Human Rights Policy of the EU after Lisbon

European Parliament
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European Parliament
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Barbara Lochbihler is German Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA group since 2009

With the Lisbon Treaty coming into force, Parliament's role is key. But is the EP well prepared for the new task? Let's have a closer look at the stronger and weaker spots of the EP's policy.

There are plenty of human rights activities in the European Parliament (EP). The Human Rights Committee meets regularly and organises public hearings on countries and issues of gross human rights violations. There is the Annual Report on Human Rights in the World. The Sakharov Price is a well known instrument, which greatly supports the extremely valuable work of human rights defenders (HRD) and human rights NGOs. Accession countries have to prove a clean record regarding human rights. The EP president as well as individual Members of Parliament engage in activities regarding the protection on human rights worldwide. They also engage in election observation and send delegations to third countries. HRD are invited to the EP regularly and NGOs take part in committee meetings.

And still, we can do better! The reason for the low impact of many of these activities is that they are pursued in isolation from each other. Cooperation between committees on human rights issues take place on very rare occasions. There is a clear lack of coordination of human rights activities not only within the EP, but also related to the human rights activities of the Commission and the Council. There is no focal point within the EU to coordinate all these activities. Furthermore, too often the political groups of the Parliament refuse to have a resolution on a specific country and turn a blind eye on their traditional "partner countries". Within the Commission and the Council, too often economic interests influence the human rights agenda. Human rights violations in connection with economic activities (e.g. mining, dams, monocultural farming) are rarely addressed in EP resolutions. But it must be strongly stated once again that economic, social and cultural rights cannot be divided from political rights.

Looking at the attendance of MEPs in the EP's Human Rights Committee, we have to be self-critical. Insufficient attendance at hearings and meetings sends out negative signals to the invited guests as well as to the wider human rights community. During the last legislature period, the Algerian ambassador was invited to the Human Rights Committee and showed a willingness to discuss the situation in his country. When he realised that only one MEP attended the committee meeting (the chairperson), he refused to talk to the non-existent audience. Fortunately, not many guests dare to refuse in a similar manner although there are many occasions where only a few MEPs attend committee meetings with high-ranking guests. Improvements have to be made in this regard.

A Comprehensive Approach Is Needed

Due to the division of labour within Parliament, the Subcommittee on Human Rights does not deal with human rights violations within Europe. But the credibility of human rights politics depends on a comprehensive approach regarding human rights violations throughout the world. The question is whether to define human rights as an area of expertise or whether to include human rights issues in the work of all institutions. There is no inconsistency in this. The ongoing international discussions on the death penalty, torture, discrimination, the rule of law, the fight against impunity, social, cultural and economic rights are a clear signal that there is practically no field in human life that is not related to human rights and democratic freedom; therefore, the EP should on the one hand aim to respond to these challenges by integrating human rights politics into all committees and on the other hand draw together expertise in the Human Rights Committee.

To a large extent, this poor state of affairs can be attributed to the limited powers and resources of the Human Rights Committee, because it is only a subcommittee. No decisions or votes take place there. It cannot table resolutions and has only limited financial resources to conduct its own activities. The Council, therefore, does not take the committee seriously and repeatedly refuses to provide insight for important human rights studies, e.g. on human rights dialogues with third countries. The fact that the Council even refuses to present these studies to this EP subcommittee behind closed doors shows a clear lack of respect. The creation of a full fledged EP Committee on Human Rights would help coordinate human rights activities; ensure follow-ups to these activities; exercise democratic control of the Commission and the Council; and thus strengthen the EP's human rights policy. Three years ago an EP impact study on the activities of the subcommittee stated the above mentioned deficiencies and came to the conclusion that the shortcomings could be avoided by establishing a full committee on human rights. But so far nothing has happened and it seems that no political majority for that is in sight.

The provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon reinforce the respect for both human and fundamental rights within the European Union by giving a binding character to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The first consequence is that EU law will have to be inspired by the Charter. The second aspect is that the EU will be in a position to accede - as an organisation - to the EU Convention for Human Rights. Both aspects are crucial because it creates an internal policy that ensures the EU pursues the respect for human rights with its institutions and EU Member States. It also sends a clear signal to third countries that the EU wants to become even more coherent when promoting fundamental rights.

The Treaty of Lisbon further complements the EU's human rights policy when describing EU external action in its Article 21 (paragraphs 1 and 2). It puts respect for and the promotion of human rights at the centre of EU external action in the same article (paragraph 3). It also underlines the necessary coherence and consistency to be reached between the different aspects of EU external action and between the EU’s internal and foreign policy in the article (paragraph 3, second part). The Treaty of Lisbon further insists on objectives that should guide the foreign policy of the Union and does not play one objective against another (for example: trade against human rights).

In the field of foreign policy, a specific article is now dedicated to the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which highlights the founding values of this policy and the rights and obligations enshrined in the agreements concluded with these countries.

More Power To The EP

Article 218 of the Treaty of Lisbon gives more power to the EP (an extension of the co-decision procedure, which includes the assent procedure – Parliament can say yes or no at the end of the negotiations) and the involvement of the EP in all phases of the negotiations, including in the definition of the mandate. This aspect has been included in the new inter-institutional agreement with the Commission. This procedure can substantially help the EP have a greater impact in terms of human rights during the negotiations: we have to use the negotiations as a real leverage for improving the human rights situation or at least putting pressure on the authorities to make clear commitments from their side.

We know from experience that Commission offices in general do not always implement the EU guidelines on human rights, notably on HRD (e.g. meetings with HRD, attending trials of HRD, support of HRD activities). Baroness Ashton, as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission, must show in her policy concrete improvements such as a real implementation of all human rights instruments by delegations. This requires adequate staffing, i.e. expertise and funding in those EU offices. She will also have the duty to guarantee that the commissioners in charge of a sectoral policy of the EU external policy such as trade, development, fisheries, and agriculture adopt the same line regarding the central role of human rights in their relevant policies.

An increasing amount of civil society actors perceive that the EU is losing credibility. It shows a lack of consistency and its policy uses a double standard where third countries that have special interests of EU member states are concerned (there is always one EU member state that has close ties with a third country, which in turn influences the policy to be adopted vis-à-vis this third country).

The EU has developed a lot of valuable instruments (a human rights clause in all agreements; human rights dialogues; EU guidelines on human rights) and policies (pre-accession policy with the Copenhagen criteria; European Neighbourhood Policy founded on reciprocal rights and obligations and common values); however, there is still a serious lack of implementation of all these instruments and of a clear methodology based on a regular assessment supported by clear benchmarks. One of the worst examples of this is the non-application of the human rights clause – in the case of grave human rights violations – in respective agreements, although this clause is considered to be an essential element of the agreement and, therefore, legally binding. Too often human rights are isolated within a ’technical’ dialogue with third countries (EU-Russia consultation; EU-China dialogue; European Neighbourhood Policy sub-committees on Human Rights) rather than in the political dialogues that take place during bilateral summits and Association or Cooperation Councils. If human rights have a central place in EU external policy, Baroness Ashton must guarantee it in the future.

In cases of gross human rights violations against human rights defenders, for example, EU member states aim at taking ‘confidential démarches’ vis-à-vis the concerned authorities so as to express its disapprobation. Statements by the Council Presidency only come after having failed with these confidential measures. It is recommended that this policy be reversed. The publicity of these démarches are important and must be done so as to express both the EU's concern regarding a specific situation and a clear support for the activities in favour of democracy and human rights.

Each time the EP has the right to scrutinize an agreement this work has to be done seriously. Approval for an international agreement has to be given only if the agreement is satisfactory as such and not under the pressure of some Member States. Postponing the adoption of an agreement would send a clear signal to the Council and the third country.

