Under foreign minister Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg served on the UN Security Council and is now joining the Human Rights Council Photo: Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

Under foreign minister Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg served on the UN Security Council and is now joining the Human Rights Council Photo: Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

Luxembourg in January 2022 joined the UN’s Human Rights Council for a three-year term. Foreign minister Jean Asselborn (LSAP) says that small countries can make a difference and wants to shape the global defence of human rights.

When was the idea to campaign for the UN Human Rights Council first born?

Jean Asselborn: In December 2013, the government declared officially its candidature for the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) as a member of our regional group, the Western European and Other States Group (WEOG). At the time, Luxembourg was serving as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the period 2013-2014. We wanted to assume responsibility also as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, in line with our engagement and commitment to multilateralism, and protection and promotion of human rights at both the national and international levels.

The October 2021 election was a clean slate--three candidates for three seats. Do you still consider the nomination an achievement?

Of course! I am proud of Luxembourg’s excellent result during the election in October 2021: 180 votes out of 193 member states of the United Nations. But that’s not what really matters. The important aspect of such a campaign is the process, the preparation and the commitments you make.

During our campaign, we engaged with many states, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as civil society representatives and other stakeholders. Together with national civil society and national human rights institutions, we have developed a set of voluntary pledges and commitments related to the promotion and protection of human rights at the national and international levels. We furthermore participated, in a transparent manner, in a widely attended pledging event organised by the International Service for Human Rights and Amnesty International in September 2021.

I have high expectations in the US rejoining the Human Rights Council
Jean Asselborn (LSAP)

Jean Asselborn (LSAP)Foreign affairs minister

The US will be joining the council at the same time as Luxembourg. What expectations do you have of the Biden administration?

The US is an important actor in the field of human rights. I have high expectations in the US rejoining the Human Rights Council as a full member. Luxembourg is looking forward to a constructive and efficient cooperation with our American colleagues on many issues of shared interest, such as climate change and human rights, the protection of women’s and girls’ rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, the rights of LGBTIQ persons, and many others. The United States will be an important partner for the work of the council in assuring accountability for human rights violations in different regions of the world.

What alliances do you hope to forge? Where do you see the greatest potential for coalition-building on the council?

We will engage in dialogue and cooperate in good faith with all member states and observers of the council, in a spirit of friendly relations based on respect for the principle of equal rights of peoples. We will continue our close cooperation with the United Nations human rights mechanisms, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as civil society. It is crucial to amplify the voice of civil society, which is essential for the council’s proper functioning. We are naturally going to engage closely with delegations from within the EU and our regional group, the WEOG, and we wish to also enhance our engagement with delegations from different regional groups and will work towards a strong cross-regional cooperation. 

Luxembourg campaigned on four priorities--rule of law, gender equality, climate change and children’s rights. They are very broad platforms. What are you hoping to achieve in more concrete terms?

We will, of course, engage on all different thematic and geographic situations under consideration by the council, but we have indeed defined four main priorities for our mandate at the Human Rights Council: the rule of law and accountability and the protection of human rights defenders, gender equality, human rights and climate change, and children’s rights.

We will focus on these priorities during negotiations of resolutions, in our dialogues with special procedures mandate holders and in our contacts with civil society. We will try to get the best possible results and push these topics to the top of the agendas. Our delegation is also planning to organise various side events in line with these priorities. Consistent with Luxembourg’s feminist foreign policy, we will engage strongly on the protection and promotion of the rights of women and girls and will do our utmost to work together with other like-minded countries on the empowerment of women and girls around the world. 

Luxembourg contributes its share to the global response towards the climate crisis
Jean Asselborn (LSAP)

Jean Asselborn (LSAP)Foreign affairs minister

Speaking of children’s rights and climate change, Luxembourg, together with 32 other European countries, is facing a at the European Court of Human Rights. They say their human rights are being violated over climate inaction. Is Luxembourg doing enough for the environment?

As prime minister Bettel stated during the World Leaders Summit at Cop26 in Glasgow, we need ambitious collective climate action. As far as Luxembourg is concerned, I can assure you that we will continue to take up the challenge with determination. Let me give you some examples.

Luxembourg has developed an integrated for the period 2021-2030, which outlines policies and measures to achieve the ambitious national targets for a reduction of 55% of greenhouse gas emissions, for 25% renewable energies and energy efficiency from 40 to 44% by 2030, in order to reach net-zero emissions at the latest by 2050. Since December 2020, these two ambitious objectives are anchored in our national climate law. A set of binding sectoral targets for the industry, transport, building, agricultural and waste sectors will contribute to achieving these objectives.

In addition, as you know, the Luxembourg government has introduced free public transport throughout the country at the beginning of 2020 and production of renewable energies has been doubled over the past years, making it possible to cover the consumption of all households from now on. We attach great importance to the principle of energy efficiency and the maximised deployment of renewable energy, which excludes nuclear energy. We will ensure that the transition is socially just and inclusive by involving our citizens in setting these goals.

Let me stress also the importance that Luxembourg attaches to international solidarity. Luxembourg has made available an envelope of €220m for this purpose for the period 2021 to 2025. These funds, in addition to official development assistance to which Luxembourg will continue to allocate 1% of its GNI, will increasingly be invested in innovative instruments to leverage private financing, which is essential for effective climate action.

