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The EU’s Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Strategy Introduced: first signs of strengths and weaknesses

The EU’s Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Strategy Introduced: first signs of strengths and weaknesses

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton addressed the European Parliament AFET & SEDE committee meeting on Wednesday 7th November 2012 (© European External Action Service)

Two and a half years after the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU showed up with a new human rights face for its external relations. The often repeated words of Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stating that human rights have to be a “silver thread” that runs through everything the EU does in foreign policy, gained more realistic shapes. In order to achieve those goals, the EU came up with 3 steps over the last 11 months aiming to stitch the patchwork of the EU’s foreign policies and beef up the human rights and democracy promotion. The task is clear: strengthen, guarantee and promote human rights within the matrix of the EU external policies and push human rights further up the Brussels agenda despite the on-going economic crisis.

Firstly, let’s see what the whole “package” of the human rights-related initiatives is about. The first step goes back to December 2011, when the European Commission adopted a new document called “The Human Rights and Democracy at the Heart of EU External Action – Towards a more Effective Approach” aiming to boost the human rights policy and foster democratisation efforts throughout the matrix of the EU foreign policies. The next step followed with a set-up of a new office of the Special Representative for Human Rights, for which has been appointed Stavros Lambrinidis, a former MEP at the European Parliament and most recently a Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece. The last, and the most recent step, is the “EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy” from June 2012.

Yet, as it took more than 2 years for the EU to draft and agree on the aforementioned steps, it is obviously the right time to ask what the EU first-ever strategic framework for human rights in external policies aims to achieve and, primarily, how to make sure that these goals are met.

What is the Strategic Framework about?

Firstly, there are various reasons to conclude on the Strategic Framework’s importance without going into further detail, yet. As already mentioned, it is the first-ever human rights “package” for external policies with a back up not only by Catherine Ashton in parallel with the EU institutions, the European External Action Service (EEAS), but also throughout the EU Member States as such (it is worth to mention, that informal meetings took place also with various NGOs through a lengthy process of consultations). Usually, that has not been the case over the last decade. As the document clearly says, both the EU per se and the Member States individually, are jointly responsible for its implementation.

To find out what it means, it is worth to have a look back to the past when the Arab Spring wake-up call hit the EU in 2011. At that time, Brussels could hardly manage to jointly agree on a unified pro-democratisation strategy for the North African region unexpectedly turning into turmoil and to prove a common stand in this manner. Especially along many stories in European newspapers revealing what a friendly relationship had European leaders with North African autocrats.

Even though the first informal meetings took place already within the EU foreign ministers back at Cordoba in March 2010, the Strategic Framework should be thus seen largely as a respond to the Arab countries awakening, where the EU has not proved to be flexible enough in showing a common stand towards this region. So far, there have been many other areas of the EU policy, where it is still an unfortunate reality that many of the EU Member States prefer in terms of foreign policy to undertake individual actions, instead of stepping into the unified EU-led approach.

This is, notably, often a case of initiatives under an umbrella of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and more precisely issues within the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Over the scope of the last decade, a deployment of more than 28 crisis management missions since 2003 has been an inevitable part of a development of the policy. After a four years break, since the Operation Atalanta operating off the coast of Somalia was launched (except the small-scale EU training mission in Somalia), the EU came up with not only one, but three civilian mission deployed within preceding months. However, many EU Member States are still reluctant to contribute to a common presence on the ground in third countries and prefer to run their own development-oriented initiatives and security sector training programmes, for instance. In light of those cases, which undermine the EU legitimacy and unified presence when dealing with third countries, the adopted Strategic Framework could bring a positive impact. In particular, the more unified policy in regards to post-conflict reconstructions in the third states, is desperately needed.

In a more detail, the Strategic Framework offers 96 steps within 36 areas of the EU foreign policy, which ought to be implemented due 31 December 2014. Some of the steps mentioned can however sound as a more rhetoric practice. An action with a number 11 calls to “Make trade work in a way that helps human rights”. Although it is more outlined and operationalized in subsequent steps, it is hardly to expect a reconstruction of the current discourse of the EU in trade relations, putting a new set of conditions on countries such as China or Russia, pushing for guaranteeing and safeguarding human rights; especially in the light of the on-going financial crisis. As the current development in this manner shows, countries like China see itself as an equal partner and does not see the EU as a more mature nation to have legitimacy to dictate various Human Rights clauses. A reality of double standards, such as criticizing Myanmar but ignoring Saudi Arabia, has been also already widely criticized. The same criticism goes to the aforementioned Human Rights clauses, which are not applied consistently to every country and thus lack of consistency leads to a lack of credibility. In every case, the Strategic Framework committed the EU to detail which of the objectives have been actually met in an annual report on human rights and democracy. This will, obviously, help to keep track of how certain steps have been met and lived-up to the expectations, in every case.

