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17th Feb 2019

EU diplomats to tweet and blog for human rights

  • Ashton billed the paper as the first in-depth look at EU human rights work for 10 years (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU foreign relations chief Ashton wants member states to permanently post human rights experts to Brussels and to use social media to talk to foreign activists in what she calls "digital diplomacy."

Capitals currently send human rights staff to Brussels once a month for meetings of the so-called Cohom group in the EU Council. The visitors drop in, read out their national position on given cases, and fly home with little debate and little sympathy for a joint EU line.

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Ashton set out her idea in a draft paper - seen by EUobserver - entitled "Human Rights and Democracy at the Heart of EU External Action", to be adopted on Monday (12 December) and discussed with MEPs on Tuesday.

It says: "Cohom can no longer fully respond to the increased workload and demands. Effective implementation of EU external human rights policy requires more frequent meetings of Cohom and also a standing capability and expertise on human rights and democracy among the permanent representations in Brussels of EU member states."

The Brussels-based club is to deal with "ongoing issues", while political directors are to fly in monthly to talk about "strategic aspects."

Ashton has many times said rights will be a "silver thread" running through her work. But the 18-page communique is her first attempt to formulate a policy on the subject in her two years in the job.

It states that: "The EU should commit itself to promoting and protecting freedom, dignity, equality and justice for all as a key foreign policy priority." It adds: "That the EU [itself] is exemplary in respecting human rights is vital ... a strong track record will strengthen the EU's attempts to promote human rights around the world."

The paper names three top concerns - rule of law, women's rights and children's rights.

One novel concept is what Ashton calls "digital diplomacy."

With Arab Spring revolutions marked by their use of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, she says: "The EU could mobilise key delegations to use social media for digital diplomacy." She suggests holding "live webcasts" so that human rights activists can talk directly to policy-makers.

She also wants to ban EU countries from selling technology that helps dictators to snoop on people: "[The EU] will develop appropriate measures to ensure that people are not subject to indiscriminate censorship or mass surveillance when using the Internet."

The paper is soft on criticism of the EU's past behaviour.

On member states' long friendships with pre-Arab-Spring dictators, it says: "There has been a debate whether previously the EU has done enough to support civil society and to promote change rather than stability [in the region]."

But it promises to work more with grass roots organisations instead of the current "top-down" model of "political dialogues and meetings with third countries."

It also addresses two other frequent complaints by NGOs.

Noting that that the bloc has so-called "human rights dialogues" with about 40 countries, it says its campaigns should have "specific, measurable objectives". For its part, NGO Human Rights Watch believes the dialogues with China and Russia help EU diplomats to avoid sensitive subjects at summits by claiming vague successes in the low-level talks.

With Ashton opening her first embassy in Uzbekistan - rated among the most repressive countries in the world - one throwaway line could come back to haunt her new envoy.

"Human rights defenders are regarded as key interlocutors for EU delegations," the paper says.

Recalling his work in Uzbekistan prior to being expelled in December of last year for researching abuses and meeting rights activists, Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow told this website that one EU diplomat in Tashkent lamented the fact the Uzbek government “would prefer we spent all our time at cocktail parties rather than raising difficult human rights issues."

This story was corrected at 10.30am Brussels time on 21 December. The original text misquoted Swerdlow as saying that EU diplomats go to cocktail parties instead of meeting human rights defenders

Opinion

Towards a common European space for human rights?

The on-going controversy surrounding the new Hungarian constitution and accompanying laws has focused attention on a key question: who exactly is responsible for upholding human rights standards in Europe, Barbara Lochbihler and Kerstin Lundgren write.

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