Politics and policymaking always involve trying to reconcile conflicting demands. Foreign policy is no exception: competing interests have to be taken into account, and that's especially true when it comes to human rights. You can regret that, but the fact remains. Why? Human rights are part and parcel of international law. They are legally binding commitments that countries have made among themselves and with their citizens as well as under the United Nations framework. A cynic might think these commitments are worth little compared with the vast demands of diplomacy, but states are obliged to uphold them and they provide a space in which civil society can demand its rights and resist the arbitrary powers of government.
Human rights break through the dogma that state sovereignty is absolute and intervention in a country's internal affairs is unacceptable. Decades ago I was one of the first people to talk about "the right to interfere," the need to tear down walls of silence and to crack the institutional indifference that allows governments to do anything they want to their people. The phrase was provocative, but I am proud to have played a part in the U.N.'s development and adoption of the idea that there is "a responsibility to protect." The concept, so simple because it comes from our basic humanity, is that if a state is unable or unwilling to protect its people from the most abominable crimes, then the rest of the international community has a duty to act. For me, having seen the worst kinds of violence and its victims during my time working with nongovernmental organizations on the ground, this is a very concrete idea indeed. As France's foreign minister I continue to think that it is best to put this concept to work even if, in this job, I'm confronted every day by just how difficult this is to do.
As an activist on the ground, I thought NGOs had a decisive role to play in defense of human rights. Today, as minister, I am even more convinced of that. And I am convinced that it is indispensable for NGOs and governments to work together. That is why I asked that all French embassies be transformed into "houses of human rights." I want them open to NGOs and particularly to defenders of human rights. I want them to receive activists and victims, to listen to them, to protect them if need be, and to give them visas if necessary. I do this out of conviction. I also do this out of pragmatism, because the development of civil society is a reality all around the world, whatever the political regime might be. Foreign policy, for a long time now, has not been the sole prerogative of governments. This is not to say that NGOs and governments have the same role. NGOs make the case for the defense, while governments have the responsibility for making policy.
If there is one area where NGOs have played a considerable role, it's in the sphere of international criminal justice, which has also taught us how difficult it is to offer protection, even as it marks an essential step forward. At a time when the lines between what is internal and external, what is national and international, are becoming relatively blurred, it is high time for the principles that underpin the rule of law to be applied to international relations and for us to bring an end to impunity. Peace and justice are going in the same direction, even if they aren't always progressing at the same pace.
Human rights are not only a value that shares a place among the contradictory and competing interests of nations. They are legal commitments taken by all countries in the framework of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and fleshed out in a good many other treaties. At a time when cultural diversity is held aloft by some as a standard beneath which the universality of these rights is called into question, we should not split hairs about how far those rights should go or diminish them in comparison with supposedly traditional values. Let's hold to the true course set forth so clearly in the declaration itself: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
I am proud to be breathing life into a foreign policy in which human rights have their place alongside other considerations. I am proud because of an idealism that the experience of a lifetime has never made me give up and because of pragmatism, too: countries where political conflicts are settled peacefully will be less likely to settle their differences with their neighbors through violence. Criticism and transparency are powerful antidotes to the blindness of rulers. A better world, where human rights are observed and protected, is a safer world. And what is the bedrock of foreign policy if not the search for security?