Human dignity is inviolable

Markus Löning, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, explains the importance of human rights for German foreign policy.
by Markus Löning

Human rights are a great job for someone who can name his or her own area of work. They are a priority of German foreign policy. The basis for this is defined in the very first article of the German Basic Law: “Human dignity is inviolable.” The Basic Law acknowledges absolute and inalienable human rights as the foundation of every human community, of peace and of justice in the world. In the face of the oppression, persecution and war in many countries of the world, no one would question the need for this article.

In the realm of Realpolitik, however, attempts are repeatedly made to curb appeals for human rights. Human rights, we are then told, are all very well and good, but must there really be so many of them and are they really meant to be so absolute? After all, we are told, there 
are so many other things that are important and, sometimes, less really means more. And then hypothetical 
aspirations are outlined whose realization is apparently disrupted by demands for human rights.

These proponents of a “softly-softly” policy on human rights are not particularly imaginative. I am always presented with the same few standard arguments:

Human rights activists disrupt domestic peace: opposition politicians, critical journ­alists, environmental activists and feminists all destabilize the situation – and yet stability is so important for effective government.

Security has priority: international terrorism is a scourge of humanity and must be fought by all possible means. Nobody wants torture, but perhaps it is possible to look the other way when terrorists are concerned.

Business interests are more important than campaigning for human rights: after all, who benefits when Germany pillories economic partners and in return loses important orders and, as a result, jobs?

I consider these arguments false. Germany supports 
human rights because we believe in them and because it is in our interest. After all, with whom do we have the best and most reliable political and economic relations? Not with autocratic regimes, but with democratic countries. Germany’s most important trading partners are other 
Europeans and the Americans. This is because we know that their contracts hold good and they have functioning courts in which German companies can assert their rights.

We also have the closest and deepest foreign policy ties with countries that have a solid democratic tradition. Shared views on human rights and the protection of the citizen’s dignity form ties that go far beyond any day-to-day policy arguments.

Germany wants friendly and stable political and econ­o­mic relations with as many countries as possible around the world. That’s why we are striving to ensure that as many countries as possible become democracies, have an effective constitutional state and protect human rights. After all, that coincides with our interests.

Let me again refer to the arguments above:

Do human rights activists disrupt domestic peace? No, they campaign for the protection of individual dignity, they want a functioning constitutional state and that the police protect citizens, not beat them. An independent and professional judiciary protects citizens against despotism – against police violence, 
arbitrary arrest and the seizure of property. It protects both private individuals and entrepreneurs.

Is it really true that security has priority and, if need be, torture is permissible? Here, too, the answer is a definite “no”. There are good reasons 
why the prohibition of torture is absolute. For example, because there is no such thing as a little torture. This is where respect for human dignity shows itself most clearly – the state must protect even those who are suspected 
or have been convicted of a crime. And ultimately a confession gained through torture is worthless, because someone who suffers pain will confess to many things – whether it is true or not.

And to say that working for human rights must take second place to economic interests is simply wrong. After all, developments in North 
Africa have just demonstrated that authoritarian regimes are centres of instability. History shows that stability 
and trade develop well in places where populations 
themselves take the decisions about their own country and destiny.

Incidentally, Germany’s influence on the development of a constitutional state is always particularly great where we have a lot of trade and direct investment with a country. That is when we have a special interest in functioning courts and the protection of property and against corruption and arbitrariness.

The German commitment to human rights is an obli­ga­tion from our past: the terror of the Nazi regime, the ­oppression of the GDR and also Europe’s bloody history of wars about religion, nations and the megalomania of 
absolutist rulers. Millions suffered and died. Our commitment to human rights aims to prevent the same thing 
happening again.

by Markus Löning