Nurturing democracy in other countries takes patience, said the German government's human rights commissioner in an interview with DW. At times it even includes working with those who don't support human rights.
DW: Germany's role as an exporter with trade partners, and as a donor to developing countries, is not always consistent with demands for more human rights and democracy. Often, there's an impression that realpolitik trumps morality. What reasons could there be for subordinating human rights to realpolitik?
Markus Löning: International policy is complex, and it always incorporates many different policy areas. In that respect, I don't place values and interests in opposition to each other. We're an export-oriented country. Millions of jobs in Germany are dependent on us selling our products worldwide. But we are also a country whose history has been shaped by overcoming the worst human rights violations that can possibly be imagined. That's also a responsibility of ours. These two aspects are worth bringing together. Sometimes they are in conflict, but sometimes they also compliment each other, too. Because of course, your best trade partners are democracies and constitutional states.
German relief workers have been deployed to Syria with the support of Germany's Federal Foreign Office. Isn't that a breach of Syria's sovereignty?
In Syria, one of the largest humanitarian crises of the last few years is now underway. There are millions of refugees, the country is destroyed by war, people are being tortured, many have died. Assad's regime is killing its own people. It's plunging people into a state of emergency, and it's preventing access to areas it no longer rules.
It's incumbent upon the international community to protect those who are no longer protected by their own governments. Everyone has a right to be helped if they find themselves in an emergency. That's why we support German NGOs working in the so-called "freed zones." But of course we worry about how little we can do, given the tremendous need that exists there.
What can Germany do if the desired democratization of countries like Tunisia or Egypt ends up having unintended consequences?
We can't paint the world the way we want it to look. We can only support those who try to push their countries toward democracy and human rights. That process, as European history has shown, doesn't always go forward in a straight line. Democracy isn't built in a day.
In Russia and Egypt, German foundations and NGOs recently came under legal scrutiny - or were even outlawed. Offices were searched, and further work was prevented. How should Germany deal with those situations?
We criticized that heavily. I'm even more worried about Russian NGOs and civil society there, which are coming under such heavy pressure. But this pressure from the authoritarian regime is a sign that [the NGOs'] work is clearly feared. We have to continue pressuring - in the clearest of language - to stop the persecution.
With the work of NGOs and foundations constrained in Russia, which instruments does Germany have to strengthen civil society there?
That's difficult to say, since Putin and his people are so clearly trying to cut off Russian society from the global network. There are still a number of options available to us: information exchanges, invitations, stipends for people to live in Germany for a while, to study or work. But more than anything, it's important that we remain in contact with civil society - that every politician traveling to Russia meets publicly with a representative of civil society there.
To what extent should Germany work together with repressive regimes?
A good example is how we deal with the North Korean situation. If we want to push North Korea toward nuclear disarmament, we have to work together with the Peking regime, which doesn't respect human rights. Without China it's a non-starter, since they are the most important neighbor - and perhaps the only country that has any form of influence on the regime in North Korea at all. Politics is always a weighing up of things, and you always have to be able to tolerate contradictions.
Where do you see deficits in human rights in Germany?
We just had a periodic review [in Geneva], and it really scared me to some extent how severely Germany's treatment of minorities, discrimination and racism is viewed from abroad. Clearly that's something that we have to think about more.
Since 2010, Markus Löning has been serving as the Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at Germany's Federal Foreign Office. Löning is a politician from Germany's Free Democratic Party.