“I am sorry to see what is happening in Ukraine,” says France's Ambassador-at-large for Human Rights
François Zimeray is a professional attorney and a former lawyer at the International Criminal Court. He has visited well over 100 countries. In an interview for The Ukrainian Week Zimeray shared his impressions from dealing with Ukrainian officials.
U.W.: Mr. Zimeray you have completed 97 missions in various countries of the world. Are there many countries you have revisited?
Yes, I have been to some countries multiple times, but I try to avoid this kind of practice so I can go to places where there is real need. I have had several missions in the Gaza Strip, Libya, Russia and Ukraine. I came to Ukraine twice to get permission to meet Yulia Tymoshenko. Unfortunately, I have not been able to receive it. I hope it works out next time.
U.W.: So you are coming to Ukraine again?
I don’t know exactly when, but I am coming for sure.
U.W.: Do you intend to meet with other political prisoners? The European Court of Human Rights recently recognised the arrest and detention of Yuriy Lutsenko as politically motivated…
I attended the Lutsenko trial and know about the Valeriy Ivashchenko case. France supports everyone who is being persecuted for political motives across the world. I must admit that I am sorry to see what is happening in Ukraine. This country held out great hopes. We set up good, close relations with Ukraine. Look at the success of the French Spring [in Ukraine] every year! Ukraine is not an autistic state. Ukrainian society, including civil society, is open to the external world. And Ukraine badly needs this kind of openness. However, the grammar of the contemporary world is very demanding. This grammar requires freedom and democracy.
U.W.: Incidentally, the French press is eager to label the Ukrainian government autistic. Because you have a different opinion, could you talk about whether you have any problems communicating with our officials? Do you feel that they hear you?
Of course, there is dialogue. I have met with my Ukrainian colleagues a number of times. There are competent people among them who are not indifferent to the future of their country. But I draw conclusions from what I see with my own eyes. For example, Article 365 of the Criminal Code. No democratic country of the world has mechanisms to punish officials for their political decisions. But Ukraine has preserved and is using them. Political mistakes should entail political punishment. Inefficient politicians are disciplined by the electorate, not judges.
U.W.: You have worked with former Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner who drafted and implemented the concept of the “right to interfere” 30 years ago. Now most diplomacies in the world make use of it. Where is the limit on this right to interfere, in your opinion? Many governments in the world are using the concept of state sovereignty as a shield to avoid foreign interference and criticism.
Sovereignty is indeed often contrasted with the right to interfere in order to protect a peaceful population from its government. But I don’t think that setting these two concepts in opposition to each other is the correct thing to do. I respect the principles of state sovereignty, because they are the foundation of international relations and a guarantee of peace on earth. State sovereignty is a good thing. But the foundation of sovereignty and of a legitimate right to rule over people is freedom! Freedom and protection do not contradict each other. A government has the right to sovereignty only if it protects the freedom of its own citizens. A government that does not respect or protect its citizens is ruining the foundation of its sovereignty.
U.W.: Representatives of various political forces in the Council of Europe have expressed very different opinions on sanctions as a mechanism for putting pressure on non-democratic regimes. Some say dictators understand no other language. Others stress that intimidation is always destructive and affects the collective consciousness of the population. What is your opinion?
Let me say right away that I am not in a position to offer a competent answer about whether it is time to use sanctions against Ukraine: a deeper analysis of the situation is needed. But in general, abstracting from Ukraine, it should be acknowledged that sanctions are sometimes effective. The world has seen such cases. When leaders and their inner circle are denied the right to travel abroad, it works.
U.W.: Can you give an example?
For example, Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition in this country and an prominent human rights advocate, was recently given a reception in Paris. It is clear that her release was a result of pressure, including sanctions! It was a long path which took 18 years. There were several reasons: the geographical distance and the fact that the European Union applied sanctions, but China didn’t. So we had to wait for changes for a long time. But even completely autistic regimes sooner or later yield to outside pressure. Sanctions also worked in South Africa.
Let me underscore that I am speaking in general terms: when the key figures of a regime and their inner circle are denied the right to travel abroad, things start moving. It is of course unfortunate if a country comes to a situation like that.
U.W.: In your opinion, are the sanctions against Belarus effective? We hear a lot of criticism over the way they were applied…
I am not a specialist in Eastern Europe so I will not speak as one. But I have concluded for myself that the Alexander Lukashenko regime has had the signs of an autistic regime for a long time now. This society has never experienced even the kind of openness that civil society in Ukraine is now showing. They have other mechanisms with other consequences…
U.W.: The office of the Ambassador-at-large for Human Rights was introduced in France only eight years ago. What are its first results and how has it contributed to European diplomacy?
A similar position will be set up at the level of the European Union within several weeks. I believe that this decision is recognition of the positive results obtained by the French. Not only France, but also Sweden, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands have their own ambassadors for human rights. This job is different from that of an ombudsman in that the former works inside the country and the latter abroad.
U.W.: Of the missions you have completed, which one makes you most proud?
I always have satisfaction from my work when I achieve a specific, factual and clear result. An example is the release of a political prisoner or ordinary children who were starving to death.
U.W.: Have you really saved starving children?
Yes, it was in Congo. They were kept in the cellar of the Court Palace without as much as a piece of bread for several days. You should have seen their eyes… I told myself then that my work was not in vain.
U.W.: What about disappointments?
Of course, nice victories do not happen every day. I am fairly often reminded of how hard it is to change something for the better. My job requires a lot of energy and patience. Perhaps the most complicated thing in this work is to reconcile the discrepant rhythms of states and people. Eighteen years is a long time for Aung San Suu Kyi, but it is a brief moment on a historical scale. We call these processes democratic transformation and social evolution. But when dealing with specific people and their lives, I always think: three years to approve an international document to protect former child soldiers is not much. But for a small boy or a girl, three years is eternity.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration