Introduction: Human rights and European priorities
Human rights and its close relatives, democracy and the rule of law, are increasingly important for European governments – because all three are coming under growing pressure. What is often called the rules-based, or liberal international, order is vulnerable. Europeans helped build this order after the second world war, and the human rights framework is core to it. Countries such as China and Russia are mounting explicit challenges to the order, while the Trump administration’s time in office demonstrated that Europeans can no longer rely on a bipartisan consensus in Washington that consistently supports global institutions and multilateralism. Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the erosion of international institutions “the biggest threat to the world”, President Emmanuel Macron has decried the fact that “international law and all forms of cooperation [are] crumbling, as if it were business as usual”, and the United Kingdom says it will respond to “a situation where our values are being challenged”.
The political project of the European Union is underpinned by agreement to implement human rights norms, and this commitment extends into European foreign policies. Germany calls human rights a “non-negotiable” element of its foreign policy, while the Council of the EU has called them a “cornerstone of its external action”. This is ever more relevant as human rights and democracy come under assault at both an ideological and practical level. The late 2010s saw a global trend towards authoritarianism, causing concerns that democracy is in retreat, while global human rights institutions supposed to help embed universal norms have been gradually undermined, or faced direct attacks. China has, with increasing determination, promoted rival human rights ‘norms’, arguing that sovereignty must be paramount and human rights should be treated primarily as internal affairs. It has built a strong body of support for this position among other governments: as early as 2008, the European Council on Foreign Relations tracked declining support at the United Nations for European positions on human rights and parallel increases in support for stances backed by China.
To understand these questions in the Middle East and North Africa, this new ECFR project provides a wide-ranging overview of the human rights situation in the region. The main paper sets out ways in which Europeans can more effectively deploy the leverage they have to make stronger progress on human rights matters – as part of their broader political relationships with regional states. The project features six essays, which go into more detail about individual countries, while this overarching paper makes reference to and draws on the insights provided in those essays. It also benefits from wider sources, including interviews undertaken especially for this project with diplomats, human rights activists, and other experts living in, or working on, the region.
This is an important time to look afresh at these questions, because the trend towards authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa is strong. Yet Europeans have faced accusations of being absent on this question in their southern neighbourhood, and furthermore of contributing to entrenched human rights violations. Privately, European diplomats are often pessimistic about their ability to influence this situation.
After a surge of optimism following the popular uprisings of 2011 in the region, the window that appeared to have opened for Europeans to support democratic and rights reforms, snapped shut. Political and military establishments resorted to often extreme violence in an effort to crush protest movements. This created an unfortunate narrative that there was something unique about these societies. Influential Western commentators worried that the region might not be ready for democracy. Subsequently, elements of Western security establishments even came to see the protest movements themselves as a threat, as if it were these that were responsible for violence, mass displacement, and the rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS).
In the mid-2010s, the security situation worsened in much of the Middle East and North Africa and European countries felt the effects. Europe pivoted away from an incipient freedom and democracy agenda towards the building of “resilience”, working with governments, and seeking to demonstrate to domestic audiences that they could deliver security and control migration. Civil society organisations came under pressure while Europe’s engagement approach to the region largely returned to what Nadim Houry of the Arab Reform Initiative terms “the Mubarak model”. This seeks to carry out security, defence, and commercial ‘business as usual’, while aiming to secure some limited room for civil society to be allowed to dissent and tackle social issues. In 2019 there was a resurgence of popular protest across the region, yet in comparison to 2011 Europeans were relatively muted in response.
As well as pessimism about their ability to create positive change, and anxiety to preserve existing relationships, European diplomats are conscious of their relatively declining leverage. China is increasing its economic and political footprint, offering governments in the region financial and other support without pressing them on governance and human rights matters. Meanwhile, some Gulf Arab states use their financial resources to secure political influence. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, alarmed by popular uprisings and fearing the rise of Islamist parties supported by Turkey and Qatar, have actively backed authoritarian partners in what may be described as a regional “counter-revolution”. And, with the United States slowly withdrawing from the Middle East and North Africa, Europe may indeed have less ability than previously to apply pressure effectively on questions of values. A Nordic diplomat working on the region remarks that, while there was previously a sense that embedding human rights norms was inevitable, this is now challenged by authoritarian systems becoming more assertive and looking towards China and Russia. A Saudi official told the Financial Times earlier this year that “there’s a lot to learn from China and its ability to develop the way it has is predicated on the fact it’s not a democracy.”
Returning to the “Mubarak model” may be attractive for Europeans in the short term, but this approach is already delivering diminishing returns. In Egypt, the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has felt able to shut down avenues for criticism and dissent much more aggressively than former president Hosni Mubarak’s ever did. The approach is therefore highly unlikely to deliver long-term resilience on Europe’s borders and is ultimately a recipe for instability – as European leaders frequently acknowledge. For example, Germany’s 2016 white paper on security policy notes that “it is not might but right that creates lasting peace and stability”. Indeed, some scholars have predicted the imminent demise of the region’s predominant authoritarian “rentier” model. This is not a theoretical prospect: witness the slide into state collapse of Lebanon, where kleptocratic elites have long shared the trappings of power among themselves; or the decade of devastating conflict in Syria after years of authoritarian rule. Europe cannot afford to continue betting on the ability of authoritarians to guarantee its security.