In this way, Luxembourg contributes its share to the global response towards the climate crisis. Indeed, our response to this crisis has to be global.

What scope do you see for protection from climate change to be integrated into the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights?

Global issues have evolved considerably since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights more than 70 years ago. The scope of these two texts remains universal and timeless. For instance, the Declaration of Human Rights--while not explicitly referring to climate change--does set out the fundamental human rights that are to be ‘universally protected’. These include the human rights to life, water and sanitation, health, food, housing and many others that can--and will inevitably--be severely impacted by the consequences of rising global temperatures and more extreme weather events.

Making changes to these milestone texts could prove to be very long and tedious; yet the response to the climate crisis asks for immediate reaction and swift changes. We should focus on improving existing tools and frameworks, at cross-regional and multilateral levels, to elaborate a clear roadmap and objectives for climate action. The Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Paris Agreement, both adopted in 2015, go in that direction.

The Human Rights Council has recently strengthened its approach towards the impacts of climate change on human rights. During its 48th session, the council adopted two resolutions, 48/13 and 48/14, which Luxembourg actively supported. The first recognises the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right, and the second creates the new mandate of a special rapporteur on climate change.

Luxembourg in 1988 donated Non-Violence, also known as the Knotted Gun, by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd to the UN where it still stands in front of the organisation’s HQ in New York City  Photo: Shutterstock

Luxembourg in 1988 donated Non-Violence, also known as the Knotted Gun, by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd to the UN where it still stands in front of the organisation’s HQ in New York City  Photo: Shutterstock

Throughout Luxembourg’s campaign for the seat, human rights groups lobbied for , for example in the wake of the Pegasus project and the spyware firm NSO’s ties to Luxembourg. You favour an EU-wide approach, but Brussels is slow to submit its proposals. How frustrated are you by this debate?

An interministerial committee chaired by my ministry is actively working on elements such as the material scope, the personal scope, the obligations, possible sanctions and remedies for a possible national due diligence legislation. This work will also prepare our positions for negotiations of a future EU directive. We have indeed called consistently on the European Commission to present draft legislation on this important issue, and I very much hope to see a first draft soon.

And yet, does the country need more mechanisms to ban or regulate controversial companies?

In parallel to the ongoing work on due diligence, the government is currently preparing the implementation of the European conflict minerals regulation, which requires EU-based importers of these materials to ensure that their supply chains do not help to fund armed conflict or other illegal practices. 

In the area of EU trade policy, Luxem­bourg resolutely supports the strengthening of the provisions relating to respect for human and social rights as well as the fight against climate change. Our goal is to persuade third countries to engage in sustainable development policies and to provoke a real change of mentality in our partner countries.

Luxembourg showed that ‘small’ states can make a difference
Jean Asselborn (LSAP)

Jean Asselborn (LSAP)Foreign affairs minister

Returning to the council, one of the main criticisms of the UN’s highest human rights body is that some of the worst human rights violators are among its members. What opportunities do you see to engage with, for example, China, Russia or Qatar?

According to Resolution 60/251, establishing the UN Human Rights Council, elected members should uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and fully cooperate with the council and its mechanisms. While this is indeed far from being the case, it is, in my eyes, crucial to keep all countries engaged in the multilateral human rights system, rather than having an HRC that would be a ‘closed club’.

Given the increased polarisation of the Human Rights Council, which reflects geopolitical tensions spilling over into the HRC’s work, it is important that democratic member states reach out across regional groups and seek to identify areas of common interest and concern, such as, for instance, the threat posed to human rights by climate change. To this end, it will be vital to engage with moderate and bridge-building states to build majorities on specific issues during our mandate.

During a recent , Tibetan activist Dhondup Wangchen said that “the time to talk and negotiate with the Chinese government is finished.” As a diplomat, how difficult is it to balance economic and other interests with human rights advocacy?

While China is undoubtedly an important economic partner, this does not prevent us from systematically raising issues such as the death penalty or the human rights situation of the Uyghur and other minorities in our bilateral exchanges, such as during the recent visit of the Chinese Special Representative for European Affairs, Wu Hongbo, to Luxembourg in November 2021.

Luxembourg has regularly supported joint statements calling for an unrestricted access of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Xinjiang region in the Human Rights Council and the Third Commission of the UN General Assembly. Luxembourg also supported the adoption of economic sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the persecution of the Uyghur minority under the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime in March 2021.

Luxembourg will be on the Human Rights Council until 2024 after serving on the Security Council in 2013 and 2014. What legacy do you hope will remain from these high-profile mandates?

During its membership of the UN Security Council in 2013 to 2014, Luxembourg showed that ‘small’ states can make a difference in the multilateral system and make a tangible contribution to the maintenance of international peace and security. Luxembourg has notably played a central role in the humanitarian response of the Security Council to the situation in Syria through the adoption of resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2191 in 2014, and has left its mark as a staunch defender of the ‘children and armed conflict’ agenda. I

n the same vein, we will work during our mandate on the Human Rights Council with determination to achieve progress on our thematic priorities and actively contribute to shaping the council’s response to the most pressing human rights situations in the world.

This article first appeared in the February 2022 edition of .