The first-ever EU Special Representative for Human Rights

The EU has recently introduced itself also with a new human rights face, literally. Stavros Lambrinidis, a former member of the European Parliament and recently also a Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece, has been appointed the first Special Representative for Human Rights on 25 July and took his office on 1 September 2012.  What should not be overlooked is a fact, that no other Special Representative from the EU has yet had a thematically framed focus. So far, it has been for Brussels a golden rule to have only geographically framed special representatives dealing solely with specific troubled regions, as in a case of Afghanistan, Sudan, Central Asia or Kosovo.

To assess the role, what Stavros Lambrinidis will take on himself in the next 2 years, has not yet to come. So far, a dust of the newly created post needs to settle down. Nevertheless, what is going to be of a particular interest is not only how a cooperation with European External Action Service will look like, but most importantly what role Lambrinidis will take in regards to the newly adopted Strategic Framework; as the official mandate clearly says, he “shall” contribute to its implementation in the EU foreign policy. He clearly has a potential to envisage week points of the current policy settings and in this context he has to prove that his office is not merely a human rights symbol. What is needed, obviously, is to live-up to expectations given to his post within his mandate and bring sufficient visibility to the human rights issues on the international stage. Lambrinidis has a big power hand-in-hand with a huge opportunity to set up a standard for whoever is going to take his office when his mandate ends in 2 years.

The thematic nature of the mandate also raises another question waiting for an answer. While the UN has been using in parallel both thematically and geographically oriented special rapporteurs over the last decades, it has never been the case of the EU. Therefore, it will be interesting to follow up whether his mandate will not be overlapping with the already existing special rapporteurs dealing with particular regions. Let’s think of, for instance, a situation where Lambrinidis deals with a human rights situation in the Horn of Africa (that is a region where the EU recently deployed three CSDP missions), which is geographically under a mandate of another EU Special Representative, Alexander Rondos. Their mandates would be overlapping on the theoretical level. However, 30 years of experience with those mandates in the UN shows, that both mandates can very effectively contribute to each other and enhance their mutual effectiveness.

What exactly does it aim to support?

From a wider perspective, what needs to be also addressed is a cleaner definition of what it is that the EU aims to promote through its democracy and human rights support in third countries. Within a plethora of the EU instruments and initiatives developed over the last years, the substance of democracy promotion remains blurred and unclear. Unfortunately, if one would expect that the adopted Strategic framework would shed some light on the status quo and bring some clarity to the EU’s general conceptualization of a democracy support, it is not the case. In this respect, Anne Wetzel and Jan Orbie stated in a Policy Brief for the Centre for European Policy Studies, that in fact “[the] EU’s haziness with respect to the goal of democracy promotion and the steps needed to reach this goal allows it to stretch the definition of democracy promotion too far; potentially too far. This may be beneficial to the EU’s own interests since it allows for a flexible interpretation of what will (not) be supported under the banner of democracy, but (…) it may actually be detrimental from a democracy promotion perspective.”[1] In other words, the EU should seriously reflect on a role of elections, economic development, civil society and rule of law within its democracy promotion activities and bring more clarity of what it aim support in the first place.

But let’s narrow our focus back to the Strategic Framework, the first-ever joint strategic document for support of human rights and pro-democratisation activities within the EU’s matrix of foreign policies, as the EU officials proudly label it. In respect to the on-going ill-conceptualization of the democracy promotion activities, the document undressed another critical concern, namely a relationship between human rights and democracy. Throughout the document, no attention is given to clarify what is their relationship. Counting how many times the words “human rights” and “democracy” shows up, one gets to the following numbers: “human rights” appears 149 times, “democracy” 31 times and “human rights and democracy” hand-in-hand only 16 times. It is obviously a question, why there would be referred to human rights almost five times more than to democracy. Not to mention, that subheadings consistently refer to human rights solely.[2] In sum, as it gives the impression that to human rights and democracy is referred in the same breath, no clarification what is the mutual relationship between the two respective concepts is given.