There are several ways Europeans can be more effective in support of human rights in their southern neighbourhood. While it is true that there is more competition for influence than in the past, it is also the case that they have considerably more leverage than European diplomats generally acknowledge. It is a question of using this leverage more strategically and acting in a more consistent, coordinated, and self-reflective manner. The EU and member state governments should assess their existing policies against whether or not these are bolstering authoritarianism, while providing a lifeline to civil society that goes beyond project funding. European efforts to encourage democratic transition must include a heavy focus on economic and social rights, including through supporting better delivery of public services. In authoritarian states, Europeans should work around the standard political constraints on the human rights agenda by increasing their focus on corruption and the role of European business in the region – non-traditional human rights issues that can have a significant impact on the ground. Finally, the EU must find a coherent approach to migration that – unlike its current policy – is grounded in the values of dignity and justice it claims to promote. Europeans’ disjointed and securitised approach to migration reduces the effectiveness of their advocacy on human rights. It also provides leverage to Middle Eastern and North African governments, whose decision-makers are well aware of how sensitive European governments are to pressure on this issue.
How European commitments play out in practice
Within Europe, enthusiasm for the promotion of human rights norms can vary according to the composition of governments, their domestic constituencies, and historical policy priorities. A core of northern European states, sometimes referred to as “like-minded states”, including the Benelux countries, the Nordic states, and Germany, generally place a significant emphasis on human rights within their foreign policies. France and the UK tend to align with this group at the international level, though their strategic relationships and historical colonial ties in the Middle East and North Africa mean that they also tend to minimise pressure on key partners such as Egypt, Israel, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, and pursue close ties with their military and security establishments. Mediterranean states that border the region, and that are particularly sensitive to the issue of migration, often favour more low-profile initiatives and shy away from public diplomacy that could harm their relationships – with some notable exceptions where human rights cases impact on domestic politics, such as Italy’s relationship with Egypt following the murder of student Giulio Regeni. Meanwhile, for some central and eastern European governments, human rights play a relatively less significant role in foreign policy, with Europe’s southern neighbourhood in any case a much lower priority for them than their eastern neighbourhood. Hungary under Viktor Orban has become an outlier within Europe, pushing against human rights norms both in its domestic and foreign policies.
Nevertheless, despite these differing tendencies, there remains – with the possible exceptions of Hungary and Poland – a high degree of congruence among European governments on most human rights issues. The EU produces guidelines on 13 priority human rights themes. The table below displays the results of a review of European foreign ministry websites. It shows that, of these 13 themes, the issues that European governments most commonly prioritise in their individual foreign policies are: the death penalty; freedom of religion; women’s rights; LGBTI rights; freedom of expression; non-discrimination; and support for human rights defenders. Governments seek to advance these and other themes in a range of different ways: through private diplomacy, including structured human rights dialogues; making public statements on issues of concern or individual cases; visiting (or attempting to visit) trials of human rights defenders; providing technical support; extending support for civil society organisations; or by reporting on human rights. In some circumstances, Europeans apply punitive measures such as targeted sanctions, press for international accountability through the International Criminal Court (ICC), or seek to deliver a measure of accountability through their domestic courts.
In practice, European efforts to implement these commitments in the Middle East and North Africa vary considerably. Diplomats acknowledge both their inconsistency – “we constantly live with endless contradictions between positions we take”, says one – and the tendency to marginalise long-term questions of rights and freedoms in order not to disrupt their pursuit of other objectives. This section looks at the relationship between interests and values, and how these play out in different parts of the region.
Interests and values
European governments have a range of strategic goals in the Middle East and North Africa. Europe has some energy dependency on the region, particularly on Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Qatar, and Iraq, with Egypt also now likely to emerge as a major provider of gas. Many governments, particularly since the global financial crisis, have sought to attract inward investment from the wealthy Gulf states and to increase exports of goods and services to the region. Counter-terrorism has become a priority, particularly since the rise of ISIS and attacks in European cities in the 2010s, and Europeans have sought to deepen links with security and military agencies in the Middle East and North Africa to strengthen their response and share information. Governments in the region are also major customers for European arms exports, which helps strengthen strategic defence relationships, supports national defence industries, and provides domestic manufacturing jobs.
Migration stands out as a particularly sensitive domestic issue for European politicians, particularly in the southern states, which receive most of the refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants who cross into the EU. While public attitudes to immigration in Europe remained relatively stable even after 2015’s “migration crisis”, popular perceptions of the importance of migration relative to other political issues have changed – tipping voters with pre-existing anti-immigrant attitudes to switch votes in favour of populist right-wing parties. Politicians of all persuasions – in Greece, Italy, and Spain but also in non-Mediterranean countries – have strong electoral incentives to show they are controlling borders, including by cooperating with Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco. In recent years the EU has worked with these countries’ governments to ‘externalise’ and ‘securitise’ migration – broadly speaking, providing them with financial support in return for preventing migrants from making the journey to Europe. The numbers of irregular crossings have reduced significantly, hitting a seven-year low in 2019 and dropping further in 2020. But the approach that Europeans have adopted to migration leaves them exposed to accusations of complicity in the abuse of migrants.
