To engage or not to engage?

The EU-Africa summit is taking place in Libya. The country’s lengthy history of human rights abuses put EU leaders in a difficult position over simple questions such as whether to attend. EU leaders should now put pressure on Colonel Gaddafi by posing difficult questions and backing this up with meaningful sanctions rather than just lip service.

To engage or not to engage? This is the question that has been hotly debated behind closed doors for the past few months with regard to the EU-Africa Summit on 29 and 30 November 2010.

Libya, the host of Friday’s summit, has a well documented record of shocking human rights abuse. At its Universal Periodic Review hearing earlier this month, Human Rights Council members raised concerns about the violation of so many fundamental rights in Libya – including lack freedom of expression and association; impunity; arbitrary detention an torture; lack of protection for refugees and asylum seekers. Libya, a recently elected member of the UN’s Human Rights Council, predictably rejected all the recommendations regarding specific violations.

The current chair of the African Union (AU), Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika tried last month to have the summit location moved to Addis Ababa, the seat of the African Union – to secure ‘a good turnout’ as many leaders might be concerned about attending an event to which they were invited by the Libyan leader. This proposed relocation was turned down by the AU Commission.

So the question is now left to the leaders themselves on whether to attend. It looks like the AU Chair need not have worried: the majority of EU leaders, including from Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have indicated that they will go. The EU-Africa relationship is an important one, and any snub intended for the Libyan leader risks harming the relationship of the country with Africa more broadly as this is an AU event.

But ultimately, the question of attendance, or non-attendance of a summit event, at what level and by which European leaders, is the wrong one, if the EU really wants to play an active role in promoting the protection of rights and the rule of law in Africa. These decisions invariably reflect the priority of the day for the government involved; diary pressures rather than a considered Europe-wide strategy. What should matter is the engagement between the summits on the EU-Africa strategy, and the messages that are sent through that process. What really could exert pressure on Colonel Gaddafi is not who comes to his party on Monday, but whether he is treated as partner or a problem in longer term EU strategy.

On the issue of engagement between the summits, the problem speaks for itself. One of the main reasons that the summits have taken on importance with regard to where the EU stands on human rights is because there is not really very much going on between each ministerial event in the EU-Africa partnership on Human Rights and Good Governance. Processes are being put into place – a platform for civil society; an official EU – AU dialogue on human rights, but there is very little substance to these. The conclusions from the most recent round of the human rights dialogue in October noted that “the African and European delegations exchanged views on best practices in relation to the preparation of and follow-up to the Universal Periodic Review sessions.” This exchange of views did not appear to lead to much with regard to Libya’s performance in their recent review. Europe needs to be careful here that it doesn’t fall into the trap of dialogue for dialogue’s sake, as it has with other partners, and turning a blind eye to sensitive issues such as specific human rights violations for the sake of overall good relations. Meanwhile, discussions in the partnerships on Energy and Trade continue apace.

Why anyway would Gaddafi’s regime worry too much about which European leaders attend the EU-Africa summit, and whether they raise concerns about their host’s human rights record, when the migration cooperation agenda which the EU has embarked upon with Libya speaks louder than a hundred post summit press statements? In October 2010, Libya received an extra €50 million for border control. As the European Council for Refugees and Exiles argued at the time, “Do we expect €50 million over 3 years to suddenly change Colonel Gaddafi’s attitude to human rights or are we so afraid of the numbers of refugees trying to reach our shores that we are ready to abandon our human rights standards?

As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words, and the EU’s decision to enlist Libyan support for managing irregular migration into the EU shows how far down the list of priorities migrants’ rights slips when there are other interests at stake. Returning to the conclusions of the recent round of the EU-AU human rights dialogue, in this light, the commitment to organise a roundtable to share views and best practices on the protection of the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Africa and in the EU, rings a little hollow. Professing to support human rights is simple enough, but doing so as part of a sustained foreign policy strategy towards a country is much more of a challenge. However, unfortunately, Europe will only ever be effective in its efforts to protect the rights agenda if it meets this challenge of a more strategic approach.

Of course it must be right to engage with the AU, an increasingly important player on the global stage. But in this engagement Europe must stand for something. What makes Europe different from other partners in Africa, such as China, is that investment comes at a price – more than lip service must be paid to the values such as human rights and rule of law that founded both the European Union and the African Union. If Europe moves away from this type of engagement, this will appear to be an admission that it no longer has the clout to set the terms in its relationships. In the end this apparent admission might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow

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