Annual Report: Human Rights and the EU

Annual Report 2006-07 : Human Rights and the EU

1. Introduction

Despite the continuing deadlock over the EU’s institutional reform, it was in many ways business as usual in most spheres of EU activity, including human rights. On the side of external relations, this presented a familiar picture with progress and positive results in various domains, while many problems remained as intractable as before. On the internal front, the contrast deepened between the EU’s stated values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and its own human rights performance.

In October 2006 Europe expressed outrage at the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The President of the European Commission said that Moscow’s credibility was ‘on the line over its ability to prosecute those responsible’. The European Parliament backed the call for an investigation and recommended that the EU Council ‘give serious thought to the future of relations with the Russian Federation’.

The Russian government denied any involvement and there was no hard evidence linking it to the murder. But the EU reacted in force and rightly so because it knew the difference between actual involvement and political responsibility.

It was a very different story when the first CIA rendition cases came to light in November 2005. Europe’s leaders were dismissive. Very few countries opened investigations and most capitals responded with a heavy silence, despite growing evidence that European airfields had served as stopovers to Guantánamo and that people with the ‘wrong’ name and skin colour had been kidnapped in Europe and sent to countries where they were tortured.

In February 2007, the European Parliament in adopting the report of the special committee it had set up a year earlier to investigate these matters came to the same conclusion as an earlier inquiry by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: that CIA-led renditions had taken place with complicity of European states. And yet, EU member states, and the Council, remained silent in what AI considers an unacceptable denial of political responsibility.

Over the past period, we have seen the EU and its member states come under increasing scrutiny not only over dubious methods used to combat terrorism, but also over abusive practices in the fight against irregular immigration. This was especially apparent in the mounting immigration crisis between Africa and Europe. Discrimination in its multiple manifestations cuts across these and other forms of human rights abuse. The current climate of anxiety dominates political agendas and encourages the stigmatization of foreigners and suspicion of Muslims. At the same time, it does not help improve the ongoing discrimination towards Roma or stem the current of homophobia that in some countries is present at the highest official level.

Where denial of political responsibility has become the double standard of the EU when confronted with its own human rights deficiencies, the primary responsibility for this state of affairs lies with the EU Council, i.e. with the member states. The European Parliament tends to take human rights more seriously and regularly calls on the Council and the Commission to take remedial action. However, it has no means to enforce such appeals, while the Commission lacks the confidence and the clout to stand up to the Council on issues like these that are clearly politically very sensitive to the member states.

Amnesty International has come to regard the domestic human rights deficit as a key challenge in its dealings with the EU, for two simple reasons. First, there are serious human rights problems within the EU, and these should not be neglected let alone deliberately ignored. Second, if domestic problems are not addressed adequately, it will affect the EU’s credibility, and thus effectiveness, when confronting third countries over their human rights abuses. The attitude of complacency and denial risks undermining the EU’s global human rights effort, and its laudable ambition to provide more effective leadership.

A strong EU role externally to advance human security in spheres of conflict prevention, crisis management and poverty eradication requires a coherent EU human rights policy that is consistent in its external and internal dimensions. Genuine security must be based on full observance of human rights, and the EU has yet to show that that is not just rhetoric when it is faced with serious challenges to security, with very real pressures of immigration, and with racism, discrimination and xenophobia on the rise. In that context it was a missed opportunity for the EU Fundamental Rights Agency that was inaugurated in March 2007 to be barred from some of the most serious human rights abuses in the EU.

On the positive side of the balance of the past year there has been the steadily increasing direct engagement in conflict prevention and crisis management activities in different parts of the world. The EU has staunchly pushed the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council as new institutions that are indispensable for more effective global governance. It put its weight behind efforts that culminated in the UN General Assembly at the end of 2006 adopting a resolution to start work on an Arms Trade Treaty. And slowly but surely the arduous task is taken up of putting the EU’s toolbox of human rights instruments – the human rights clause in EU agreements with third countries, the various human rights guidelines – into practice.