This is particularly so in the case of Libya, where unaccountable militia networks, in some cases the recipients of diverted EU funding, control migration routes and operate abusive detention centres. Six European governments – Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, and Spain – cracked down on European NGOs carrying out search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean, which they argued were facilitating human trafficking. They criminalised the practice and prosecuted activists. Meanwhile, the limited number of available safe routes for refugees to reach Europe other than via dangerous crossings has raised questions about European support for those fleeing persecution and conflict. Denmark and Sweden have even declared parts of Syria safe for refugees to return – an assessment that human rights researchers strongly reject. Denmark has stripped a number of Syrians of their residency status, and even detained some in deportation centres.
Crucially, the political sensitivity of migration in Europe has provided some governments in the Middle East and North Africa with leverage that they have used in their bilateral relations. Morocco has long sought to use migration to pressurise Spain and the EU more broadly, and has lately become more assertive. Following Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara (which it controls in violation of international law), and triggered by the medical treatment of a Sahrawi leader in Spain, the government in Rabat pushed 1,500 minors into Spanish-controlled Ceuta on the North African coast in an effort to change Madrid’s position on the dispute. At the other end of the Mediterranean, while few migrants have been crossing into Europe from Egypt, Sisi’s government has also put the control of migration flows – alongside counter-terrorism cooperation – at the heart of its diplomacy with Europe, seeking to extract greater cooperation on security and financial aid.
European diplomats and policymakers often fear that giving too much weight to the promotion of democratic and human rights norms will undermine their other goals in authoritarian countries where policymaking is personalised and transactional. As Mohamed Lotfy, an Egyptian activist, writes for this project, European policymakers tend to assume that “securing short-term economic and political gains by maintaining a privileged relationship with Cairo outweighs the long-term gains of southern Mediterranean societies being free”. The outcomes of the 2011 uprisings have left a mark on foreign ministries across Europe, which lack confidence in the prospect of achieving change for the better. Some European diplomats argue that if they respond to the demands from domestic lobbies in Europe pressing for a stronger emphasis on human rights, they risk detonating their bilateral relationships without having a positive effect.
Sceptics of the case for a stronger European human rights agenda in the Middle East and North Africa point to incidents such as Sweden’s rift with Saudi Arabia in 2015. Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Stockholm and blocked an address by the Swedish foreign minister to the Arab League in protest at her statements about the flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi. Sweden subsequently cancelled a memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation, before involving the Swedish king to normalise the relationship. Significantly, there was little solidarity with Sweden from European colleagues, who were anxious about the association. During the research for this paper, a diplomat who was in the Saudi capital at the time said that “a lot of EU ambassadors in Riyadh avoided contact with the Swedes. It was ridiculous.” The Saudis, meanwhile, declared Canada’s ambassador persona non grata and cancelled flights to Toronto in 2018, after the foreign minister tweeted in support of detained women human rights defenders. Like Sweden, Canada found itself isolated, with both the US and UK staying quiet.
Differential treatment: Strategic partners and rivals
Europe’s strategic allies in the Middle East and North Africa get off more lightly than their regional rivals. This exposes Europeans to accusations of hypocrisy and double standards and undermines their credibility. Europeans have, for example, taken a firm stance on the human rights situation in Syria, publicly condemning abuses, supporting UN investigations into war crimes, imposing human rights sanctions and pressing (unsuccessfully) for referral of the situation to the ICC. Europeans largely severed diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime in 2011 as they called for Bashar al-Assad to go. Significantly, while EU statements have acknowledged and condemned violations by non-state actors, they appropriately placed specific emphasis on the Assad government, which civil society organisations and independent researchers generally agree has been responsible for the majority of abuses in the conflict.
Meanwhile, the conflict in Yemen has given rise to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The UN found evidence of persistent violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, warning that it “may lead to criminal responsibility for war crimes at all levels of command … including civilian officials”. Europe’s response to abuses in the Yemen conflict, where its strategic partners in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were accused, has struck a very different tone to that on Syria. Europeans imposed no sanctions except for an arms embargo on the Houthis – Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s adversary. Meanwhile, European public statements sought to avoid naming the Saudi-led coalition by focusing on the need for “all parties” to avoid harm to civilians, despite the coalition air strikes causing the majority of civilian deaths. In some cases, statements highlighted abuses by the Houthis without containing any mention of the coalition. European governments have made no moves to refer the situation to the ICC despite a UN panel of experts recommending this.
While the European Parliament has repeatedly called for an EU-wide ban on arms sales to members of the Saudi-led coalition, the UK and France (unlike Germany and Italy, which have imposed bans or limitations) continue to authorise arms sales. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been two of the biggest customers of French armaments throughout the Yemen conflict, while the UK accounted for 19 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports between 2010 and 2019, second only to the US. This was despite a 2019 English court decision that for a year blocked the issuing of export licences for Saudi Arabia. The British defence contractor BAE Systems, working alongside 80 serving RAF personnel, has played a crucial role in support of the Saudi air force. A former UK defence attaché to Saudi Arabia told the Guardian that “the Saudi bosses … couldn’t do it without us.” The UK was accused of complicity in Saudi war crimes by its former international development minister, a possibility also raised by a UN report.
