My job gives me the good fortune to meet presidents and prime ministers, to discuss the weightiest topics with the mightiest people. But those who leave the biggest impression are not usually those I greet in imposing buildings in front of the cameras. They are the men and women I encounter in city squares and dusty streets, in crowded schools and friendly homes. From Warsaw to Soweto, from Juba to Yangon, they are the people who have defied and defeated tyranny.
Last year, when I crossed the threshold of a human rights organisation in Tunis I joined an animated discussion among people who had never met each other before – yet each had spent their life dedicated to improving other people's lives. Now they had the chance to work together.
Round the world, far away from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, and the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, these people strive to make a difference to their – and our – world. They may be motivated by a small injustice or a great crime. They may be aware of their rights, or unaware of the law. But common to them all is a willingness to overcome fear and oppression and to battle for a better world. These are the kinds of people I came into politics to help. They are the type of champions that I want to champion. The kinds I want the EU – and the European External Action Service (EEAS) – to work for.
Putting the promotion of human rights at the centre of the EU's foreign policy is therefore something I have focused on since I took up office. But as I have found in the last two-and-half years, over trips to nearly every continent and in countless meetings, to champion the kind of people that deserve our support requires that the EU overcome two key challenges, each one of which can undermine the struggle, their and ours, to build a better world.
The first challenge has to do with the EU's coherence. Too often I hear questions asked about whether the promotion of human rights can, in fact, be integrated into EU policies on aid, trade, climate change and enlargement. Or whether the EU can ever escape the kind of double standards that have caused problems in the past. But I am clear that we cannot succeed if we talk only about rights to those who want to hear it and otherwise keep silent. That we cannot forget human rights just because we are talking to governments about commercial relations or energy links. Ethics are indivisible.
That is why the EU's Human Rights strategy I launched earlier this month promises to place rights at the centre of the EU's “relations with all third countries” and to “promote human rights in all areas of its external action without exception”, including “trade, investment, technology and telecommunications, Internet, energy, environmental, corporate social responsibility and development policy”. When I met Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma/Myanmar earlier this year I could do so proudly, knowing that the EU had led the isolation of the Burmese government despite the undoubted benefits – not least commercial – that appeasement would have offered. We can now suspend sanctions and are trusted to find ways to support the transition, as the Burmese know we were on the right side of history beforehand.
Challenge number two relates to the impact of euro crisis. We have to accept that in the minds of some people the crisis has raised questions about the cogency of the Union's international projection and especially its ability to champion human rights globally. The economic success of several authoritarian countries has, some even feel, weakened the association between liberal democracy and economic prosperity.
But I am convinced this is unnecessary defeatism, unsupported by the facts and far short of what people both inside and outside the EU expect from us. Let us not forget: the EU counts for a great deal in global affairs; its shares of trade, investment, military capacity, energy resources, research funding, diplomatic tools as well as its soft power remain considerable. People still want to join the EU or to trade with us. The EU figures strongly in economic rankings. The economy of the European Union generates a GDP of over €12.629 trillion, making it the world's largest economy. It is also the world’s biggest trader, accounting for 20% of global imports and exports. This gives the EU considerable leverage to push for the things that matter to us such as respect for people's rights and dignity.
Furthermore, throughout the world people believe in what we believe in. Look at the “Arab Spring” and what people in Tahrir Square called for – they want jobs, dignity and rights. The EU has a better record delivering on and supporting these demands than any other power. Global politics will increasingly be shaped by the demands of ordinary people – demands for rights, peace and prosperity – while social media will increasingly carry their message, and allow activists to break free from their isolation, to disseminate ideas and to denounce oppression. These are issues that the EU was founded to address and has sought to support globally. No other power can say as much. Our commitment to human rights does not track the economic cycle.
I lost no time, when I first took office, in laying out how important I believe the EU's human rights work to be; and I have now led European foreign ministers in re-stating the prominent place values must have in the EU's over-all foreign policy. I will shortly appoint the first-ever EU human rights envoy whose job will be to translate this commitment to human rights into foreign policy practice. This will be hard yet gratifying work. But it is the reason why I entered politics, why I have kept at it, and what I want the EEAS to be known for as well.
Catherine Ashton is the EU's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy & Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP)
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.