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The battle for global human rights starts at home

Submitted by on 18 Feb 2011 – 11:11

By Heidi Hautala MEP

At a time when rising powers are making headway into the European sphere of influence in the global arena, and fundamental internal changes are reshaping European Union structures, it is imperative to identify key challenges and potential opportunities and develop new corresponding strategies.

In addition to already extensive post-Treaty of Lisbon reshaping of the EU policy, the EU High Representative Catherine Ashton announced in June 2010 a strategic review of EU human rights policy. This is a timely suggestion and should be welcomed.

I was furthermore pleased to learn of the opening of a strategy-oriented discussion concerning in this policy area by the Foreign Minister of Finland, Mr Alexander Stubb. He called in the European Voice on 23rd of September for the EU to adopt a dignified foreign policy and a more efficient human rights policy in a world which tends to listen less to the EU.

I wholeheartedly agree with him. The malaise of weak and incoherent performance has plagued most EU efforts aiming to protect and promote human rights in the recent years. We need a practical and critical look at these policies.

Incoherence and ambiguity is a key reason behind the ineffectiveness of the EU policy. While the domestic policies of member states at times starkly differ from policies they adhere to at the EU level, the policies on the EU level more often than not differ greatly. This allows the nondemocratic countries to write us off.

It is most appropriate to note here that in his further commentary on the EU human rights policy, Foreign Minister Stubb has also noted that it is tremendously difficult to lecture to other countries if we do not and are not seen to practice at home what we preach abroad. It is vitally important that the EU remains committed to improving its own human rights record and attention to this will hopefully serve as an effective incentive to stay on course.

Another key reason for the lack of results is that EU has effectively failed to create allies in its human rights work. More could and should be done with the Latin American countries to strengthen international criminal justice; Asian countries to develop regional human rights institutions; and African countries to promote democracy.

Our approach must also be more pragmatic. Each country and each situation merits separate consideration on strategy and goals. In promotion of human rights, democracy and rule of law there is no one size fits all strategy and realistic goals vary inevitably. Setting such strategies and goals must be the job of the EU Foreign Ministers. It is also for them to see that targets are reached. At a time when EU is losing its voice, bureaucrat level operation can no longer deliver.

I intend to take part in the strategic review announced by the EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on EU human rights policy. Our Subcommittee will be instrumental in debating the new policies and making recommendations to the High Representative. In this capacity we will oversee, for instance, the discussion on how to improve the implementation of EU Human Rights Guidelines, Human Rights Dialogues and Consultations, Human rights and democracy clauses, European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and other similar programmes and EU demarches and declarations.

This June, Lene Espersen and Guido Westerwelle, Foreign Ministers of Denmark and Germany, sent a letter to High Representative Ashton making concrete proposals on how the EU human rights policies can be made more effective. I share their recommendation that EU Foreign Ministers engage regularly in discussion on human rights timely and in substantive manner. Equally important is their proposal on a Brussels based EU Council Working Group on Human Rights.

We who care for a strong EU on human rights in the world must now harness the potential of the    Lisbon Treaty with the new external action service, and the strengthened powers of the European Parliament, hitherto arguably the most ardent promoter of human rights of all EU institutions.

Finding our voice is, however, imperative not only due to rising power of Brazil, Russia, India, China and the coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. Europe’s voice must be rediscovered as the sustained attack against civil and political rights and freedom of speech shows signs of intensifying. Now is the time for EU to snap back from the defensive underdog position it has lost itself in and take back the initiative in promoting the universality of human rights.