The need for an EU with an effective human rights policy is as great as ever. The 50 th anniversary of the EU in March 2007 saw ample reflection of the EU’s value base, and emphasis on real security at home as well as a strong global role. Human rights constitute a common point of reference that can and should be used to boost collective determination especially to confront today’s major humanitarian crises. To help achieve that, divisive tendencies between member states pursuing national interests will have to be controlled better by their leaders.

To do so credibly the member states, acting individually and through the Council, should break with double standards by acknowledging and confronting their own shortcomings. That way, a powerful example can be set to the rest of the world that would allow for a more convincing message to key strategic partners and that would also provide an important antidote to politicization in international fora.

2. Human rights in the EU

The negative relation between counter-terrorism and human rights continued to be a major preoccupation, and most prominent was the issue of possible European complicity in US-led renditions. Following first disclosure at the end of 2005, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament set up inquiries that confirmed such complicity and demanded action by responsible authorities. No action was taken by the EU Council despite a strong call by the European Parliament when it adopted its report in February 2007. Similarly, repeated appeals to the Council by AI to renounce practices of rendition and of deportation with ‘diplomatic assurances’ to countries that practise torture went unheeded.

Meanwhile Council negotiations on the framework decision on procedural (fair trial) rights of suspects and defendants in criminal proceedings continued to drag on. Six years after the adoption of the European Arrest Warrant, there is still no parallel legal framework protecting the rights of suspects and defendants in criminal proceedings in the EU. The delay in its adoption, the limited scope of the latest compromises and the ongoing debate over the very existence of a legal basis have now seriously undermined the prospect of a binding instrument with added-value for the protection of basic fair trial rights in criminal proceedings across the EU.

The Council did in the end manage to conclude another set of tortuous negotiations, on the establishment of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). At its inauguration in Vienna on 1 March 2007, Amnesty International expressed its disappointment about this ‘missed opportunity’: limited to the EU itself and to member states applying EU law, the agency will be dealing mainly with the complex of racism and discrimination and is effectively cut off from most other serious human rights questions. The minimalist and defensive approach of the whole FRA process begs the question what the EU’s human rights policy really is.

This critique notwithstanding, the prospect of the FRA building on and broadening the work of its predecessor, the EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, is welcome because racism and discrimination constitute an important human rights domain, one that cuts across and exacerbates many other forms of abuse. While the EU celebrates 2007 as the Year of Equal Opportunities for All, Amnesty International has started to emphasize the need for a comprehensive, human rights-based approach towards non-discrimination.

During the recent period Amnesty International reports documented racism and discrimination against Roma, LGBT people, Slovenian “erased” and minorities in a number of EU member states, adding to a series of alarming reports by other organizations. It called on the EU to upgrade its policies and legislation to address all forms of discrimination. This includes the widespread practice of ‘ethnic profiling’ by law enforcement and other state agents, that illustrates the failure of the EU and its member states to put their anti-terrorism and anti-immigration policies in line with their engagement to promote tolerance and combat discrimination.

3. Asylum and immigration

Since the adoption of the first phase asylum instruments in 2005 there has been slow progress in the further development of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Political attention shifted from the creation of an adequate internal asylum system to the so-called external dimension of asylum and immigration policy, and with pressures of irregular immigration especially from Africa increasing, the overriding focus was on closing Europe off.

The two aims in the second phase of CEAS are the establishment of a common asylum procedure and a uniform status for those who are granted asylum or subsidiary protection, to be completed before the end of 2010. It should be based on an evaluation of the first-phase instruments which the Commission was to conclude by the end of 2007, but this will at best be incomplete especially with regard to the two key instruments, the qualification and asylum procedures directives. On both these instruments Amnesty International had been very critical. It pressed the Commission and the Council to address the flaws and protection gaps in the first phase asylum instruments and to relaunch the debate on improving the quality of decision making in the CEAS.

