New Ambitions with Regard to Human Rights: Can the EU Deliver?

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    Since the end of the Cold War, the EU gradually developed its normative and institutional architecture for dealing with human rights. Yet from the outset, the EU faced major challenges in turning its pledges into practice. The Arab Spring has had the effect of a wake-up call for the EU. It illustrated the limitations of the ‘stability versus human rights’ paradigm and prompted a fundamental rethinking of EU policies. Building on the findings of a recently concluded evaluation,1 this contribution explores the feasibility of this new EU agenda.

    Human rights as a core value in external relations

    The European Community (EC) was a relative latecomer in the field of human rights. The Lomé III agreement (1985-1990) timidly created a first opening to discuss these matters. The end of the Cold War was a turning point. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty upgraded human rights as an objective of both the Common Foreign and Security Policy and EC development cooperation. This, in turn, led to the inclusion of human rights clauses in cooperation agreements and commitments to promote this core value through dialogue and all relevant cooperation instruments. 

    The resulting EU architecture for dealing with human rights may look impressive at first sight. Yet in practice it has proven difficult for the EU to push forward a credible human rights agenda. The abovementioned Evaluation concludes that the track record of the EC/EU has been “mixed”. Across the world, the EC has made relevant contributions through the use of funding and non-funding instruments. Yet the evaluation also shows that "EC/EU actions have been hampered by structural constraints including: (i) insufficient use of high-level EU political leverage (particularly in countries where major interests are at stake); (ii) the lack of a clearly spelled out “joint” strategy between the EU and Member States; (iii) the tendency to ‘ghetto-ise’ human rights; (iv) limited leadership to push for the mainstreaming of human rights; (v) a wide range of downstream implementation problems". 

    The Arab Spring: eye-opener and trigger for reform

    The 2011 upheavals in North Africa illustrated the ambiguity of the EC/EU approach to human rights. In the name of ‘stability’ and commercial interests, the EU actively continued to support entrenched dictatorships (Tunisia, Egypt, later also Libya). This culture of complacency was painfully exposed during the Arab Spring. The citizen’s revolts in North Africa were all about human dignity and rights. They acted as a powerful wake-up call for the EU, which swiftly announced a fundamental review of its human rights policy. The High Representative Catherine Ashton stressed that human rights should become the “silver thread” throughout all EU external action. In a recent speech, Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs pleaded to “embed human rights and democracy even more deeply” in EC practices, amongst others by ensuring that they are given “greater weight in determining the ways and means of providing assistance”.2 The new policy has been spelled out in various EC Communications, including regarding future approaches to providing budget support.

    Windows of opportunity

    The landscape for human rights is constantly evolving. In the process, several positive evolutions can be noted providing windows of opportunity for a more credible and effective EU action:

    · The international and normative framework for human rights continues to expand and be refined, including through dynamics at regional level (such as the African Union). This, in turn, is contributing to the emergence of new EU policy frameworks based on ‘rights-based approaches’ in development.
    · The struggle for better human rights legislation is increasingly complemented by efforts to make rights ‘substantive’ and ‘real’ for poor and marginalised people. This indicates that the struggle for human rights is a shared agenda (rather than a Western imposition). 
    · The growing realisation that a widening and deepening global economy carries with it profound implications for human rights (both positive and negative). Current debates focus on the role human rights standards should play in formulating economic and social policies, on the human rights responsibilities of transnational corporations and on the role of the state as ‘guardian’ of human rights (including labour rights). This highlights the critical need for global players (such as the EU) to contribute to a more inclusive and equitable global economic system.

    Becoming a credible actor: some key challenges

    All this suggests EU human rights policies find themselves at a critical juncture. There are major opportunities to better connect currently largely disjointed agendas (development and human rights; the global economy and human rights). Yet for this to happen, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the EC Directorate-General for Development and Cooperation (DEVCO) will need to face upfront major implementation challenges. Four priorities are briefly explored here.

    First: enhanced capacity for collective action at EU level. The "EC/EU need to ensure that the architecture for addressing human rights has a solid ‘political roof’". This means providing clarity on the human rights ambitions of the EU towards third countries and regions. It implies being more explicit about EU interests that co-exist with the promotion of human rights as core value. It means developing common implementation strategies for which both the Commission and the Member States take responsibilities. It calls upon all EU institutions to effectively work together in the new Post-Lisbon configuration (rather than creating new silos).

    Second: seeking allies to overcome resistance. In many countries the overall environment remains hostile to human rights. The governments involved tend to develop a façade of laws and institutions to display an apparent concern for human rights. New emerging powers (e.g. China) do not necessarily uphold the same values in their external policies. All this confronts the EU with the need to carefully choose which levers to pull, how, when and why. It also invites the EU to build on the growing societal demands for reform and to strengthen alliances with domestic forces or regional actors pushing for change.

    Third: connect the development and human rights agendas. Evaluation findings confirm that human rights are still too often addressed in a ‘ghetto’. There is growing recognition of the critical links between human rights, poverty, exclusion, vulnerability and conflict. The time has come to overcome the divide between human rights and development and to fully exploit possible synergies between both work streams.

    Fourth: localize human rights. This means taking local conditions as point of departure for elaborating a realistic and inclusive human rights local agenda. This ‘localization’ process is key to better connect international normative frameworks with societal dynamics at country level. The recently introduced innovation to request all Delegations to elaborate a local implementation strategy is a step in the right direction. The task at hand is to further improve the quality, strategic management and effective monitoring of these local implementation strategies.

    Jean Bossuyt is Head of Strategy at ECDPM 


    1. European Commission. 2012. Independent ‘Thematic Evaluation of the EC support to human rights and respect of fundamental freedoms.
    2. Speech of Commissioner Andris Piebalgs at the European Parliament inter-parliamentary committee meeting with national parliaments. Brussels, 11 October 2011. 


    This article was published in GREAT Insights, Volume 1, Issue 2

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