WORLD

When France talks human rights, does anybody listen ?

Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, has publicly questioned the role of his country's state secretary for human rights, Rama Yade, dealing a harsh blow to the junior minister. His statement sparked, made on the60 th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sparked immediate controversy. A chance to ask our Observers, from Iran to China, if they believe France can still claim to be a reference for human rights throughout the world. Read more...

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Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, has publicly questioned the role of his country's state secretary for human rights, Rama Yade, dealing a harsh blow to the junior minister. His statement sparked, made on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sparked immediate controversy. A chance to ask our Observers, from Iran to China, if they believe France can still claim to be a reference for human rights throughout the world.

In an interview with French daily Le Parisien, Kouchner explained that "a nation's foreign policy is constantly in contradiction with the principles of human rights," adding that he thought the creation of a junior branch of his ministry specifically dedicated to human rights was "a mistake." He went on to say that "concrete action is what counts" and claimed that, at least, he "got things done."

We asked human rights activists and specialists around the world to comment on France's stance on the subject and its diplomatic activity during the past 15 years.

Image postée sur Flickr par emhd0747

“Rama Yade has been efficient when we worked together or concrete problems”

FRANCE

Jean-François Julliard is secretary general of the Paris-based NGO Reporters without Borders.

It's clear that when we speak to human rights militants abroad, France is no longer perceived as a reference. Many people heard of Muammar Gaddafi's official visit to France at the same time as International Human Rights day, or of Bashar al-Assad's invitation for Bastille Day. Some also pinpoint the deplorable state of French prisons. All this has tarnished the country's image.

Rama Yade has been efficient when we worked together on concrete issues: for example, to obtain a visa for someone or issue a message. She's very open to collaboration with NGOs. We have met with her three or four times since she came into office. On the other hand, she has virtually no influence over major foreign policy lines. France's relations with Libya, with China... All that goes on over her head. We were especially disappointed when she accompanied Nicolas Sarkozy to Tunisia. The president declared that human rights in Tunisia had vastly improved. Not only did she not protest, but she met with only one representative of Tunisian human rights groups, very briefly in a hotel hall."

 

“France’s only activity in Rangoon is to make things easy for the oil-producer Total and organise French lessons”

BURMA

Kio is a Burmese exile in Thailand, where he campaigns for democracy and human rights.

I don't even know the French foreign minister's name, for a simple reason: France, to my knowledge, has done nothing to improve the condition of the Burmese people. The French embassy's only activity in Rangoon is to make things easy for the oil-producer Total and to organize French lessons. When we meet with French diplomats, they make it clear that Total is an off-limits subject and that if we want them to support us, we shouldn't bring it up. However, Total has participated, albeit indirectly, in human rights violations. I visited sites where Total was building pipelines from 1996 to 1997. Soldiers there were using villagers to clear the area of landmines! That was a while back, but it's still true today that France does its best to keep good relations with the ruling junta to protect Total's interests. Other European countries, like Italy or the UK, are much more active in their promotion of human rights."

“Iranian intellectuals refer to France when they’re discussing human rights”

IRAN

Reza Moïni is an Iranian living in Paris. He is in charge of the human rights information website Bidaran.net

In Iran, France is still seen as the birthplace of human rights. Our first constitution, in 1906, was a mix of the French and Belgian constitutions. Even today, Iranian law resembles French law in many ways, and Iranian intellectuals refer to France when discussing human rights. Not long ago, I heard one prominent intellectual quote Albert Camus on the death penalty.

France has always tried to be an influence in the realm of human rights. I remember, for example, that former President Jacques Chirac had officially asked for the liberation of detained journalist Akbar Ganji, and it worked. Sarkozy so far hasn't spoken up on human rights; he focuses on nuclear enrichment. And Rama Yade's presence is discreet. She once expressed satisfaction when a human rights militant was liberated by the regime, which I appreciated, but she has never said anything, to my knowledge, about women's rights in Iran."

 

“I think that France itself no longer believes in its values”

CHINA

Marie Holzman is a sinologist and human rights activists specialised in China. She teaches at the University Paris-VII and is president of the association Solidarité Chine (China Solidarity)

If France really wanted to influence China on human rights issues it could. This is the realm of values, of ideas. China has no qualms in expressing its views, for example when it opposed President Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama. We have to have firmly express our values, as well.

The problem is that I'm under the impression that France itself doesn't believe in its values. President Sarkozy's position concerning the situation in China flip-flopped so much over the past year that it failed to send Chinese leaders a strong message. That's extremely harmful for human rights. Bernard Kouchner's statement [on Rama Yade] was merely the last straw: to say, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that the state secretariat for human rights is "a mistake" is sheer provocation.

France's focus has shifted more on more on economic issues, with emphasis on free trade. In fact, the very mechanisms of free trade make us, French consumers, accomplices in the brutal exploitation of poor Chinese workers. They are exploited in the factories that produce masses of cheap toys and Christmas decorations that only Westerners will buy. The Chinese economy relies so much on exports that western boycotts of Chinese products would put huge pressure on the government to improve human rights. More and more groups realise it and are working in that direction."