The external dimension of the common asylum policy was to be spearheaded by pilot regional protection programmes (RPPs). Initially scheduled for 2006 and finally started on a modest basis in early 2007 in Tanzania, Ukraine and Belarus, the aim of the RPPs is to increase the capacity in the regions selected to offer protection and develop asylum systems. Amnesty International repeatedly expressed concerns given the problematic human rights situation in some of these countries, and stressed the need for member states to commit to resettlement.

Efforts in the spring of 2007 to commit the EU to a substantial contribution to help resolve the Iraqi refugee crisis were met with a halfhearted response. Although support was offered to neighbouring countries that are bearing the brunt, the response to the need for resettlement was pitiful. At the same time, Iraqi aslylum seekers who reach the EU and claim protection are very often rejected and left in limbo, at best, while there have been returns to Iraq in a limited number of cases.

Since 2005 a veritable crisis has developed with regard to irregular immigration from Africa to Europe. With attempts to cross the Mediterranean initially focussing on Malta and Italy, the emphasis shifted in particular to Spain, notably its enclaves Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, and most recently with a heavy concentration on the Canary Islands. The EU and in particular the southern member states imposed more stringent controls and the new EU border agency Frontex was deployed to help stop people from reaching European soil. At the same time cooperation was sought from North African transit countries as well as from countries of origin further south, through high level meetings in Rabat and in Tripoli in July and November 2006.

Amnesty International has consistently cautioned against an overly repressive approach and pressed the Council time and again to effectively address protection needs and to respect basic rights of migrants especially when they are stopped and returned. Various incidents underlined the importance for the EU to apply some form of human rights conditionality in its cooperation with transit countries. At the same time Amnesty International encouraged the EU to actively explore the nexus between migration and development, as well as to consider more seriously to open legal channels of immigration into Europe. The overall aim should be a balanced approach that takes into account the needs of both EU member states and countries of origin, and that complies with states’ obligations under international human rights and refugee law.

4. Human rights in the world

With the entry of Bulgaria and Romania in January 2007 the EU wants to ‘pause’ enlargement until institutional reform has been achieved. Meanwhile, negotiations are underway with Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia. Amnesty International has regularly provided information on human rights concerns in these countries, and participated in hearings by the European Commission of relevant NGOs in connection with its annual progress reports.

With formal approval of action plans for the countries of the southern Caucasus in November 2006 the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) now defines relations with Europe’s neighbours from the Maghreb to Minsk. In offering those countries a privileged relationship, the ENP strives to build upon a mutual commitment to common values including human rights and the rule of law. Amnesty International has actively sought to promote those values to be pursued as clearly and consistently as with regard to candidate countries. Similar efforts were made with regard to the impulse by the German EU presidency for the first half of 2007 to boost EU relations with the countries of Central Asia.

The EU’s relationship with its neighbours to the south is being defined not only through the ENP and its action plans, but also through the institutions established during the eleven years of the EUROMED Partnership. The regional and bilateral dimensions have the potential to mutually reinforce each other, and provide a powerful vehicle to promote the rule of law and human rights throughout this turbulent region. However, the ambitions of the five year work plan to strengthen human rights in the region are modest, and the human rights components of the action plans of the individual countries vary greatly. Amnesty International has advocated more coherence with a common human rights monitoring system to be applied to all action plans.

With regard to countries beyond Europe’s ‘neighbourhood’ to the east and south, major initiatives were taken in relation to several countries that have been regular features of Amnesty International’s human rights advocacy at the EU. The summits with the strategic partners China, Russia and the US were consistently targeted, as was the ongoing EU involvement with Colombia and the humanitarian crises in the Middle East and Sudan. The official human rights dialogue with Iran remained suspended due to lack of cooperation from Iran, but the one with China was closely monitored and contributed to, as were the human rights consultations with Russia.