However, even though the aforementioned challenges have to be addressed, yet there are certain positive features. It has been in overall encouraging witnessing, that also EU Member States committed themselves to fulfil their tasks laid down by the Strategic Framework. Further, it offers to certain extent detailed steps in separate areas of the EU external policies on which has to be worked on, but also, and most importantly, which institutions and/or sections are responsible – and accountable – for the subsequent implementation. However, whether to use the official language of the Brussels’ documents and call the Strategic Framework as a “watershed in EU policy making” – especially in respect to what has been mentioned above – is not so clear yet.

That is definitely not to say, that the human rights package is a step in the wrong direction. The Strategic Framework is a step forward for the EU’ foreign policy hand-in-hand with its commitment to promote and guarantee human rights within the EU’s external policy, but the implementation over the next 2 years will solely show whether it has been successful and if it has been a blow of a fresh air for the EU external policy. The poorly conceptualized notion of what constitutes the democracy promotion policies and initiatives will not make it easier. In this respect, it is of importance to follow up on how the EU Member States will tackle the Strategic Framework; that is whether they take seriously into consideration what they preach or they leave it untouched. This is not clear yet and the document itself does not elaborate in more details on it either. At the end of the day, the implementation will be the true measure of the Strategic Framework’s added value.

Reconstructing the current policy discourse: What not to forget

In sum, if the EU aims to have a strong voice in the human rights-related initiatives, reconstruct the current policy discourse in particularly when dealing with third countries and start stitching the patchwork of the EU external policies with the “silver thread”, it still needs to tackle many of the issues outlined above. To name the most fundamental, those are: (1) to bring more clarity of what it aims to support through democracy promotion initiatives; (2) to clarify the relationship of human rights and democracy in external policies; and last but not least (3) to demonstrate stronger commitment to human rights protection within the European borders. Especially the last point should not be overlooked, as the EU’s “value-driven” picture has hitherto many scars on the self-promoted portrait. For instance, the EU migration policy when dealing with asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants at the EU’s external borders; the detention of undocumented migrants and failed asylum seekers in Greece; the treatment of Roma throughout the EU or counter-terrorism measures in the United Kingdom and Germany. Those issues – besides many others – deserve urgently more attention, if the EU aims to have a stronger voice in promoting human rights and democracy beyond its borders and to be taken more seriously.

For slightly edited extract from this paper and related comment see an article “EU inconsistent, confused and ‘hazy’ about promoting democracy?” at the Democracy Digest.

[1] Wetzel, A. & Orbie, J., “The EU’s Promotion of External Democracy: In search of the plot”, Policy Brief No. 281, Centre for European Policy Studies, 2012, pp. 3. See this Policy Brief for more information. It offers an extensive analysis of the (ill-)conceptualization of the human rights and democracy promotion strategies of the EU, including a list of recommendations.

[2] cf. ibid.



Petr Pribyla

Petr Pribyla specializes in a broad area of the EU’s external policies with focus on the Common Foreign and Security Policy /Common Security and Defence Policy (CFSP/CSDP), Human Rights and in general on the EU’s role in post-conflict reconstructions in third countries.
Petr currently resides in The Hague (The Netherlands) where he works as a Research Intern at the Centre for the Law of EU External Relations (CLEER) at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut. From March 2013 onwards Petr starts as a Stagaire at European External Action Service (EEAS), Human Rights Policy Instruments and Bilateral Cooperation Unit.
Since 2010 he has been also Non-resident Research Assistant at the Czech Centre for Human Rights and Democratization (CCHRD) at the International Politics and Human Rights department. Petr recently obtained his one-year post-graduate E.MA degree at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratization (EIUC) in Venice (Italy). For the E.MA thesis research was hosted by KU Leuven (Belgium), at the Human Rights Institute. He holds MA degree in Political Science with specialization in Human Rights and Democratization at Masaryk University (Czech Republic) from 2011 (the MA thesis nominated for the European Young Scholar Awards 2011). Part of his MA studies he spent at University of Helsinki (Finland) and National Chengchi University in Taipei (Taiwan). Petr is author of more than 30 articles in the respective field. His articles appeared e.g. in the Democracy Digest; The Global Politics Journal; the Bulletin of the Czech Centre for Human Rights and Democratization; the Czech Republic Human Rights Review; Euractiv.
All opinions in this blog are solely mine.
You can follow him on Twitter @petrpribyla