The Hon. Markus Löning (Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid, Federal Foreign Office)

01.10.2010 - Interview conducted by James Hood

Q1. Since taking over this position what would you identify as perhaps one of the most pressing issues concerning human rights or perhaps ones that don’t receive enough attention?

I would pick two issues which are very important.  One is the fight against the death penalty where you can see that over the course of the past years, the fight against the death penalty has had some success as   fewer countries are applying the death penalty and actually executing people.  There are debates in many countries about this issue so it’s really worth working in this area because we can really change the world for the better.  The other thing that I am trying to work on is freedom of speech and the media, because in a free country the first thing that needs to be free is the individual speaking his or her mind and the press should be free to write about what is happening.  If the media are free, no dictator will be in power for a long time.  If people know what is happening and are well informed, they will kick out their dictators faster than if they were left uninformed.  That’s why freedom of press and freedom of speech are extremely important.

Q2. Regarding the media, do you think that the west neglects certain issues, and how difficult is it to raise awareness on issues which don’t have as much relevancy within the mainstream media?

Sometime it is extremely difficult and it just doesn’t work.  It is a question of pictures, videos and movies, of people seeing the misery of other people. Sometimes you will find someone that is there to take pictures and puts them on the internet or takes them back home to the West and publishes them.  This raises attention for the issue, but often there just isn’t anyone there so the world isn’t looking at them.  We are struggling with this situation and Iran was an example of this.  The world was watching Iran because they were filming what was happening on their mobile phones.  They had working Twitter accounts and were using the internet.  The internet has been a major breakthrough for freedom of speech and the transfer of information around the world.

Q3. How would you assess the ability of international institutions such as the ICC and the UN in confronting human rights violations?  Would you yourself give these institutions greater powers in order to do what they were set up to do?

The strength of international organisations is not so much in addressing issues that occur at a given moment in time.  Sometimes they do address them, and sometimes they don’t, but the real strength of the international mechanisms is that they are changing the world in the long run.  We have conventions on human rights, an international criminal court now, tribunals for human rights violations in war times, a European court for human rights, and the African court for human rights. All of these international mechanisms are actually changing the situation, but over many years.  They do not do well in addressing problems that occur today or yesterday, but are good at changing issues in the long run.

Q4. Another issue that was brought up was Turkey and its slow ascension to the EU.  As human rights is something that is delaying this process, do you think enough is being done by the Turkish government in this respect and how would you characterise the understanding of the rest of Europe concerning how long this process can take place?

Europe should be more supportive of what is happening in Turkey and look not only at the question of whether Turkey is going to become a member or not.  Turkey needs to be a very close friend and personally I think they should become a member. The important thing is that they have really changed their country in the past seven years, which is not something that is just being done by the government, it is something that Turkish society has been doing over the past years. This is a process that we should support because we can see an enormous improvement for human rights over the past 8 to 10 years in Turkey.  There are still big problems, but we have seen improvements and we should acknowledge this and help the Turkish government and Turkish society to overcome the problems., and should be more positive about what is happening.

Q5. In discussions about development there is often mention of development aid fatigue.  In recent years we have seen have seen many humanitarian disasters on a large scale so do you think there is any risk or even any evidence of what some call humanitarian aid fatigue?

I don’t think so. If you look at pure humanitarian aid, which means helping people to survive after they have seen catastrophe like a flood or a storm people, generally are quite willing to give a lot of money in Europe, so I don’t see a fatigue there.   I see a fatigue in development policy which is something else, but I don’t think you can connect that to the fact that there are some countries that are not behaving responsibly, that is, leaders of countries that are not behaving responsibly towards their own citizens preventing development.  People are fed up with that, especially as you can see other countries where people are behaving responsibly. People are a lot better off now than they were five or ten years ago, and policies do make a difference.

Thank you for speaking with us.