Sophie in ‘t Veld received the International Humanist Award in the Norwegian capital Oslo during the World Humanist Congress
Dear fellow Humanists,
First of all I would like to extend my condolences to those who lost their loved ones during the terrible events that took place here in Oslo three weeks ago. I would also like to congratulate the Norwegian people and their Prime Minister Stoltenberg on their very wise and balanced response and for showing restraint. It is a good example of how to restore calm and to de-escalate. They show the world that the best response to the enemies of tolerance, openness and human rights, is more tolerance, openness and human rights.
Now I will turn to today’s theme. What role does the European Union play in conflict prevention in the world, and what place do humanist values have in Europe’s external policies?
I would first like to underline that, unlike the UN, in the previous presentation the European Union is not an international organisation, but a political entity.
Europe has always been praised for using its “soft power” in the world. Today I would like to have a look at how Europe does that and how effective it is.
Maybe I will start with a few recent quotes by the leaders of the European Union institutions, at the occasion of the 7th “summit” of religious leaders, hosted by Commission President Barroso, in the presence of Council President Van Rompuy, and President of the European Parliament Buzek. The participation of further four European Commissioners and a Vice President of the European Parliament gave this event unusual prominence. This year’s theme was the promotion of democratic rights and freedoms in Europe’s external policies, highly relevant for our debate today.
President Barroso said: “Our task and ambition is to promote democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, human rights and social justice not only in Europe but also in our neighbourhood. I strongly believe these challenges cannot be met without the active contribution of the religious communities.”
President Van Rompuy made reference to the Arab spring, and stated that “Values can not survive without spiritual, religious or ethical impetus”.
President Buzek said “Religious communities are of paramount importance for the social fabric in EU countries. This is also true for the dynamic changes in our neighbourhood”.
The words “humanist”, “humanism”, “secular” or “secularism” do not appear anywhere in the statements by the three leaders.
Why is this relevant? It is relevant because the ethical values underlying the EU’s external policies are crucial in determining the effectiveness of these policies. I argue that humanism and secularism should get much more prominence in EU policy making.
Despite all its shortcomings and weaknesses, today’s Europe can serve as a model of conflict prevention. The high degree of integration and interdependence between the people and the nations of Europe are a very powerful tool for preventing violent conflict. Although initially European integration was mainly economic in nature, the ideals behind the project may – in hindsight – be typified as humanist. From the start, the aim of European integration was to create a space where people were free and safe from conflict, and where individual rights and freedoms, and equality for all were guaranteed by the state. The period after the biggest violent conflict in the history of mankind, World War II, saw the creation of several instruments for the protection of individual human rights. As a result, nowhere else in the world does the individual enjoy the same level of freedom to live according to his own wishes and views, to express and develop himself, to make his own personal choices without interference of the state or religious authorities. This focus on the self determination of individual human beings and their rights and freedoms corresponds perfectly with the humanist ideals.
Giving such importance to the well being of the individual reduces the potential for conflict between groups. This is revolutionary for a continent that for centuries was marked by war between religions and nations, oppression and discrimination of minority groups, nationalist, religious, political and racist violence. Conflict only ended when we organised society as a community of citizens with individual equal rights, not as a tribal society, based on privileges and dominance of groups.
But does our own experience mean we apply those same principles in our external policies?
Conflict prevention outside the EU is a strand of Europe’s wider Foreign and Security Policy. Different aspects of conflict prevention are run by different EU agencies and departments in the area of foreign and security policies, development aid, trade, and other areas. They tackle widely differing conflict situations, such as conflicts between nations, civil war between different population groups or rebellion against the regime.
It is important to remember that the European Union actually has few exclusive powers in most of these areas. Foreign Policy and development aid are still largely the monopoly of the Member States. A European External Action Service (Eurospeak for Foreign Affairs department) has been set up, but so far it is not very effective. Europe cannot really speak with one voice in external policies, as decisions have to be taken with unanimity, and each of the 27 Member States can block a decision with a veto.
The website of the European External Action Services says the following about conflict prevention:
“The EU has strengthened its capacity to deal with tensions and insecurity, in order to prevent the outbreak or re-occurrence of violence. It employs development co-operation and external assistance, trade policy instruments, social and environmental policies, diplomatic instruments and political dialogue, co-operation with international partners and NGOs.
It addresses the root-causes of violent conflict, like poverty, degradation, exploitation and unequal distribution and access to land and natural resources, weak governance, human rights abuses and gender inequality. The EU emphasizes the strengthening of the rule of law, and democratic institutions, the development of civil society and the reform of the security sector.
In post-conflict situations, peace-building initiatives are essential for ensuring lasting peace. The Commission is every day more engaged in rehabilitation activities, de-mobilization, disarmament and reintegration programmes.”