The EP must be able to use its parliamentary control over the activities of the other EU Institutions, whereas it does not receive enough information from the Council and the Commission even though access to information is crucial. Progress has to be made in this respect. A revised agreement on this subject is still being negotiated with the Commission and the EP's view must be respected.

Urgency Resolutions

Let’s also talk frankly about what is called urgency resolutions on cases of human rights violations. The EP generally does not have the quorum to vote on these urgencies because it is always the last item on the Strasbourg agenda and by that time most MEPs have left. But  votes still take place without taking into consideration the lack of quorum, which means the absence of one third of the MEPs (I remember quite well a discussion with the Japanese Ambassador to Germany about the EPs urgency resolution on war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers during World War II. He stated that he could not take this resolution seriously because only 20 MEPs voted on it.) The Council is almost never present during the urgency debate – be it because of the bad timing in the agenda or because the vast majority of MEPs leave Strasbourg before it takes place. The findings of the working group on parliamentary reform in the last legislature proposed a change in the timing of the urgency debate, but no changes were made on this matter. Why not? It seems there is a clear lack of political will to engage this issue beyond mere rhetoric.

Parliamentarians and HRD around the world could provide a significant contribution to a credible human rights policy. For this to happen, they need to be protected from the powers they are working against. No one advocating the implementation and observance of human rights in the EU runs the risk they have. There is no threat of punishment nor is there any danger involved. In many other countries, however, people who defend human rights can themselves become the victims of human rights abuses. Trade unionists and representatives of women's organisations; lawyers; journalists; ethnic and religious minorities; and indigenous peoples are under particular threat as defenders of human rights. Politicians are also among the defenders of human rights who are at risk; they can be elected representatives, opposition politicians or mayors and they frequently carry on their activities under very difficult political conditions. Exercising their right of free speech is mostly their sole offence. The criticism they voice makes them a thorn in the side of both state agencies in countries where the human rights situation is problematic and of paramilitary groups. They are frequently slandered, threatened, removed from office, subjected to arbitrary arrest, sentenced for "subversive" activities, tortured and even murdered. Many people who have made themselves unpopular "disappear" forever. The offenders are seldom publicly convicted. To protect those in need, we as parliamentarians who can exercise our mandate in safety should help fellow parliamentarians who are at risk in other countries. The Parliamentarians Protect Parliamentarians campaign should be carried out not just by the members of the Committee on Human Rights, who have already been actively involved on behalf of many victims of human rights abuses, but by all the MEPs. They should be called upon to participate irrespective of their areas of expertise. The secretariat of the Committee on Human Rights might reveal whether opposition politicians are under threat in a country we have contact with or are intending to visit and what MEPs can do best to support them. In cooperation with the new European External Action Service, the Interparliamentary Union and non-governmental organisations, the secretariat can provide names of threatened or persecuted HRD who are involved in politics in the relevant country.

We should use this information to decide how we can help our fellow parliamentarians best without posing any additional threat to the people concerned. The motion on the protection of threatened human rights defenders proposes various courses of action: drawing attention at home and abroad to threatened and detained HRD during talks with political decision makers and in petition letters and urging that they be protected or released; paying tribute to the commitment of HRD when abroad by talking personally to them wherever possible; visiting them in prison; calling for them to be given a fair trial and observing the court proceedings; ascertaining whether special partnerships can help to support threatened fellow parliamentarians abroad.

We can also use the given information to offer support from within Europe. It provides a sound basis for petitions and talks with political decision makers from countries in which human rights are violated. To ensure that the information is kept up to date, it is of utmost importance that – after having had talks or travelled abroad – we should report to the secretariat of the Committee on Human Rights our impressions and the activities we engaged in and make recommendations on future procedure. Our active involvement will undoubtedly prove worthwhile because human rights throughout the world would be in a sorry state without the courage and perseverance of those who defend them. Human rights defenders in politics need our protection and increased action.