How the EU Can Improve Its Human Rights Business

After years of campaigning and frustration, after a groundswell of support, after lobbying and persuasion there has been a revolution. Not in Northern Africa or the Gulf but instead a "Brussels Spring" has erupted. It is one which I hope will see human rights finally stepping out from the shadow of Europe's bigger and traditionally powerful trade and external relations interests.

Today sees the European Parliament approve our formal input to a new strategic review of how the EU does its Human Rights business. The review being led by the EU's High Representative Baroness Catherine Ashton represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make human rights more central to what the European Union is about.

If human rights are indeed a "silver thread" in the words of Ashton, to describe her commitment to the concept of mainstreaming, then Europe's review must demonstrate that there really is a silver bullet.

The most eye-catching innovation will be the appointment for the first time of an EU Special Representative on Human Rights—to ensure Europe's voice on human rights is heard clearly on the world stage.

The United States has been long-represented by its Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, and today will see the European Union agree to appoint to such a post for which there has been no equivalent until now.

The new European External Action Service—a coordinated diplomatic representation established under the Lisbon Treaty—has given the EU a potentially powerful network of nearly 200 delegations or embassies in third countries.

Today MEPs are asking for a deadline to be set so human rights "focal points" (specialist advisers) are appointed in each and every one of these delegations worldwide. 116 are already in place.

We are calling for human rights organisations to be treated as partners not simply agents of delivery. We ask for concrete mechanisms so allegations of human rights violations within Europe are fully addressed and do not tarnish our ability to advocate for human rights beyond our borders.

There must be a major increase in transparency of human rights policies in the European Union, as everywhere else in the world. Accountability for those who abuse human rights can only be achieved if there is also accountability for those of us who seek to promote those rights.

In Europe, the first response to the Arab Spring has been to introduce incentives for human rights, summed up by the catchphrase: "more for more."  But when the European Union was still negotiating improved trade terms with Gaddafi just four weeks before two of its members—France and Britain—started dropping bombs on him, today we call for the European review to address the harder question of "less for less."

The suspension of the EU's bilateral international agreements for the breach of fundamental human rights or democracy requirements has proven to be too blunt a tool, and one too rarely used.

Our proposals now are for the establishment by the EU of human rights benchmarks and indices country-by-country, to enable real escalation of response.

The review also needs to address the new challenges for freedom of expression, arising from new media.

Just as there is a constant race for new technologies, there is a race between those  harnessing new media for the purpose of liberation and those who seek to use it for repression. Today I led the European Parliament in saying Vodafone must learn from doing Mubarak's bidding in Egypt, but will give due credit to Google for refusing to be complicit with censorship in China.

I would like to see more European companies join the Global Network Initiative seeking to find common standards of respect for human rights in the telecommunications industry, an initiative until now largely led by American-based providers.

The global community of human rights defenders, from national organisations to international NGOs like the Open Society Foundations, have been advisors, advocates and catalysts of human rights and democracy to me and to many of my European Union colleagues, in relation to countries with whom we have been working where these very values are under threat or only just coming to fruition.

I hope the way that we are today seeking to elevate human rights in our own work shows that we—representing the oldest of the world's democracies—have really listened.

Richard Howitt is the European Parliament's rapporteur on human rights. The Open Society Foundations works in Brussels to influence and inform EU policies to ensure that open society values are at the heart of EU action, both inside and outside its borders.

1 Comment

EU should concentrate more on bailing out finacially troubled countries rather than focusing on any other issues.Google Sniper 2.0

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