Conflict prevention is a package made up of a wide range of policies. We cannot cover everything today. As the previous presentation showed, issues like access to water and energy are key issues, as is trade and agriculture. But today I will leave those aside. Let us have a look at a few randomly chosen examples of policies that are relevant to our debate, to demonstrate how the ethical basis of Europe’s policies has an impact on the results.
One of the important aims is reducing poverty, and supporting economic development. The Millennium Development Goals are a key instrument in reducing poverty. It is telling that MDG5, Maternal health is the MDG that is most behind schedule of all MDGs. There is a direct link with ethical views here. Views on sexual and reproductive health rights and on women’s rights are in most cases determined by religious doctrine, instead of what is best for those women. Women in the countries concerned are rarely allowed any sexual and reproductive autonomy. They are not seen as individuals with the freedom to make their own choices, but they are subject to the rules and traditions of the community. Women have no control over their own bodies, they cannot freely do their own family planning, they cannot chose their own partners, or whether and when to have children, and how many. As a result, millions of women around the world suffer from debilitating diseases and injuries relating to pregnancy and giving birth. Today still, worldwide 360.000 women die in childbirth each year, almost exclusively in developing countries. That is approximately one woman dying in childbirth each minute and a half. These deaths are entirely preventable, as are most of the health problems relating to sexuality, pregnancy and giving birth. This disgraceful waste of human lives and health is an unacceptable destruction of human potential. A country needs a healthy, fit work force for economic development. Equal rights for women, and empowering women, is not only a moral imperative, but it is essential for achieving the goal of poverty reduction.
This means that in addition to providing funds and health services for women, EU policies must also explicitly promote an approach based on individual rights and freedoms, and self determination, much like the humanist principles. So far EU policies have been fairly sensible, but there have been consistent calls from the increasingly self-confident European “Moral Majority”, to introduce an EU “Global gag rule”, withholding funding from NGOs whose activities include promoting or practicing abortion. This disastrous US policy was fortunately rescinded by the Obama administration. But both in Europe and the US there is still a very vocal and well organized minority advocating sexual and reproductive health policies based on very conservative religious doctrine, even if this is demonstrably counterproductive. (I vividly remember a heated debate in the European Parliament on an amendment of mine, condemning the Pope’s ban on condoms in Africa).
Another important strand of conflict prevention strategies is the promotion and protection of human rights. I would like to look in particular at freedom of religion.
Europe attaches great importance to this. The European External Action Service has appointed a special official for freedom of religion.
Freedom of religion is one of the key freedoms: the freedom of every person to hold their own thoughts and beliefs is a corner stone of any democratic society. Like other fundamental rights,freedom of religion is an individual right. However, in practice it is often interpreted as a collective right of a religious group to get certain exceptions and exemptions from the law. People are defined as member of a (religious) group, not as an individual citizen of the state. The whole concept of the UN “Alliance of Civilizations” is based on this notion, as is the EU “Intercultural dialogue”. Society is organized as a permanent trade off of collective interests and privileges, rather than a community of individual citizens and their individual rights, protected by state institutions. But in a society built on collective, rather than individual interests, there is greater potential for conflict between groups.
Defending and promoting freedom of religion in EU external policies, most often is about protecting religious minorities against persecution, rather than promoting humanist or secular values. Protection of minorities is certainly essential, let there be no mistake. But the focus should be first and foremost on promoting a secular democracy, based on individual citizens’ rights, as the best guarantee for freedom of religion (as well as freedom fromreligion) for all.
Of course there are practical obstacles to this. Interreligious tensions may be the source of conflict, and therefore the key to conflict resolution lies with religious leaders who are the only interlocutors available. However, as the experience of European integration shows, the humanist idea of individual freedoms, as well as secular state institutions that treat all citizens equally, is a precondition for peace and stability.
The special official on freedom of religion within the European External Action Service is a welcome initiative, but more must be done. I very much support the proposals of a colleague of mine (Dutch Socialist Dennis de Jong) fellow vice chair of the Platform for Secularism in the European Parliament and doing a lot of work on the issue of freedom of religion in EU external policies, who calls for specific guidelines and reporting obligations of the External Action Service on freedom of Religion. I fully agree with him that the issue of freedom of religion must be an explicit element of the external policies agenda. Obviously that would mean freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.
EU human rights instruments foresee funding for grass roots organizations and local NGOs. Strengthening civil society is of course essential for a healthy democracy. However, how will we make sure that EU support also benefits secular and humanist groups? How do we make sure that funding and support also benefits organizations that do not defend particular interests or promote religious privilege? We have to make sure that EU support will benefit the promotion of the idea of state institutions that protect the rights of all individual citizens.
This question is particularly topical with regard to the EU strategy on the Arab Spring (to the extent there is a strategy). Of course the situation varies widely across the region, and in several cases conflict is raging already, and we are well past the phase of conflict prevention. In other cases we are strictly speaking in the post-conflict phase, and all efforts are aiming to establish democracy and boost economic development. But this does not differ fundamentally from conflict prevention: the aim is still to prevent tensions and violence, and the instruments used are the same as well.
The reaction of Europe to the Arab Spring is like that of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car that is approaching at high speed. The rabbit seems paralysed, unsure what move to make.
Europe does not have much of a strategy. That is remarkable, given that it concerns our neighbouring countries, and we have every interest in stability and economic development in the region. Whatever actions we take seem to be driven mainly by fear, not by a sense of opportunity and hope. We approach the whole situation in terms of security, and treat it like an immigration issue. It is striking to hear people speak of the “crisis” in the region. Crisis? Since when is it a crisis when people rise up and claim democracy, freedom and economic development? That is no crisis, the decades of dictatorship – supported by our countries! – that preceded the uprising were the real crisis!
One of the main fears of Europeans is that the Arab Spring will bring Muslim fundamentalists to power. But we should not be on the defensive. We can offer a good alternative model of society. The best protection against fundamentalists is promoting democracy, freedom and fundamental rights. The best safeguard against oppression of minorities by a dominant majority, and against tensions between these groups, is promoting a model based on individual rights and freedoms, and equality of all citizens. Therefore EU should not be favouring one group or the other, but it should be favouring democratic principles for all.
In this regard it is essential that the EU insists particularly on gender equality in the new democracies. Without full participation of all citizens, men and women, a democracy is not complete. Strengthening the position of women in society is not a luxury extra, it is fundamental. It is part and parcel of democracy and good governance.
At this point I would like to react to some of yesterday’s speakers, who stated that we should not seek to “impose” our “western values”. They considered that some sort of ethical imperialism. I disagree. First of all we do not seek to impose anything, but we do actively promote our values. And then: if we do not stand up for the values we believe in, then what dowe stand up for?!
An important question to conclude this introduction with is: who shapes EU external policiesthat are relevant for conflict prevention? Who influences the decision making process in Brussels? How do we ensure EU policies adequately reflect humanist and secularist views?
I note with some concern that conservative religious lobbies are strengthening their presence and growing more influential within the EU institutions, like a European version of the “Moral Majority” in the US. This is partly a consequence of the fact that the European Union is moving into policy areas where ethical aspects and values play a key role, and religious lobbies quickly responded to the changing agenda. For decades, European integration concerned mainly technical issues with little ethical dimension, such as coal and steel, or agriculture policies. But today the European Union makes policies on issues like asylum and immigration, fundamental rights, security or scientific research, where ethical questions do play a role.
In addition to the changing EU agenda, another reason is that the current leaders of the three main EU institutions, Barroso, Van Rompuy and Buzek, all have strong interest in establishing close working relations with church leaders, and much less with secular groups and even liberal strands of religion. All three have officials in their private offices for contacts with religions and non-confessional organisations, with a clear focus on contacts with churches. The European Parliament has charged one of its fifteen vice-presidents with the same portfolio. However, that particular vice-president is no supporter of separation of church and state, to put it mildly.
Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty provides a basis for a regular dialogue with churches and non-confessional organisations, but in practice secular voices are not treated on an equal footing with conservative religious organisations, even if the former represent a majority of Europeans. The Article 17 Dialogue only provides for organised life stances to be represented, thereby excluding all those millions of individual Europeans who are humanist or secularist, but not a registered member of an association.
Amidst the growing conservative religious presence, we have to step up efforts to ensure a much stronger humanist and secularist involvement with EU policy making. As I set out at the start of my speech, I believe the European model of peace, democracy and freedom is in essence based on humanist principles. Our notion of a state as a community of individuals with equal rights is the only guarantee for lasting stability and peace.
Of course the most important contribution to peace and freedom is for Europe to lead by example. We can only credibly tell other countries to respect fundamental rights of each citizen, if we do so in Europe. But I fear Europe’s moral authority has jaded a bit in this respect. We tell countries in North Africa to create secular democracies and protect fundamental rights for all. But at the same time, in many European countries we witness the erosion of fundamental rights and equality, as conservative Christian forces tighten their grip on politics at the expense of more liberal, humanist, secular forces. Oppression and discrimination of women, institutionalised homophobia, sexual and reproductive health and rights threatened, discrimination of religious minorities, freedom of speech restricted by new blasphemy laws, scientific research banned by law, the media gagged by a religious majority: surely this is not the model we would want countries outside the EU to follow?
This continent has had more tribal and sectarian conflict and violence than any other part of the world. But we have also learned how to make peace and avoid conflict for the future. Humanist values are key to peace and stability.
It is therefore urgent and imperative that humanists and secularists get organised and make themselves heard in the European political debate. Other forces are well organised, and not reticent to make their voice heard and to actively seek political power and influence. It is time we became less timid as humanists. It is time for more assertive, more “militant” humanism. It is crucial not only for our own European citizens, but for the effectiveness of Europe’s soft power in the world.
Sophie in ‘t Veld | Oslo, 13th August 2011