Beyond Yemen, European powers responded cautiously even when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, and following a UN conclusion that the Saudi crown prince knew about the killing. Europeans limited their actions to individual Magnitsky-style sanctions against the people the Saudi government claimed were responsible. The case had no lasting implications for bilateral relations. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Gulf, Europeans have played a leading role in maintaining the mandate of the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, and have implemented human rights sanctions, banning exports that could be used for internal repression and surveillance equipment. Europeans are considerably more publicly critical of the human rights record of the Iranian government – with which they have a complex and often adversarial relationship – than they are of their security and trade partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Inconsistencies and incoherence within bilateral relationships undermine Europeans’ efforts to defend human rights when they do make them. In an apparent display of solidarity, in 2019 the French president met embattled civil society organisations in Egypt and in 2020 said he spoke “frankly” to Sisi about human rights cases. Yet France has played an important role in bolstering Sisi’s regime, providing diplomatic backing and equipment for its security institutions. As Sisi launched a sweeping crackdown in the wake of his 2013 coup, including an appalling massacre at Raba’a Square, French companies overtook the US to become the leading supplier of military arms and law enforcement equipment to Egypt. Human rights groups found that Egyptian security forces used French-supplied armoured vehicles to violently disperse peaceful sit-ins across the country. In late 2020, Macron made clear that he would not draw links between defence and economic cooperation and human rights abuses. He later discreetly awarded Sisi the légion d’honneur, in line with a long tradition of presenting the medal to autocratic allies to – in the words of the Order of the Legion of Honour – “buttress French foreign policy”. (In 2015 the medal was awarded to a senior Moroccan intelligence officer whom French courts had just the previous year called to appear, under universal jurisdiction, to answer questions about allegations of torture.) A former senior European diplomat argues that such awards have their place in foreign policy: “at some point, you sometimes have to take a political risk to try to get something in return”, he says. The Elysée has shown a wider tendency to back “strongmen” in North Africa, providing battlefield assistance and diplomatic help to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya, particularly between 2014 and 2019. This was despite allegations of war crimes by his forces and Haftar’s role in prolonging Libya’s conflict and undermining the UN-sponsored political process that France publicly backed.
European leverage and human rights
Europe potentially has more leverage at its disposal in the Middle East and North Africa than diplomats often acknowledge. The EU is the region’s most important trading partner, with the value of bilateral trade averaging $637 billion per year between 2014 and 2017. It provides an average of $8.2 billion in annual aid and development to the region and invests around $292 billion each year. In some countries the relationship is intense and imbalanced, such as with Morocco, which is economically highly dependent on the EU. While it is not straightforward to translate these economic links, which cut across European borders and are in many cases driven by the private sector, into political influence, the mismatch between the stark figures and European diplomats’ perceptions of the leverage they have is nonetheless striking. More broadly, European states, including France and the UK as permanent members of the UN Security Council, retain significant influence within the international system.
Set against these strengths, governments in the region often view Europeans as disunited, as liable to follow the United States’ lead on difficult policy questions, and as increasingly rivalled by new actors such as China and Russia. Europeans are not able to impose their will in the Middle East and North Africa, but they do have meaningful influence when they work together. This should push them to adopt a sharper focus on specific, realistic human rights objectives that they can coalesce around. This section briefly examines the effectiveness of three main approaches that Europeans currently use to exert leverage on human rights: diplomatic pressure; economic and financial relations; and punitive measures.
The tool Europeans most commonly deploy is to raise cases and concerns directly with their counterpart governments. Human rights activists often call for this to take the form of public démarches, which sceptical diplomats sometimes label “megaphone diplomacy” and consider to be “lecturing”. One human rights specialist at a European foreign ministry maintains that private diplomacy is more effective in the Middle East and North Africa. A senior Brussels official argues that, when the bloc issues critical statements in the UN Human Rights Council about states in the region, this creates tensions with these governments. Additionally, the legacy of the Iraq and, latterly, Afghanistan conflicts, which were partly framed by the Bush and Blair administrations in human rights terms, have arguably strengthened the case for a more humble approach by the West on human rights. Nevertheless, activists tend to suspect that diplomats prefer private diplomacy because it maintains their political relationships, as much as because of its purported effectiveness or concerns about Europe’s credibility on such questions. The assertion that private diplomacy is more effective than public criticism is certainly contestable. One diplomat notes that officials in the North African country they are based in always urge the international community to raise individual cases behind closed doors. But, in reality, the official says they have seen few if any results from private diplomacy; in contrast, while going public is unpredictable, they say it can sometimes lead to the release of human rights defenders.
For example, international pressure in November 2020 was significant in the case of activists from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The group, whose members’ arrest was triggered by a meeting they held with European and other diplomats, was released in early December 2020 – strongly suggesting that such pressure can work. Other previous cases in Egypt, such as that of the detained Al Jazeera journalists, add weight to this argument. The case of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi human rights defender who campaigned for women to be able to drive, before being arrested (in part for having had contact with EU, Dutch, and UK officials), tortured and sexually harassed, also points to the role of public pressure in generating movement. Her eventual release – albeit still under a travel ban – in early 2021 came just weeks after the inauguration of Joe Biden, who had called Saudi Arabia a “pariah state” when campaigning, and followed calls from the French government among others.