The EU was urged on a regular basis to press the United States over its conduct of the ‘war on terror’. At the occasion of President Bush’ visit to Vienna in June 2006 for the EU-US summit, the EU for the first time in over four years formally expressed its concern and called on the US to close Guantánamo. The use of the death penalty in the US was another standard feature of Amnesty International advocacy at EU level.

China remained under the spotlight, and Amnesty International provided regular briefings on the various aspects of the human rights situation in the country. It also participated in expert seminars held in the context of the official human rights dialogue (the last of which in May 2007 did not take place when the German presidency refused to give in to Chinese demands about NGO participation). The EU position with regard to the arms embargo imposed in 1989 in response to the Tienanmen Square massacre remained that lifting it is contingent on human rights reform in China.

The past period saw a marked deterioration of EU relations with Russia, with negotiation of a new partnership and cooperation agreement effectively blocked due to various points of disagreement. Amnesty International has consistently provided information about the aggravation of the human rights situation in Russia over increasing curbs on freedom of expression and association, and the continuing atrocities in Chechnya.

The EU continued its steady development of policies and capabilities for conflict prevention and crisis management as the core of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). Police, the rule of law, civilian administration and civilian protection are priority areas for civilian capabilities, to be deployed either in the context of EU missions or in UN crisis operations. The centrality of human rights for conflict prevention and crisis management is clearly understood and acknowledged in the context of the ESDP. However, much remains to be done to bring that into practice, and Amnesty International has made various recommendations both thematically (e.g. on inclusion of gender-specific issues) and on specific country situations (notably Kosovo where the EU is to take over from the UN).

As always, the United Nations provided an overarching priority for EU lobby as a vital part of AI’s and the international human rights movement’s aim to press offending countries and address thematic concerns. Intensive lobbying in Brussels and through the capitals directed at the EU as the major human rights-friendly actor were key in Amnesty International’s overall effort. The first part of 2006 was dedicated to committing the EU to the key elements of the reform of the UN Human Rights Commission into a more effective UN Human Rights Council (HRC). From mid-2006 after installation of the new HRC a struggle started to counter the polarization that started to build up almost immediately with repeated special sessions in connection with the Lebanon conflict. Deep divisions also became apparent over the review of the special procedures and the establishment of a system of universal periodic review to examine all countries at regular intervals.

Amnesty International challenged what it called a defeatist attitude shown by EU diplomacy in the face of adverse voting divisions in the HRC, and called for strong political leadership at the highest level. In the new constellation of the HRC as a standing body the EU urgently needs to adapt its working methods and arrangements. This includes integrating HRC objectives into regular CFSP meetings with third countries, actively forging broader inter-regional alliances, burden-sharing between member states, and upgrading its capabilities and resourcing at diplomatic and institutional levels. Amnesty International’s concerns were acknowledged but implementation faces many obstacles.

The success of the international human rights movement in securing an overwhelming vote by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 to start work on a global arms trade treaty reflected strong EU support. The Council reaffirmed that the EU and its individual member states are to play an active role in the process. However, this contrasted sharply with its inability at the same time to agree on the draft common position defining common rules governing the control of exports of military technology and equipment, to upgrade the EU code of conduct on arms exports and make it legally binding. The review of the 1998 code of conduct was already initiated in 2004 and was caught up with the continuing stalemate over the lifting of the arms embargo against China. Amnesty International had actively campaigned for strengthening the code, placing the review in the broader context of its worldwide Control Arms campaign.

The EU’s human rights guidelines – on death penalty, torture, human rights dialogues, children and armed conflict, and human rights defenders – were developed as concrete foreign policy tools to be used especially through missions in third countries. Putting them into practice effectively has not been easy but more determined and systematic efforts have been made to put them into practice, focusing in particular on human rights defenders. The guidelines on torture have proven most difficult to implement, but signs were that the focus on human rights defenders could also serve to stimulate a fresh impetus on torture.

For further comment/background and interviews:

     Amnesty International EU Office (Brussels):
     Tel: 32-2-5021499
     Fax: 32-2-5025686
     Email: [email protected]