27th Sep 2021


EU human rights strategy: one year on

  • "A strong and coherent European voice on human rights has never been so important" (Photo: European Commission)

Exactly one year ago EU foreign ministers adopted an ambitious new strategic framework on human rights and democracy. The appointment of an EU Special Representative for Human Rights and the adoption of 36 key objectives, ranging from the fight against the death penalty to the protection of children's rights, were supposed to help bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality and integrate human rights across the EU's external policies.

However, in many respects, it feels as though it is business as usual. The EU still struggles to articulate a coherent and consistent approach to human rights that makes full use of its combined economic and political clout on the global stage.

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Over the past year, the world has undergone a series of major political upheavals. Across the Arab world, in authoritarian China and Russia, and more recently in democratic Turkey and Brazil, people have risen up in protest against their leaders.

In the majority of cases, ruling governments have responded with violent crackdowns and by suppressing freedom of expression. Freedom House's latest annual report found that there has been an overall decline in political rights and civil liberties worldwide, as authoritarian regimes have stepped up their persecution of civil society groups, independent and online media, and the popular democratic movements which threaten their grip on power.

With much of the rest of the world in a state of political flux and Europe facing relative economic decline, a strong and coherent European voice on human rights has never been so important. Only by working together can EU countries fight against torture and repression, support civil society and political activists, promote universal values and encourage the transition towards democratic regimes based on the rule of law. And while there is a strong moral imperative to act, it is also firmly in European countries' own interest. A world in which more states respected the fundamental rights of their citizens would not only be more free; it would be more stable, prosperous and secure.

Yet too often, the EU's human rights policy has failed to live up to expectations. A report last week by the European Court of Auditors found that EU development aid to Egypt intended to promote human rights and good governance has largely been squandered. Much of it went directly to the Egyptian authorities, who refused to commit to human rights and democracy programmes, while 4 million euros allocated to civil society groups was subsequently cancelled.

At the same time, the rights of minorities and women in Egypt have deteriorated, freedom of speech has been curtailed and there has been a deeply worrying clampdown on pro-democracy NGOs - including the imprisonment of 43 NGO workers and the drafting of a new law which would ban foreign NGOs from operating in the country unless approved by the state. Despite all these developments, the European Commission has failed to propose suspending any of the 1 billion euros of aid committed to Egypt since 2007.

Stricter conditionality, with aid linked more closely to the protection of human rights, the rule of law and civil society, would help to curb the excesses of the Egyptian government and ensure EU assistance is better targeted.

Bahrain is another illustration of the EU not taking a sufficiently robust stance. Unlike most other Arab Spring countries, the protests in Bahrain were successfully crushed in a brutal clampdown, which, according to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, was characterised by the use of torture, unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and other systematic human rights violations.

Thirteen peaceful demonstrators and political activists remain in prison, including pro-democracy campaigners Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. The European Parliament has passed several critical resolutions condemning the human rights violations in Bahrain, and I have repeatedly put pressure on the Bahraini government to release political prisoners, but High Representative Catherine Ashton and the EU's Foreign Affairs Council have tended to opt for a more conciliatory approach.

Meanwhile the EU's first Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, is currently visiting Bahrain, but it appears he has not been given a strong enough mandate to openly criticise the Bahraini government. I hope that at next week's EU-Gulf Cooperation Council in Manama, EU foreign ministers will take a firmer position and call for the immediate release of political prisoners and for steps to be taken towards democratic reform.

The third and most obvious example of human rights concerns taking a back-seat role is the EU's relationship with China. Criticism of China over its ongoing repression of political dissidents, religious groups and ethnic minorities tends to be confined to the biannual EU-China human rights dialogues, which take place between low-level diplomats, behind closed doors, and away from the scrutiny of civil society representatives and the press.

In a positive development, the latest round of these talks - which took place on 25 June in the remote Guizhou province - was for the first time followed by a joint press briefing. However, there remains much more to be done. The EU should take up human rights with China at the highest levels and be as transparent as possible, in order to put real pressure on the Chinese government and allow full accountability.

As a powerful trading bloc of 500 million people, the EU is too big to be ignored, even by emerging superpowers such as China. But an effective human rights strategy will require greater coherence, stricter conditionality, and for actors such as the EU Special Representative on Human Rights to be given a stronger and more flexible mandate so that they are empowered to speak out where necessary.

National parliaments across Europe must also play a bigger role in pressuring their respective governments to take up human rights issues, and should develop closer links both with the European Parliament and with each other to push for a more coordinated EU approach.

For its part, the European Parliament should step up its game by placing human rights resolutions higher up the agenda, rather than on the Thursday afternoon of the Strasbourg plenary sessions when all but a few dozen MEPs have already left. Finally, as blind Chinese human rights defender Chen Guangcheng and myself called for last month, we must build a stronger partnership with the US Congress and take up individual human rights cases together.

Next month, the EU Foreign Affairs Council will meet to evaluate the human rights framework they adopted last year. My message to them is clear. Europe must stop whispering on human rights. It must not only speak with one voice, it must speak loudly and without hesitation. It is high time that the EU and its member states translated words into action and put human rights centre-stage.

The writer is Vice-President of the European Parliament for Human Rights & Democracy.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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