The Open Society Foundations welcome the European Union’s Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy and the Action Plan for its implementation. This human rights package is the most significant and coordinated effort to ensure that human rights are fully integrated into the EU’s policies and actions beyond its borders.
The Strategic Framework will provide additional support for efforts to improve transparency and outreach by the EU. Commitment in the Action Plan to a “genuine partnership” with civil society can be a first step to implement EU promises to improve engagement with its own citizens at home and foster stronger networks abroad.
Human rights actors who look to the EU primarily for political support can only benefit from clearer declarations both from Brussels and at the country level. In parallel, country-specific human rights objectives, dialogues and strategies need to be opened up for scrutiny. Human rights policy can no longer be made behind closed doors.
The commitment to integration of human rights across all policy areas—be they development, trade, energy or others—finally offers the long-promised prospect for real coherence within EU policy initiatives. Similarly, member states and the EU have made welcome commitments to being “exemplary” on human rights within their frontiers and “jointly responsible” for their promotion outside their frontiers.
EU demands that its partners meet international standards, such as providing independent monitoring of prisons to prevent torture, should be matched by member states’ ratification of those same international agreements. EU engagement with individual countries premised on energy or strategic interests needs to be squared publicly with these new human rights commitments. Policy incoherence will now be increasingly challenged.
The new EU Special Representative on human rights will provide much needed leadership. An essential first task will be to build relationships with member states to ensure their sustained support, not just for the principle of the new package but for its effective implementation. EU foreign policy should be energised by member state involvement, as it was during the rotating six-month presidencies. This human rights package offers member states the opportunity to lead on specific thematic areas either through division of labour among EU actors in-country or in Brussels.
The ambitions of the Strategic Framework require concrete actions, timelines and indications of responsibilities. The Action Plan must provide such clarity. The work of the coming months, including further consultations with civil society, will be crucial to develop it from a document that is strong on aspiration and weak on detail to a balanced and realistic plan.
A strong monitoring and evaluation mechanism is also necessary, including regular and substantive input from civil society to EU Delegations abroad, institutions and member states in capitals and Brussels. This consultative approach will be time-consuming, but without it the human rights package risks falling short on its promises and will remain an obscure Brussels agreement.
The stakes for turning this strategy from aspiration to reality are high. The Arab Spring revealed that EU rhetoric on rights often masks double standards. It is facing a financial crisis that threatens its global credibility. The added value of the EU both to its member states and to its partners is represented in this initiative. It now has to prove it has the institutional capacity and coordination to implement the commitments and the political vision to follow it through.
The Open Society Institute-Brussels is also a member of the Human Rights and Democracy Network and supports the HRDN statement on the EU’s Human Rights Strategy.