Some diplomats complain that civil society organisations sometimes prevent progress on individual cases by refusing to let up their public campaigns. They argue that this can make it impossible for governments in the region to take positive steps without being seen to cave to foreign pressure. This highlights the need for European diplomats to liaise closely with civil society. Activists – who, despite being sceptical about private diplomatic lobbying, generally recognise that it has a place – are likely to be more open to reducing the public pressure they mount if they are convinced that diplomats have a dedicated programme of private diplomacy that could deliver results. The case of Malcolm Bidali, a human rights defender imprisoned in Qatar, involved significant early public campaigning activity by NGOs. It was followed up by behind-the-scenes lobbying of the government, which had an incentive to cooperate with the international community a year away from hosting the FIFA Men’s World Cup.
The common feature of these cases is that they generated diplomatic leverage: they were compelling, there was coordinated action among international actors, and the governments in question had reason to believe that there would be consequences for not resolving them. Achieving a coherent, coordinated, and strong European position is, however, a persistent challenge for the EU, as the more cautious of its members notoriously water down statements. It is no coincidence that the EU is most consistently active on death penalty cases – its abolition is a requirement of EU membership, which has built a degree of consensus into the system. Recent years have seen the high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, taking a stronger role in speaking on behalf of the EU, most publicly in May 2021 when Hungary blocked consensus on a statement on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, many European governments prefer to go through the EU when they comment publicly on human rights issues, in order to minimise backlash from their partners in the region. This, and the need for consensus, weakens the impact of European statements, which can easily become ritualised, with generic language adopted to facilitate agreement.
Israel is a prime example, where the EU’s responses to developments on the ground have been dubbed Groundhog Day. The EU regularly reiterates its formulaic position that “all settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory are illegal under international law and the EU will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including in Jerusalem, other than those agreed by both sides”. While activists acknowledge that these repetitive statements are better than nothing, this position has demonstrably failed to affect the Israeli government’s intensified programme of settlement construction and the corresponding expulsions of Palestinian communities and demolitions of homes, including EU-funded developments. Human rights advocate Maha Abdalla argues in her essay for this project that, if the EU ensured there were real consequences for such violations, it could restore its political credibility on the issue. Notably, when in 2020 the Trump administration presented its Peace to Prosperity plan, which would have entailed the formal annexation by Israel of the West Bank, the EU took the rare step of brandishing a stick that helped slow the plan’s momentum, even if it only did so in a fairly vague way – “steps towards annexation, if implemented, could not pass unchallenged,” the high representative warned.
Unity around decisive language of this kind has been rare. Hungary has offered strong support to the Israeli government – a policy that may have helped it gain access to NSO Group Pegasus technology. Meanwhile, the political sensitivity of Israel and Palestine constrains Germany’s room for manoeuvre. After the ICC opened an investigation into the situation in Palestine in 2019, Germany joined Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in submitting a legal note to the court arguing that Palestine’s lack of statehood meant the ICC could not launch an investigation, which experts said the Israeli government would see as “support for its policies of occupation and settlement”. Elsewhere, the British, untethered from the EU, called the Trump 2020 annexation plans a “serious proposal” and in 2021 accused the ICC of a “partial and prejudicial attack” on Israel.
Financial and economic relationships
The EU uses financial instruments to try to stimulate democratic and human rights norms. In 2011, at the height of the uprisings, it published a new European Neighbourhood Policy, which included a ‘more funds for more reform’ approach. States were to receive increased EU support if they made progress on strengthening democratic norms and the rule of law. This conditional approach was something of a departure from traditional EU funding mechanisms, and reflected the fact that the EU believed it was working with the grain on political reform in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2012, it put €5 billion on the table for Muhammad Morsi’s government in Cairo, in an attempt to back the country’s first steps toward democracy. But only days after the deal was announced, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration granting his decrees and laws immunity from judicial review. The declaration was revoked amid widespread protest but it was nonetheless a pivotal moment that suggested that he was edging towards autocracy.
In the mid-2010s, as the human rights and security situation worsened across the region, the EU prioritised counter-terrorism and migration and reduced its emphasis on ‘more for more’. A Carnegie Europe study found that 84 per cent of EU development aid between 2013-2017 went to non-democratic countries “without political strings attached”. The study’s author relates that ‘more for more’ was “never really implemented systematically”, and had generally operated as a guiding principle rather than a precise metric linked to specific legal or policy reforms. This flexibility partly reflected Europe’s need to partner with Middle Eastern and North African states to deliver its goals on migration and security, which rapidly rose up the agenda in the mid-2010s; the EU did not want its hands tied by conditionality. One former EU diplomat says that at the conclusion of Catherine Ashton’s term as high representative, there was an emphasis on ‘more for more’ – which on the EU side meant giving Middle Eastern and North African countries money, mobility, and market access. But the 2015 review of the European Neighbourhood Policy led to a noticeable shift towards ‘resilience’ and partnership. Alongside this, Europeans have been contending with the growing availability of other sources of finance, such as the Gulf states and China, where respect for human rights is not among the criteria required for providing support.
