the French Republic is deeply attached.

France and Europe also need to shoulder this responsibility, in order to combat the rise of populism 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. Let us confront it boldly and with respect for the principles of solidarity and responsibility on which Europe is founded. 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 civil protection and respect for humanitarian law during conflicts. We need to learn 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 continue to shoulder its responsibility, 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 other 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 shows 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 change, 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 fifty years, we have been building an international human rights system together, in reaction to a form of violence against humanity that we wanted to banish forever. This shared system is fragile. Our responsibility is to defend it against the temptation to turn back. Firstly, in each of our countries: beyond stating principles, it is the duty of all of us, including France, to ensure that these principles are applied in practice and to combat all forms of discrimination, without wavering. And in this forum, where, more than ever, we need to question one another thoroughly, and to develop and enforce the law together. You can count on France’s voice.