France's top human rights official, Rama Yade, recently spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg about the humanitarian crisis in Georgia, the EU decision to lift sanctions against Belarus and Uzbekistan, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, and her recent visit to Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Very serious human rights violations were committed in Georgia this summer during the armed conflict between Russian and Georgian forces. As current European Union president, is France planning any measures to punish these abuses?
Rama Yade: When the crisis erupted in Georgia in early August, the first thing we needed to do was to obtain a cease-fire, because this meant saving lives. And saving lives meant not having to act a posteriori for human rights. So I think the cease-fire obtained by [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy was indispensable. Then the peace plans needed to be implemented. Now the goal remains the same: the withdrawal of Russian forces to the positions occupied before August 7.
Concerning human rights, I've received the Georgian ambassador in Paris. The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights [Thomas] Hammarberg traveled to Georgia and [French Foreign Minister] Bernard Kouchner was recently there, too. We were told about population displacements, with all the suffering they entail. The goal is now to prevent a destabilization of this region, with all the consequences it could have elsewhere.
RFE/RL: Thousands of ethnic Georgians have fled South Ossetia, and human rights organizations report that their homes have been torched to the ground. In your opinion, should this particular group of displaced Georgians be allowed to move back to the separatist region, or should they rather stay in other parts of Georgia?
Yade: One cannot say that a region is exclusively Georgian, exclusively South Ossetian, exclusively Abkhaz. Populations have mixed, and the situation requires more clarity. When we spoke to nongovernmental organizations a few days ago to try to find out how many people had been displaced, different organizations provided different figures.
So first of all, we have to appraise the situation on the ground. That's also what the European observers are doing there; their findings will serve as a basis for upcoming conferences that will enable us to take stock of the situation. I think it is very important that conferences about refugees, displaced persons, and Georgia's reconstruction be held now, without delay. Civilians need to put a roof over their heads.
RFE/RL: Your first official visit as secretary of state for human rights was to Moldova -- a notorious hub for human trafficking. Did you discuss this issue during your visit to Moldova?
Yade: I indeed chose Moldova for my first visit. It was a bilateral visit, but it was also an occasion to address some important issues, including trafficking in women. This is a very serious problem. Because they want to escape poverty, help their families, women are often caught in prostitution networks that promise them a normal job. They find themselves trapped in unbearable situations on the streets of Western Europe. This is not acceptable in Europe.
RFE/RL: Do you think Moldova's ambition to join the European Union can encourage Chisinau to do more to combat human trafficking?
Yade: Moldova's accession to Europe is tied to many other aspects. Prostitution networks are to blame here, not Moldovan authorities. Governments are doing their best. But it's true that with the European constitution's rejection in 2005 by France and the Netherlands, we are now seeking to strengthen political Europe. If other eastern countries join the European Union tomorrow, let them join under good conditions.
RFE/RL: On October 13, EU foreign ministers eased sanctions against officials from Belarus and Uzbekistan, two countries with appalling human rights records. Doesn't this decision risk casting doubt on Europe's commitment to defend human rights?
Yade: What Europe is seeking through these decisions is efficiency; Europe seeks to foster progress in Uzbekistan and Belarus. There have been gestures, for example the release of several prisoners, and in response to these releases Europe, too, is making a gesture.
But we expect more from these countries. Last week, for example, I received Human Rights Watch, whose representative cannot get accreditation in Uzbekistan. This isn't quite the right way to proceed. It is important that Human Rights Watch's representative obtains this accreditation.
It is the same thing for Belarus. We are not throwing in the towel on human rights, on the contrary. We believe that making gestures may help bring change in Belarus and Uzbekistan. If nothing comes in response, we will draw conclusions. But we are trying to push for the release of political prisoners, we are trying to obtain more freedom of expression. This is the dialogue we are conducting -- it is a firm dialogue, one that doesn't compromise on human rights.
RFE/RL: The Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded last week to former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari for his long career of peace mediation. Many had hoped the prize would go to a human rights activist in China or Russia to denounce rights abuses in these countries, particularly since this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Did you share these hopes?
Yade: Ahtisaari was active in many regions, he played an important role on Kosovo, for instance. He is now being rewarded for his tireless work as mediator. But this in no way detracts from the recognition of the fight of someone like Hu Jia, this Chinese blogger who was jailed ahead of the Olympic Games. I mobilized myself very quickly for him, because freedom of expression must be preserved. This is an issue that we regularly discuss with China within the framework of multilateral Europe-China and France-China talks.
RFE/RL: You recently traveled to Afghanistan. Could you please tell us more about your visit to this country?
Yade: I traveled to Afghanistan last month both to pay tribute to French soldiers -- we lost 10 of our troops in an ambush this summer -- and to be close to Afghan society.
We are not an occupation force in Afghanistan, we want to help Afghanistan rebuild. This country has been suffering for 25 years, and the international community wants to support Afghanistan in its reconstruction process. This is why the Paris donor conference was recently held in France -- we collected $20 billion for Afghanistan's reconstruction. So I traveled to Afghanistan to see, together with the local government, what this would translate into concretely for Afghans.
I also passed on to Afghans the message that we are doing all this for them, that we are not against them. This is why, beyond official meetings, I spent a lot of time with the Afghan population. I visited the women in charge of "Rose," a magazine by Afghan women for Afghan women. I met with female legislators, because 27 percent of Afghan legislators are women -- that's more than in France. Our presence there is not only military.