Human Rights

Speech by Buzek at the opening of the Sakharov Network Conference

Brussels -
Wednesday 23/11/2011

It is with great humility that I stand before you to open this conference. Sitting among us are people who have suffered for rights that we take for granted. They are representatives of NGOs, civil society, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, and among them many of our Sakharov Prize laureates. You are all people who have spoken for those who can not speak freely.

We in the European Parliament believe that fundamental freedoms are not only the right to life and physical integrity, but also freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought. Without these freedoms there will only be oppression and the rule of the few.

Even we in the EU cannot be complacent to take liberty as a given. Our continent has suffered in the past. We know what it means to be oppressed. This is why it is our responsibility to be a shining light in the darkness. To show the world that there is a better way. But the most basic values we advocate are not European values - they are universal values.

Dear Friends,

Today is a special occasion. We in the European Parliament feel that we have a special responsibility towards our Sakharov prize laureates. The Prize should be more than an annual ceremony in Strasbourg.

This is why we proposed to set up this network, to create a platform to exchange ideas and experiences, and to learn from each other. We must continue to keep in touch with all our laureates and build further on your engagement and expertise - this is an invaluable resource.

Today's conference is also important because of how quickly our world is changing. Both in our Eastern and Southern European neighbourhood we have witnessed history in the making. More than ever human rights and democracy promotion have to be the core pillars of our external action. This is the value added of our common foreign policy, making it more than just the sum of our national interests. For us, this is a shared conviction and obligation. I can not say it better than Aung San Suu Kyi when she appealed to free societies: "please use your freedom to promote ours"

We know that there is no single script for political transition. Each story has to be written by the people of that country and a new generation of leaders. This was the case in Spain and Portugal, in Central and Eastern Europe, in Serbia, in Moldova and today in the Arab world. We are not here to teach lessons but to help support the aspirations of those who want genuine change.

For any political transition to reflect the will of the people, it first and foremost must be grounded in a truly inclusive political dialogue with society. The people, political parties and civic movements must have the guaranteed right to express their criticism of certain reforms, as well as demand a faster pace of change. In this they should not be intimidated by the authorities, as is the case today in many places, be it by violent repression against demonstrators, military trials or by unjustified, legal pressure on civil society organisations and NGOs.

While the news of the situation in Syria or the renewed violence in Egypt are extremely worrying, we also have some encouraging signs in other regions of the world. I sincerely hope that the authorities in Myanmar will deliver on their promises, and carry on with the necessary reforms and dialogue towards a genuine democratic opening, leading to free and fair elections and guaranteeing basic freedoms. As you all know, our Sakharov laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her National League of Democracy are at the forefront of this struggle.

Dear Colleagues,

How can we help in the transition to democracy?

First our common values and the interest of citizens must remain the focus of all our actions. This is why this parliament has insisted on more resources to support election monitoring and the electoral process, building up democratic institutions, civil society and political parties, in countries in transition. By helping to establish functioning, inclusive democratic institutions, and mechanisms, we will help to empower citizens and safeguard democratic transformation.

Second, in the medium term building prosperity is the only way to ensure that political transition is sustainable. This is of particular importance for the young generations. They must have clear perspectives for their future. The European Parliament will continue to argue that aid should be directed towards this aim.

Third, in the long term, I believe we should encourage the creation of a similar model to the one which has worked so well on our continent. From my experiences and visits, I am convinced that gradual integration of neighbours, and integration between the EU with our neighbours, can be the driving force for sustainable democracy. We can perhaps not offer membership to all countries, but we can offer a genuine partnership based on peace and prosperity.  

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to end by saying a few words on the importance of technology as a way to promote democracy. Our weapon in the 1980s was the typewriter, the illegal printing machine, the hand-written message, the spoken word. Today's activists have the internet, mobile phones, and social media. Many among our Sakharov laureates used these tools - Hu Jia is a cyber dissident in China. It was youtube videos, blogs, facebook networks and twitter messages that mobilised people in the Arab Spring.

But this technology means that a new frontline has been opened between those who want to use these tools to promote freedom and those who want to use it for surveillance, control and censorship. This is a new challenge for our own policies to promote and defend human rights. But this is also an area where companies have special responsibilities. They can provide an enormous contribution to protecting freedom of thought and expression or they may become tools in the hands of oppressors.

Dear Friends,

Some coined what has happened as the "Internet revolutions" due to the powerful impact of new communication technologies. But it is not Facebook or Twitter that brought down oppressive regimes. Ultimately it is the human spirit and the desire for freedom and changing things for the better. Benazir Bhutto once said that "You can imprison a man, but not an idea. You can exile a man, but not an idea. You can kill a man, but not an idea." That idea is one we all share - freedom.

Thank you.