The German government’s commissioner for human rights tells DW he intends to address controversial topics on a trip to Africa, such as the rights of sexual minorities.
DW: Mr Strässer, you have just returned from Rwanda which is currently commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. How do you assess the role of Europe and of Germany at that time?
Christoph Strässer: It is becoming increasingly clear – as more sources become available - that Europe bears a tremendous responsibility. Mention must first be made here of France. The incumbent Rwandan government has accused France of supporting the Hutu militia in 1994. We Europeans did not know the full dimensions of what was going on, but the signs should have been recognized that genocide was imminent, if sufficient attention had been paid.
What consequences do the political failings of that time have for your own work today?
One current example is the Central African Republic. UN emergency aid coordinator John Ging warned of genocide in February. If we see developments similar to those in Rwanda 20 years ago, then we must, independent of all political considerations, make sure that this does not happen again. That means we need humanitarian aid for the people but we also need safe havens so that the aid can be brought to the people. If the groups involved in the conflict are not willing to make this possible, and we cannot persuade them with peaceful means to lay down their weapons, then I believe there should be a robust military intervention to ensure that huge numbers of people are not murdered, one can even say slaughtered, as happened in Rwanda in 1994.
The European Union seems to have a problem with this. The deployment of the troops agreed upon for Central African Republic (CAR) has been dragging on for some time. Do you have the impression that the Europeans are living up to their responsibilities in this conflict?
I am somewhat frustrated by the course of negotiations. Of course it is difficult for the EU if a member state forges ahead and then demands solidarity from the rest (Editor's note: former colonial power France began a military mission in CAR at the end of 2013.) I do not think that is a good strategy. I would like to see the EU define more clearly its role in such peace missions, spell out more clearly how it sees its responsibilities, and be ready to intervene on the ground. Not primarily with military means but rather in a preventive way.
Your political involvement with Africa goes back a long way. Now you are the government's human rights commissioner. What are your main priorities?
At the moment, fresh efforts are being made to formulate strategies specifically for Africa. I think we have to get away from the notion of Africa as a continent that needs to be developed. There is still a need for development cooperation but we also see that progress is being made in many African countries. Economic growth is far ahead of that in Europe. That means we have to develop ways of promoting equality. We must take care, for example in trade relations, that European companies (who will, I hope, intensify their activities in Africa) maintain human rights standards. This applies particularly to the raw materials industry and the so-called ‘conflict minerals'. It is my responsibility as human rights commissioner to ensure that people have acceptable working conditions and that they can live from what they produce.
You are now travelling to countries including Uganda which has been widely criticized, not only in Europe, because of a new Anti-Homosexuality Act. A controversial approach to human rights issues can also be found in other African countries. What is your response to the frequently heard criticism that Europeans want to impose their values on Africans?
I find the argumentation on the basis of traditions and cultures problematic. The General Declaration on Human Rights is also valid in African countries and for people who want to live alternative lifestyles. I intend to address this topic in Uganda. We support, for example, the constitutional peitition against the Anti-Homosexual Act in Uganda. But we have to be very careful not to harm those who are working for the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersexual people (LGBTI). In discussions with activists in Uganda I have learned that they regard the instrumentalization of development aid in this connection as misguided. They fear they will become scapegoats to an even greater extent than they already are because – that is how it is presented – development aid work is suspended because of them.
There is one important point I would like to make. It was the African continent which played a positive role in the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). There was considerable debate about the issue of impunity. This is why I believe there are at least medium term possibilities of finding concensus on human rights issues.
In what concrete way are you supporting the constitutional petition in Uganda?
For one thing, it is very important that friendly countries - and Germany traditionally has good relations with Uganda – make it clear that they do not agree with the course that Uganda has embarked on with the Anti-Homosexual Act. We tell our colleagues in the Ugandan parliament that we in Germany, in Europe, will do all we can to have this law annulled. This includes, if requested, providing organizational support for the appeal.
Christoph Strässer is a member of parliament for Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) and since early 2014 the government's Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid. Before that, he was spokesman for the working group on human rights and also chaired a party discussion group on Africa.
Interview: Thomas Mosch