EU and member states must work to end unprecedented assault on human rights at home and abroad

A member of the Slovenian army observes migrants walking towards the Austrian border near the village of Sentilj, Slovenia, October 24, 2015. © Leonhard Foeger/REUTERS

As governments across the world seem hell bent on demolishing human rights protection, and at a time when the world needs human rights champions most, the EU is shirking its obligations and commitments to protect people’s basic freedoms at home and abroad


Brussels – 24 February 2016

The European Union (EU) must act now to prevent a wholesale assault on human rights and basic freedoms both within its borders and across the globe, said Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment on human rights around the world.

Amnesty International’s Annual Report 2015-2016 warns of an insidious and creeping global trend undermining human rights as European and world governments deliberately underfund or neglect institutions set up to protect them, break or ignore international law and target and attack activists, lawyers and others who work to defend people’s basic freedoms.

The report rings the alarm on the desperate need to reinvigorate regional and international institutions – including the EU and the Council of Europe – in the fight to protect human rights. It also demonstrates how evolving security threats in 2015 have been met by knee jerk reactions undermining essential human rights safeguards, and how world and EU leaders are doing too little too late in response to the most significant refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The EU response to global human rights abuses

The Saudi Arabian government continued to severely restrict freedoms of expression, association and assembly in 2015. Authorities arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned human rights defenders and government critics, sometimes using new counter terror legislation, and often after unfair trials. Torture and other ill treatment of detainees remained common, and more than 150 executions were carried out. Despite the escalation of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and its problematic counter terror laws, the EU continues to refer to Saudi Arabia as a partner on counter terror issues.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) have yet to publicly call for the immediate and unconditional release of Raif Badawi and other prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia. Many EU member states have cowered away from condemning the Saudi Arabian authorities’ blatant disregard for human rights and international law, with some continuing to supply arms to Saudi Arabia despite mounting evidence arms of a similar nature have been used to commit war crimes in Yemen.

“As governments across the world seem hell bent on demolishing human rights protection, and at a time when the world needs human rights champions most, the EU is shirking its obligations and commitments to protect people’s basic freedoms at home and abroad” said Iverna McGowan, head of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.

“EU human rights policy in 2015 consisted of saying one thing yet doing another. This self-sabotaging approach is obvious in how the EU deals with Saudi Arabia – working on counter terrorism issues with a country whose terrorism laws imprison the very human rights defenders EU policy promises to support.”

China also introduced new legislation limiting its citizen’s human rights through a series of laws drafted under the guise of national security, with the government also launching a massive nationwide crackdown against human rights lawyers. Other activists and human rights defenders continued to be systematically subjected to harassment and intimidation.

2015 marked the 40th anniversary of EU-China diplomatic relations and yet the EU and member states failed to champion human rights clearly and consistently with its ‘strategic partner’. By putting primary focus on security, trade relations and investment opportunities despite the serious crackdown on human rights, the EU and member states are effectively giving China the green light to continue. If it’s serious about its human rights policy the EU must broaden its partnership to include specifically improving the human rights situation in China.

Human rights violations in the EU’s back yard

As the world’s richest political bloc, the EU completely failed to come up with a coherent and humane response to the refugee crisis. Despite search and rescue operations beginning again in the Mediterranean and improvements to humanitarian assistance for refugees in Greece and the Western Balkans, the thrust of the EU’s failing refugee strategy remains focussed on keeping people out, rather than providing the safe passage to Europe that could save thousands of lives.

Despite the European Commission starting infringement proceedings against Hungary on the country’s problematic asylum laws, the situation is far from satisfactory. As well as migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers suffering appalling human rights abuses, many other human rights concerns remain – including how Roma in Hungary continue to be at risk of forced eviction and inadequately protected against hate crimes.

The European Council, Commission and member states lacked the courage to tackle the situation in Hungary head on in 2015 by triggering formal discussions within the European Council or alternative EU action on the country’s human rights abuses.

Infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic for ethnic discrimination of Romani children in schools continued and new proceedings were opened against Slovakia. While positive change has been made in the Czech Republic, work remains to be done in both countries. The European Commission will need to continue applying pressure to protect Roma from discrimination, both in these two member states and across the EU as a whole.

The Council of Europe (CoE)’s credibility as a promoter and guardian of human rights, democracy and the rule of law is also at risk, as various governments in the region  openly disregarded CoE obligations and some continue to challenge and postpone applying European Court of Human Rights judgements to their national laws.

2016: A Year of Change

The European External Action service, lead by High Representative on Foreign and Security Policy Frederica Mogherini, is in the course of drafting a new strategy on the EU’s foreign and security policy. In a public statement issued last week, Amnesty International highlighted that if done properly this strategy could provide a unique opportunity to turn the tide and give full political backing to EU human rights foreign policy, as well helping to reverse the alarming global assault on basic freedoms.

The European Commission must also be bold in following up on infringement procedures against member states that consistently violate human rights, and must not be afraid to trigger political level discussions in the European Council. The Commission must also draw up a strong, politically backed human rights strategy and action plan that guarantees the safety and freedom of everyone within the EU, and works to directly campaign for human rights to be enjoyed by all across the globe. EU institutions and member states must urgently shoulder their responsibilities in the context of the ongoing refugee crisis by offering safe and legal routes and a more human rights based approach.

For further media enquiries please contact Paul Creeney on +32 (0)2 548 27 74, by mobile on +32 (0)486 042 047 or by email at [email protected].

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