Is the EU living up to its rhetoric on human rights?

The gap between the EU’s rhetorical and actual commitment to democracy and human rights could lead to growing international scepticism about the EU’s role on the global stage

The European Union likes to present itself as a beacon and force for the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world. These values have increasingly become central to Europe’s sense of its own distinctive role as an actor in world affairs. But there is a danger that the gap between Europe’s rhetorical commitment to democracy and human rights, and the reality of what it does in practice to support them, could lead to growing international scepticism about how far Europe genuinely has a foreign policy based on principle.

The annual report of the prominent US-based monitoring organisation Human Rights Watch, published a few days ago, contains some sharp words about the EU and its member states. Last year, Human Rights Watch issued something of a challenge to Europe. It said that with Washington’s international legitimacy diminished, Europe needed to step forward and assert itself as the world’s “strongest and most effective defender of human rights”. Now, a year later, the NGO argues that the EU is still falling short.

The focus of Human Rights Watch’s report is on sham democracies-on “despots masquerading as democrats”. It faults the EU and its member states, alongside the US, for too often colluding with foreign regimes that display the trappings but not the substance of democracy. For instance, Europe is criticised for turning a blind eye to the manipulation of local elections in Jordan last summer, even though Amman has signed an agreement with the EU as part of the European Neighbourhood Policy that is supposed to include democratic and human rights principles as an “essential element”. Other countries which have benefited from similar indulgence, according to the report, are Ethiopia, Pakistan and Georgia. Human Rights Watch also criticises European leaders for backing away from their commitment to eventual Turkish membership of the EU, and Britain in particular for its use of “diplomatic assurances” to deport people to countries where they may face torture.

Of course, European leaders should not be expected to focus on the promotion of democracy and human rights to the exclusion of all other foreign policy objectives, and there are difficult questions about the best way to achieve these goals in an international environment in which non-democratic regimes like those in China and Russia are increasingly assertive. But the EU would be unwise to ignore the criticism of groups like Human Rights Watch. If Europe wants to live up to its self-image as a different kind of global power, it must engage in some tough-minded and systematic thinking about the importance it attaches to democracy and human rights, and the scope of its ability to promote them in today’s world. Otherwise the idea of a European vision of international order based on the gradual and non-coercive expansion of democracy and rights will lose the meaning and appeal it now enjoys.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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