The ardent social campaigner, lawyer, former MEP and wife of the Danish Ambassador, Karin Riis-Jørgensen, considers her career inspired by an insatiable appetite for news and her involvement in the fight against human trafficking
Call it what you will: purpose, inspiration, fervour or motivation. Whatever it is, the feeling often stems from the most improbable of sources. For me, my passion derived from a humble newspaper.
My father had the privilege of having a crisp, untouched paper delivered to his door each day, which he would then digest with his lunch at noon. From an early age, I was captivated by news, and I remember fantasising about one day earning enough money to be able to purchase my own newspaper every morning.
Re-telling this story, I’m often misunderstood. After a speaking engagement in the US, during which I’d spoken of my childhood wish to own a newspaper, a young lady approached me and asked: ‘What newspaper did you end up buying? Do you own The New York Times?’ She had assumed, of course, that I had set my sights on becoming a media mogul, rather than merely getting my hands on a printed copy. Mine were relatively unassuming dreams, I suppose.
Growing up on a farm in a small Danish village fostered a powerful sense of community. I understood that in this community, as with any other, every individual had a role to play. Simply everyone mattered.
I loved going to school and was eager to gain a good education. I was the first in my family to attend university, from which I emerged with slightly more inflated ambitions. Fancying myself as a female Perry Mason – the heroic defence attorney created by author Erle Stanley Gardner – I had hoped to establish my own law firm in my hometown.
But all that changed when the farm girl met a young diplomat. It was while I was working as a trainee in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that I met my future husband. My plans to steal Perry Mason’s crown were shelved when, after a year of marriage, we were posted to Brussels.
Finding myself in the heart of the European community was exhilarating. For a true European – convinced of the enormous role that the EU would play in shaping Europe’s future – it was fascinating for me to be working at the coalface of the European project.
I soon realised that, under the Maastricht Treaty, the European Parliament would become an important player in this project, impacting on the lives of European citizens significantly. It was on this battleground that I decided to put myself forward.
Running for the first time at the European elections in 1994, I was elected as an MEP. I was subsequently re-elected twice – in 1999 and 2004 – where I headed the national list of my party. Last year I decided not to seek re-election and stood down, moving to London to become a full-time wife of an Ambassador.
Identity can be a rather fragile thing. It would, I’m sure, have been easy to allow my sense of who I am and what matters to be chewed up and spat out by the various professional spheres in which I have found myself. I have always sought to preserve my original identity and not allow myself to be consumed by the expectations of the role, whether as a lawyer, MEP or wife of a diplomat.
Throughout all my professional incarnations, I am certain that I have benefited immensely from my rural upbringing in a close-knit community. I call myself a liberal because, fundamentally, I believe in people and not in systems. There is nothing more important to me than fighting for the rights of each individual person.
Hopefully this is evident in the work I have conducted in the European Parliament. My belief in people over systems came to bear in my work supporting patient mobility. One of the EU’s key priorities is achieving effective mobility for citizens – and nowhere is this more vital than in the field of healthcare. If national healthcare systems are not able to provide the right treatment, then European law can ensure that it will be available elsewhere. All too often, however, national systems serve to prevent this from happening. I fought to ensure that all Europeans have access to quality healthcare across the EU, regardless of background or the depth of their pockets.
I have also become closely involved in the fight against human trafficking, struck by how the fastest growing organised crime in the world was simply being overlooked by those in authority. I was taken aback by the fact that national politicians and ministers would be close to tears watching a film about the improper transport of animals, yet took no notice of trafficked men, women and children on their doorstep. Seeing victims of human trafficking on the streets of Copenhagen, I knew that the time had come to take notice.
Travelling around Europe, I visited shelters and met NGOs working in the field, before beginning to campaign in the European Parliament for the establishment of an ‘Anti-Trafficking Day’. We managed to secure cross-party support, and the first European Anti-Trafficking Day was set for 18 October, 2007. This has since become an annual event.
During these campaigns, I met a young man who shared my passion to stop the trafficking of people. Phil Lane introduced me to the work of Stop the Traffik, a global campaign fighting to bring an end to the sale of people and ensure that victims are protected and traffickers prosecuted. It aims to provide the means through which every individual is empowered to take action in their community. By engaging young people through education, creating vehicles for global engagement and equipping grassroots activists with the skills and resources to push for change, Stop the Traffik has made great strides in tackling an appalling crime.
In February 2008 I assisted Stop the Traffik in delivering more than 1.5 million signatures from every continent of the world to the United Nations, petitioning national governments – as well as the UN – to work together to combat human trafficking. The sheer size of this grassroots petition speaks for itself.
Stop the Traffik continues to pressure chocolate manufacturers to eliminate slave labour in the plantations from which they source their cocoa beans. Having secured commitments from the likes of Cadbury and Mars to offer a wider Fairtrade product range, the campaign continues in an effort to ensure that all chocolate is free from trafficking.
The campaign’s community groups across the world have been instrumental in tackling trafficking in the sex industry on a local level through advocacy and public awareness. Working with business travellers to help detect the crime – and with vulnerable women and girls to help prevent it – I intend to continue working alongside Stop the Traffik to ensure that people’s basic right to freedom from slavery is untouchable.
The great challenge presented by people trafficking is that it happens in secret. The biggest threat to the trafficker, therefore, is if his or her activities are brought to light. Inevitably, every individual will in their lives encounter those who fall victim to this crime and the diplomatic world is not immune. It is the responsibility of all those who live within the community to raise awareness and take action to stop it happening on our doorstep.
I hope that over the course of my career and political life I have managed to demonstrate that the values instilled in me since childhood are not just words, but guidelines that I’ve actually lived and acted by. Values are about the people we fight for and the causes we champion. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a career where that crisp, untouched newspaper I longed for has been delivered to my desk every morning. But reading its pages, it seems all too apparent that a belief in the value of the voiceless individual, not least in the context of the tragedy of modern-day slavery, is needed now more than ever.