On the 23rd November 2017, the World Solidarity Forum hosted an event aiming to shed light on what the EU can do to protect the right to free speech of individuals who are oppressed because of their opinion in its foreign policy.
Activists, journalists and opposition figures are punished by the government, by the military or even by criminal organisation for speaking their minds. The violence often takes brutal forms like kidnapping, torture, beating and even murder and rape but also includes subtle abuse such as social ostracism, ridicule, threats to loved one, etc…The EU is a powerful political and economic actor in the world and free speech unhindered by the fear of repercussions is one of its core values. What can it do to make sure such value is respected globally? What can be done in a practical and effective way to achieve real results?
To answer these questions the WSF event’s line up of speakers was composed of European policy makers, but also activists and journalists, who could illustrate the problems and present what solutions the EU can provide. Following a welcome lunch, the event started with a keynote speech by MEP Maria Ana Gomes. Mrs Gomes is a member of the EP’s Subcommittee on Security and Defence and has a long-standing experience as European policy-maker since 2004. Preceding her political career, she was a senior diplomat in the Portuguese foreign service .
Mrs Gomes reminded the audience of the many steps forward that the EU has made in protecting human rights and suggested that, in moving forward, the discussion needs to be mainstreamed. Human rights cannot be taken as an isolated concept and discussed separately from issues like security, terrorism, trade,etc…. Only by connecting the respect of rights to other key issues in international relations negotiations, we can truly move forward with more widespread defence and respect of human rights. She emphasised this is particularly true of corruption, as abuses are often the consequence of attempts to cover up corruption cases.
The following keynote speaker was MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat, a member of the EP’s Human Rights Subcommittee and a human rights activist for more than 30 years. Playing on the differences between the French and English languages, Mrs Vergiat emphasised that we often speak of “freedom of expression” but that free speech is at the very root of this freedom and a violation of the latter necessarily puts limitation on the former. She argued that, while it might at times be necessary to limit freedom of expressions, the reasons for these limits must be clearly defined in ways that are not open to interpretation and only through means that are respectful of human rights.
Mrs Vergiat’s intervention was followed by a panel discussion with two individuals that had first-hand experience of the oppression of the right to free speech: Mr Waqass Goraya from Pakistan and Mr Aya Altun from Turkey. They both described how they were subjected to psychological violence and social shaming aimed at isolaing them, and in the case of Mr Goraya also torture and physical abuse, because of what they wrote and said. They described how powerful organisations like governments use their power to punish physically those whose words create problems for them, in some case with physical violence and intimidation and in other cases by impoverishing trying to make them outcast. They also described the current situation in their respective regions, Turkey for Mr Altun and the broader areas of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh for Waqass, as places where the oppression of free speech happens commonly and invited the EU to do more to put and end to this.
The event came to a conclusion with the closing remarks of Mrs Mercedes Garcia Perez, Head of Unit at Division GLOBAL 1.Human Rights at the European External Action Service. Mrs Garcia Perez reminded the audience that the EU has the most developed protection organisms for human rights defenders, be that they are activists, journalists, lawyers or other and presented the tools available via the European Union to the audience. These instruments include various type of platforms and mechanism that can be used by individuals fighting for rights like the right to free speech to get support from the European Union. One such tool is Protect Defenders, an online website that allows human rights campaigner to call for immediate help.
Following the closing remarks, the event ended with a small networking reception.