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“Our responsibility and ­solidarity oblige us to help”

Bärbel Kofler, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid, speaks about the principles of German foreign policy.

© dpa/Bernd Von Jutrczenka - Bärbel Kofler

Ms Kofler, the current refugee crisis dramatically shows how questions of humanitarian aid can strain, even overstrain, government policy. What concrete options are left for foreign policy to alleviate human suffering?

First of all, our moral responsibility and sense of solidarity oblige us to help. Guaranteeing that people in need can survive in safety and dignity must be the measure of all things in humanitarian aid. This applies especially to forgotten crises. Two years ago, Germany became the third largest donor of humanitarian aid worldwide. It is no coincidence that the largest number of refugees from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan come to us. Serious human rights violations existed in these countries long before the beginning of the refugee crisis. These include holding on to power by oppressive means, surveillance by secret ser­vices, unimaginable brutality, torture, arbitrary arrests and mass murders. In our foreign policy, therefore, we must constantly demand and foster respect for ­human rights and thereby help prevent movements of refugees. Of course, much more is required here – for example, support for sustainable economic development.

Which fundamental principles underlie the humanitarian aid that Germany provides worldwide?

The Federal Government is a reliable ­humanitarian donor that fully respects, promotes and, where necessary, demands observance of the humanitarian prin­ciples of humanity, neutrality, independence and impartiality. There are many other standards, including the Twelve Basic Rules of Humanitarian Aid compiled by the members of the Humanitarian Aid ­Coordinating Committee, which the NGO umbrella organisation VENRO chairs jointly with the Federal Foreign Office. The Federal Foreign Office requires project partners to comply with these basic rules.

In your speech before the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2016 you criticised repressive acts against civil society, which can be observed worldwide. Why was it import­ant for you to address this subject?

Civil society represents an important corrective to politics and the media as well as within society, from which it comes. Countries as different as Egypt, Russia and China firmly limit the scope ­

of their civil societies. I understand that the rulers in these countries feel insecure in the face of current developments, including those within the world economy. However, they can only solve the problems they face with and not against the population, and they must use civil society as an interface. I would also like to promote this idea by seeking contact with civil society on my travels and in Berlin in order to strengthen it through increased visibility.

Before your appointment as Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and ­Humanitarian Aid you were development policy spokesperson of the SPD Group in the Bundestag. There, among other things, you emphasised the importance of the new Sustainable Development Goals. What hopes do you have of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

The 2030 Agenda is very ambitious and ­it should now be firmly implemented – not only in the developing and newly industrialised countries, but also in Germany. What is rightly being demanded with the new sustainability goals is universality. What does that mean for concrete policy? This is not only about us in Germany doing something a little better. It is also about paying more attention to the interrelationships between what needs to be done in Germany and internationally – whether that involves trade issues or questions of workers’ rights, such as compliance with the Core Labour Standards of the ILO – and doing more to ensure we make real progress and permanently take people out of poverty. What is especially import­ant to me, also with regard to human rights and humanitarian aid, is the achievement of Goal 8 on decent work and Goal 10 on reducing inequalities between and within states. Closely bound up with these are crucial questions of redistribution, the fight against poverty and the creation of decent working conditions worldwide.

There is no lack of international summits and agreements here. The first World Humanitarian Summit is taking place in Istanbul in May. What concrete contribution can Germany make towards international cooperation?

Germany supported the initiative for a World Humanitarian Summit from the very beginning. In the last two years, for example, the Federal Foreign Office hosted two important preparatory meetings at expert level. Germany has long campaigned for a paradigm change in hu­manitarian aid: away from simply reacting to disasters when they occur to proactive measures and more long-term plann­ing and funding. Since 2011 we have actively contributed to the international debate on this issue within the framework of our Preparedness Initiative and our long-term involvement in international humanitarian bodies. One outcome of the Berlin refugee conference in 2014 was the call for a shift to multiannual financing of humanitarian aid, which Germany is already implementing. Enabling financial pledges for longer than one year or for several years makes it possible to organise humanitarian aid in a more predictable and therefore more effective way. Germany is assuming a leading role in the field of humanitarian financing, which will be an important subject at the World Humanitarian Summit.

The Federal Government also supports the involvement of business. What do you expect to come out of a dialogue of this kind?

Many German companies have now recognised there are many reasons for observing human rights. It also offers a competitive advantage. Nevertheless, some are afraid that we will restrict their freedom of action by introducing government guidelines – for example, within the framework of the National ­Action Plan for Business and Human Rights. I would argue against that idea – the state does not only provide clarity by setting rules, but also offers support in their implementation. It is important that a level playing field is created, defining rules that apply to all actors. The Federal Foreign Office set up the #CSRhumanitär initiative to promote exchange between humanitarian actors and the private sector. Numerous non-humanitarian actors are also active in humanitarian crisis situ­ations. We can observe an increasing ­interest in stronger engagement on the part of the private sector. The main goal ­of the initiative is that this should involve more than one-off donations, namely the establishment of long-term partnerships. In particular, the ability to contribute ­specific resources, such as personnel and infrastructure, makes business a valuable partner for humanitarian aid organisations. 

Looking at your political career so far, it is noticeable that you have placed a strong emphasis on workers’ rights. Why do you consider this such a special issue?

I personally have been able to benefit from educational opportunities that have taken me all the way from elementary school to a doctorate. However, talent and hard work alone do not make that possible. Just ask a seamstress in Bangladesh, someone who earns only 20 euros a month and is afraid of losing her job; that is in addition to worries about work accidents and assaults by employers. If you have to invest all your time and energy in securing your survival, then even the best educational opportunities mean nothing. If wages merely make it possible to survive, politics has to intervene and create spaces for personal development. I believe a just society means that everyone can contribute their skills and their commitment on fair terms and that this must also be guaranteed by workers’ rights. ▪

Interview: Johannes Göbel