Where Europeans applied ‘more for more’, they did so inconsistently. While Tunisia – designated as a privileged partner of the EU in 2012 – and Ukraine received significant increases in aid during the 2010s in response to democratisation processes, Morocco – which made little such progress and even went backwards in many areas – was the biggest recipient of aid in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Egypt was in 2018 and 2019 the top recipient in the world of funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which is majority-owned by the EU, its member states, and the European Investment Bank (EIB). The EBRD is supposed under a 2018 policy to operate a ‘more for more’ and ‘less for less’ approach. Yet, as civil society organisations have pointed out, the significant increase in support for Egypt since 2017 has taken place against a backdrop of a drastically worsening situation for human rights. The European Parliament has called for EU aid to be restricted mostly to support for civil society organisations. EU officials argue privately that reducing support to Egypt would not help improve the human rights situation in the country, and that their large financial stake buys them the ability to keep talking to civil society. Increasingly, civil society organisations focus less on strict conditionality and more on asking European financial institutions to use their influence and leverage. For example, in the case of the EBRD in Egypt one set of civil society representatives called on the bank to use its political capital to persuade the government to make improvements on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Such organisations have also pushed for better monitoring and due diligence to ensure that funding for major projects, delivered either by the public or private sector, is used in support of rights rather than in violation of them.
Tunisia quickly gained a reputation in Europe as the “success story” of the uprisings of 2010-11, and was the leading beneficiary of the EU’s incentive-based mechanism to provide top-up funding for countries making progress on the rule of law and human rights. Since 2011, EU assistance to Tunisia has amounted to almost €3 billion (including more than €2 billion in grants and €800m in macro-financial assistance). As the country’s economy faltered, this aid played an important role in protecting the country from insolvency. However, despite this investment, at the political level Tunisia received a marginal share of attention from European policymakers who – other than those in France and Italy – were too overwhelmed by the multiple crises developing across the wider region to pay much attention to, they thought, a small and relatively stable country. Between 2016 and 2018, the EU became more conscious that Tunisia’s reform programme was stalling badly and initiated new efforts to try to kickstart progress; but these struggled to affect the situation. This year, President Kais Saied – in a move decried as a coup – removed the prime minister and froze the legislature, prompting celebrations in the Emirati, Egyptian, and Saudi media at the “loss for the last [Muslim] Brotherhood stronghold in the region”. The European response was initially criticised for its meekness and the lack any consequences for Tunisia. France – the influential former colonial power – merely “took note” of developments. The EU is Tunisia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 57.9 per cent of its trade in 2020. In September, Borrell visited the country to convey the importance of preserving democratic gains, following a joint statement from the G7 ambassadors calling for the constitutional role of parliament to be restored. But he received a frosty reaction from Saied. As Fadil Aliriza notes in his essay, human rights abuses, already widespread, had worsened by late 2021.
As he made his move, Saied promised Tunisians that a freer hand to govern would allow him to tackle the scourge of corruption more decisively, an issue he had put at the forefront of his 2019 presidential campaign. In doing so he pledged to get the economy back on track and improve the state’s response to covid-19. Concerns about corruption and its potential to derail Tunisia’s transition are longstanding – a Transparency International survey in 2019 found that 67 per cent of Tunisian respondents thought corruption was increasing and 64 per cent thought the government’s performance on the issue was poor. The perception of entrenched corruption, and its association with the failure by the Tunisian state to deliver services, did much to delegitimise the country’s political transition, a point not missed by supportive news outlets in the Gulf. Tunisia demonstrates the crucial importance of emerging democracies delivering on economic and social rights and tackling corruption.
Beyond aid and investment, the EU and European states are required to uphold international law in their trading relations. In the case of Israel and Morocco, with which the EU has close trade ties, this means implementing differentiated trade arrangements for the Palestinian territories and Western Sahara respectively. There has been little progress along political tracks in halting Israel’s policies of settlement and annexation, which are proceeding in defiance of international law. However, effective implementation of ‘differentiation’ offers a meaningful way for Europe to avoid directly implicating itself in internationally unlawful situations, including the maintenance and growth of settlements. It can also help Europe increase the political cost to Israel of de facto annexation of Palestinian territory. But implementation has been patchy, as recorded by ECFR’s differentiation tracker. The EU and European states have still not ensured that all their agreements with Israel comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which reaffirmed differentiation as a legal requirement according to international law.
Meanwhile, the European Commission and Council have repeatedly tried to include Western Sahara in the scope of the EU-Morocco Association Agreement. EU courts have repeatedly rejected these efforts. A protocol to extend the agreement to Western Sahara in 2019 was, the EU claimed, “delivering benefits for Western Sahara and its population in terms of exports, economic activity and employment”. But this was struck down in court in 2021. The EU position has been partly driven by the fudged European classification of Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory ‘de facto’ administered by the Kingdom of Morocco”, and its desire to sidestep its legal obligation to receive the consent of the Sahrawi people. Court decisions are likely to continue to harden the EU’s obligation to exclude Western Sahara from its relations with Morocco. This should oblige it to align its trade relations more closely with international law and Sahrawi rights.
Isolation, punitive measures, and force
Where other tools fail, Europe sometimes adopts – or threatens – a harder line on human rights issues. It can do this by using diplomatic isolation, country-level sanctions, and even military force. Such coercive approaches take human rights promotion into more contentious, political territory than the use of conventional diplomatic pressure or financial incentives. Unsurprisingly, Europeans rarely deploy these tools with those countries they treat as strategic partners.
