Belgium-Brussels – This has been an important year for human rights. The European Union has made great progress in its approach to the issue in its external relations. After two years’ extensive review, EU foreign ministers agreed on a new human rights package which includes a strategic framework, an action plan, and the appointment of the first ever EU special representative for human rights. Despite its long gestation, the review’s importance has been underlined by recent events like the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, which exposed the double standards implicit in the EU’s erstwhile human rights approach.
Published 09:42 January 20, 2013
Updated 16:41 March 22, 2015
Moving into the mainstream – Making human rights central to EU foreign policy
This new framework matters because it gives human rights a central role in the EU’s external policy. For the first time, human rights have been recognised as something universal and indivisible rather than being one of the issues which may be bartered away as expediency dictates. In recent years the concept of ‘European values’ has crept into EU commentary, and those values are often linked to ‘EU interests’. What the new package does is clearly state that human rights are ‘universally applicable legal norms’ which are in the EU’s own interest to promote and protect.
While this new package should in theory help make human rights a more visible part of the EU’s policy as a global player, it’s vital that the EU should focus on putting it into practice. To let such an important milestone for human rights be mere empty rhetoric would be tragically short-sighted. If human rights are to mean anything in EU policy, all EU players must be involved in their implementation. But six months after the package’s adoption, we’re still a long way from achieving this.
The EU also needs to recognise the role of civil society organisations and human rights defenders in putting together human rights policy. While Amnesty International, alongside its partners in the Human Rights & Democracy Network (HRDN), welcomes the EU’s commitment to enhance its partnership with civil society, there must be a consultative process through which policy initiatives and decisions are discussed and agreed, not imposed. This package should also be part of a wider effort to make human rights an intrinsic part of all external policy. All EU representatives who work on external relations must have their responsibilities for human rights clearly outlined.
But as it seeks, quite rightly, to project human rights values on to the rest of the world, the EU must also put its own house in order. Human rights abuses are an all-too-frequent feature of life for many marginalised people in Europe. There are many examples of this, such as the migrants forcibly returned to Libya by Italy, and the institutionalised discrimination faced by Roma communities throughout Europe. Such abuses can’t be allowed to continue if the EU’s external human rights policy wishes to acquire legitimacy.
However, the package’s adoption does place human rights issues on a firmer footing as we enter 2013. But much work remains to be done in 2013 if we are to shrug aside the rhetoric and ensure that the policy is understood by all stakeholders. This should be a watershed in EU external policy, a transition to a more transparent and accountable approach to human rights. This means the EU should speak out wherever and whenever human rights violations occur. Unfortunately, inconsistency and double standards have to date been the hallmarks of EU external human rights policy. From Bahrain to Ukraine and Colombia, the EU has failed to show sufficient resolve and commitment in condemning human rights abuses.
The EU’s silence in the face of flagrant human rights violations in Bahrain doesn’t correspond to the Union’s human rights obligations. Nor does the somewhat rosy depiction of human rights in Central Asia, encouraged by member states with an eye for trade deals. The notable lack of action on human rights abuses in both cases exposes a tendency by the EU to treat human rights as a negotiable issue which is seen as an issue of secondary importance to other issues. Recent statements in response to hostilities in Gaza and southern Israel have shown how important it is for all EU activities to be fully in line with international law, and that specific expertise on international humanitarian law is essential. And while the relationship between policy-makers and the human rights community is improving, far more still needs to be done to ensure that this goes beyond box-ticking consultations to gather information and proceeds towards an honest dialogue seeking to shape policy.
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