Double standards on human rights

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

Human rights and democracy are not “European” nor “Western” principles but universal values to which all UN members subscribe. However, within European affairs, and Europe’s desire for increased recognition, influence and trade, contradictions in its policies, especially regarding its commitment to human rights are becoming more and more evident. As a result, and noted in the recent publication of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024, whilst proactive steps forward have been made, there has also been a pushback against human rights. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and its socio-economic consequences have had an increasingly negative impact on all human rights, democracy and rule of law, deepening pre-existing inequalities and increasing pressure on persons in vulnerable situations.

The EU promotes human rights through its participation in multilateral forums such as the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, the UN Human Rights Council, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe. The Union also actively promotes international justice, including through the International Criminal Court.

Throughout European Union policies, publications, communications and speeches there is a resounding commitment towards promoting and protecting human rights. Inside the European Union the policymakers speak of “fundamental rights for EU citizens”. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees Europe’s citizens’ their rights under the EU Treaty and is binding upon EU institutions and bodies, and national governments when they are implementing EU law.

For the rights of global citizens external to the European Union a different term, “human rights”, is used within EU legislation and policy. The EU has sought to mainstream human rights concerns in its foreign policy and through programmes and different human rights policy instruments in accordance with its founding principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. In the face of rising human rights abuses across the world, Europe’s well intentioned commitments are unfortunately having little effect. 

Article 21 of the Treaty of the European Union sets out the principles inspiring the Union’s external action. These principles are democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter of 1945 and international law. Furthermore, sustainability, good governance, equity and civil society participation are integral parts of Europe’s external relations. 

In 2012, the EU adopted the Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy which set out the principles, objectives and priorities designed to improve the effectiveness and consistency of EU policy in these areas. In 2020, this was revised into a new Action Plan for 2020-2024 which builds on the previous action plans and continues to focus on long-standing priorities such as supporting human rights defenders and the fight against the death penalty. Also in 2020 the European Council adopted a decision and a regulation establishing a global human rights sanctions regime supposedly equipping the Union with a framework that will allow it to target individuals, entities and bodies responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, no matter where they occurred. 

The question is – if individuals or bodies within the European Union are complicit in human rights abuses when they knowingly engage with those committing human rights violations?

Could it be, therefore, that the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy responsible for foreign affairs is compromising Europe’s standing in the world? Or is it that because the EU guidelines on human rights adopted by the Council of the EU are not legally binding, that the Trade Commission and EU Delegations around the world find it easier to turn a blind eye to human rights violations, than to respect the values of the European Union or risk losing trade deals?

The European Union states that “No one should be left behind, no human right ignored.” 

Considering that Europe’s human rights policies strongly condemn the death penalty, torture and other cruel treatment; and promote the protection of children in armed conflicts and human rights defenders; and seek to prevent violence against women and girls, promote freedom of religion and belief and protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people; you have to ask, how and why is Europe creating trading partnerships with numerous countries outwardly committing these abuses? In many cases where such abuses are enshrined in the third countries laws, even starting negotiations with these countries is not only a conflict with European values, but it also demonstrates the hypocrisy of the European Union itself. 

The European Commission will tell us, as is regularly noted from the answers given to questions raised by European Parliamentarians, that it includes human rights in political dialogues held with third countries, or that it has “raised the issue”. This translates to the fact that the Commission is knowingly conducting business with human rights abusers, rendering its own commitments, and obligations, to human rights meaningless.  The European Union is failing in its due diligence required to protect the citizens of the Union.

With democracy, rule of law and human rights challenges openly displayed in Europe and globally,  it is time that the European Council, Commission and Parliament utilise the tools and incentives at their disposal – including trade agreements, preferential trade schemes and EU funding – in order to enforce positive changes and prevent fundamental rights abuses inside the European Union and human rights violations in third countries as a means of exercising diplomatic pressure to address these crimes and wrong doings. 

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