Europeans (in practice, mainly the UK and France) appear increasingly less inclined to use military force under the banner of protecting human rights. This follows the experience of Libya, the only military intervention to take place under the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, which sought to respond to the international failures in Rwanda and Bosnia. The Western no-fly zone was effective at preventing atrocities by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in 2011. But the ‘mission creep’ into regime change and the subsequent slide of the country into militia rule and civil war convinced many Europeans that the concept of “humanitarian intervention”, in which the human rights of civilians were considered to trump the sovereign rights of states, was inherently flawed and dangerous. European media reporting of Libya largely focused on its role as a hub for dangerous sea crossings to Italy, adding to its image as a failed state. Barack Obama publicly blamed “the Europeans”, singling out David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, for what he called a “shit show”. Russia – which abstained on the crucial UN Security Council vote establishing the no-fly zone – has used the Libya intervention and its aftermath to argue that Western interventions in support of the rules-based order cause chaos and instability. There are those who strongly contest the narrative that the Libya intervention, which was requested by the Arab League and followed threats by Qaddafi to cleanse Libya “house by house”, was a catastrophic failure. They argue that the situation in Libya today should be compared against what it would have been if the intervention had not taken place.
The prevailing narrative around the Libyan intervention played a major role in precluding any similar action in Syria, even after Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons in 2013. More broadly, it harmed the reputation of R2P, with Russia and China happy to banish the doctrine. With the exception of a series of US air strikes against the Syrian regime in response to further chemical attacks in 2018, in which the UK and France took part, there has been no further use of force by European states against governments in the Middle East and North Africa under the banner of protecting civilians. The declining appetite for using force in support of values is largely supported across Europe’s political spectrum, particularly after the manner of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. However, Reza Afshar, a former British diplomat who worked on the Libya Security Council resolutions in 2011 and led the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Syria team, warns that British and French statements on war crimes and crimes against humanity will ultimately carry less weight when other governments do not believe they are prepared to back up their words with force: “carrots and sticks only work if people believe that you’re prepared to use the stick.”
Human rights-related sanctions on individuals have been touted more frequently in recent years as a flexible and targeted way to hold accountable and deter human rights abusers. In 2020, the UK and EU introduced Magnitsky-style sanctions with some fanfare, but the reality is that sanctions have been applied against individuals – whether in Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia – on human rights grounds for many years. Such measures carry significant symbolic weight and may act as a deterrent to other potential violators, though it is difficult to conclusively demonstrate this effect. As Assaad Al Achi’s essay notes, sanctions enforcement in Syria has been difficult and targeted individuals have developed elaborate evasion techniques. Meanwhile, European policymakers generally see the use of country-level economic sanctions as counterproductive because of the harm they cause to ordinary people. They can also create serious problems for civil society organisations, particularly smaller groups. Syrian organisations have for years faced intense difficulties in receiving and managing funding because of “over-compliance” by financial institutions. Last month, UN human rights experts decried the decision by a Swedish bandage manufacturer, driven by over-compliance with US sanctions, not to export to Iran, leaving so-called “butterfly kids” without the specialist equipment they need for their rare condition.
Europe opposed the United States’ “maximum pressure” sanctions, which have had a severe impact on the human rights of the Iranian population. It has attempted to strike a balance between punitive measures and engagement with the government over human rights. Europe agreed in 2016 to open a human rights dialogue, in light of the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and then president Hassan Rouhani’s commitment to rebuild relations with the West. However, despite increased engagement with Iran, the human rights situation on the ground did not noticeably improve and, as Azadeh Pourmand notes in her essay, it even worsened in some respects, such as the length of sentences applied to political prisoners. Iran’s isolation increased during the Trump administration, and throughout this period Europe’s ability to affect realities on the ground remained limited, though its interventions on the death penalty – particularly around juvenile cases – have, experts say, helped to save lives.
Some diplomats see Syria as an example of the failure of a coercive approach to human rights work. The EU and US moved to isolate and punish the Assad regime from mid-2011, including by applying sanctions on the regime that extend beyond measures against individuals. One former senior European diplomat says that “in 2011 my colleagues said we should not talk to Assad. All human rights defenders were probably happy with these statements we made at the time. But 10 years later, the Russians are the master of the political game, and he is still there.” However, this view relies on a counter-factual assessment that in 2011 there was a pathway based on engagement for Europe to influence the Assad regime into a more human rights-compliant response to the popular uprising and subsequent conflict, and to retain its influence. It neglects the European political capital that had previously gone into building influence with Syria. Sarkozy had made great efforts to court Assad, hosting him as guest of honour at Bastille Day – but this meant little when France called on the regime to respect the calls of protesters.
One Syrian activist argues that Europe’s failure in the early phase of Syria’s uprising was not that it took a principled stand on human rights, but rather that it called for Assad to step aside at an early stage without a realistic strategy to deliver this. She says that this sent a false impression, just months after the Libya intervention, that activists and oppositionists could expect decisive external support: “there is a wide spectrum of things you can do between supporting a dictator, and drawing lines in the sand you have no way or intention to enforce.” As Russia and Iran strengthened their hand through the 2010s, and as combating ISIS became the primary Western objective in the country, Europe has declined to engage substantively with the regime or to lift sanctions unless it sees a political transition under way. This stance has restricted the role Europe can play in the country’s reconstruction. Europeans hope to use the promise of reconstruction funding as leverage to drive a political transition. But the regime has so far rejected this carrot, just as it has for a decade refused to yield to Western sticks such as sanctions and isolation while political transition remains a non-negotiable demand.
