“What’s so scary about smart girls?” Stavros Lambrinidis ’84, the European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights, asked a packed Pruyne Lecture Hall on April 19.
“Smart girls get educated and become empowered women,” Lambrinidis continued. “Empowered women change the power balance in society.”
As the EU’s first thematic special representative, tasked with enhancing human rights policies around the world, Lambrinidis has had to negotiate a difficult path between delicate diplomacy and passionate advocacy. As he joked, “being the human rights guy is not the most popular hat I could be wearing.”
Yet Lambrinidis, a consummate politician, knows how to distill what are often complex international issues to their essence. During his talk, he suggested that human rights policy, including women’s education, came down to seven steps: empowering people within their own countries; engaging with oppressive governments; enlarging international coalitions in support of human rights; encouraging government officials to promote human rights; enforcing legal action where encouragement failed; educating groups about their rights; and embodying human rights as an exemplar to other nations.
“If you want to fight terrorism, educate girls,” he said. “If you want to fight terrorists, look at what they hate the most.”
At its most fundamental, he said, advocating for human rights is about advocating for free and open societies. That idea sometimes appears to run contrary to what governments believe are in their best interests to protect national security.
“What the European Union is promoting around the world today,” Lambrinidis said, “does center around a presumed conflict between security and human rights—that somehow you cannot have one and the other at the same time.”
Lambrinidis suggested that rather than security and human rights being at odds, they are in fact two parts of a whole. He noted, for example, that the recent imprisonment of Egyptian protesters enflamed, rather than quenched, civil unrest in that country.
“Is it possible to think that putting people indiscriminately in jail will bring you long-term security and peace?” he asked.
Lambrinidis cautioned that his is not “a magic wand business” and that the EU’s role is that of convener rather than leader, but at the same time, he said, there is plenty of cause for hope.
After the Chinese government arrested more than 200 human-rights lawyers and their associates last summer, for example, Lambrinidis met with top Chinese officials and attempted to reframe the discussion as one of possibility rather than a security issue. As the Chinese government had done with climate issues, Lambrinidis told them that what seemed like an existential threat to the country could really be an opportunity. Human rights issues—such as freedoms of speech, of association, and of thought—could actually prove to be a boon to the Chinese economic sector by spurring innovation.
“The foreign minister didn’t start dancing. He went, ‘hmm,’” Lambrinidis said. “’Hmmm’ is a pretty good answer to get. In my business, you never know where it will take you.”