How Europe can be more effective
Europe wants a range of things from countries in the Middle East and North Africa. At present there appears to be little prospect of European governments ‘centring’ human rights in their policies and activity. But there is a difference between striving for balance between competing goals and taking actions that strengthen and empower authoritarian and abusive governments. Such actions include, for example: rolling out the red carpet for leaders that back military coups, as Germany did for the UAE’s Mohamed bin Zayed in 2019; publicly praising conditions at a prison where political detainees allege torture, as the British ambassador to Bahrain did this year; or undermining legitimate investigations by the ICC, as noted earlier. Such moves may seem like pragmatic politics, to maintain cordial bilateral relationships or assuage domestic constituencies. But their impact is to directly lend legitimacy and diplomatic backing to authoritarian or abusive actors, and to undermine and demoralise embattled activists. As one human rights activist puts it, “There should be a ‘do no harm’ principle. You don’t have to intervene to support democracy movements. But stop intervening to support dictators.” Given Europeans’ current fears about the global rise of authoritarians, and their assessment that such governments are unable to provide security in the long term (the EU’s 2019 Global Strategy review says that “state and societal resilience can only go hand-in-hand”), European decision-makers should adopt a basic principle that bilateral engagements should avoid directly empowering or legitimising authoritarianism. Security and defence relationships, which are critical for authoritarian regimes, should particularly be measured against this test.
Specifically, Europeans should:
- Take long-term security seriously as a strategic issue. There is a mismatch between Europe’s strong words on the threats to the rules-based order and its timidity in defending these rules in its bilateral relations. Unlike migration or security, it is the case that European ambassadors are sometimes left by their capitals to decide on their own approaches to human rights. This can create considerable inconsistencies: one former ambassador to a GCC state describes how “my predecessor and successor had much more of a focus on business, much less so on human rights. It’s striking to me that the foreign ministry would allow ambassadors to set priorities like this. I think it’s a mistake.” Ambassadors should be expected to develop – and report internally against – realistic country human rights strategies that feed into wider long-term security work. This should include taking stronger positions with partner governments on core human rights issues, and setting clear expectations that these issues will affect the overall health of the bilateral relationship. Reactive approaches, where European states avoid human rights issues until they are forced to speak publicly under pressure domestically, are highly likely to lead to bilateral friction and reduced impact.
- Carry out (and share with political decision-makers) human rights impact assessments before embarking on high-risk or high-profile bilateral partnerships. Governments have increasingly used such assessments to weigh up the human rights benefits and risks associated with trade agreements. These should delve into whether and how bilateral partnerships might have positive human rights impacts (for example, through economic benefits to communities) and the degree to which they may support authoritarianism or potentially violate rights. High-risk areas would include security and military cooperation. For example, Germany signed a wide-ranging agreement with Egypt in 2017 to cooperate on counter-terrorism. This was in spite of the Egyptian regime’s well-known use of terrorism laws to persecute activists and the abusive record of the country’s security agencies – and the risk that Germany could become complicit in abuses. Part of addressing this may involve Europeans re-examining some of their underlying assumptions about why human rights abuses take place in some countries. Even when bilateral cooperation programmes include, or are explicitly packaged as, human rights capacity building, these may rely on the belief that officials commit violations because of a lack of knowledge rather than because it is an integral, intentional part of institutional and political culture. For example, the UK has faced scrutiny over its support for a Bahraini oversight body set up to investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment, which Amnesty International called “seriously flawed and widely seen as a PR tool of the Bahraini authorities”. Meanwhile, the EU’s Operation Sophia capacity building for Libyan customs officials included training on human rights, but a 2018 New York Times investigation documented a partially EU-trained crew beating migrants and attacking an NGO boat. Twenty migrants drowned in the incident and others were returned to Libya to face rape and torture. Human Rights Watch, which researched the horrendous conditions in Libya’s migrant detention centres, accused the EU of “contributing to a cycle of extreme abuse” through the cooperation programme.
- Include in human rights impact assessments a thorough examination of whether cooperation presents symbolic endorsements to authoritarians who are moving in the wrong direction on key benchmarks, in particular the rule of law and the ability of civil society to operate freely. Human rights organisations have called on businesses and sporting bodies to carry out due diligence to ensure that they are not taking part in “reputation laundering” through commercial and brand partnerships. Governments should make the same considerations around high-profile state visits and cultural partnerships. European governments often deploy these tools as gestures to help build leverage in order to achieve their goals. However, for authoritarian leaders, these demonstrations of legitimacy and partnership may to a large extent be their goal. For them, they are potentially as important as military and financial support for the consolidation of power. And so, rather than helping to build leverage, Europeans may be squandering it, offering photo opportunities while failing to make progress on critical issues such as human rights and the rule of law. Arguably, the reluctance of European and other leaders to provide symbolic endorsements to the Saudi crown prince in the immediate wake of the Khashoggi murder influenced his seemingly lower-profile, somewhat less regionally destabilising behaviour in the following months. Of course, where they see sustained, meaningful progress on core issues, Europeans should respond and engage positively. This needs careful calibration, based on consultation with civil society and human rights defenders. Excessively positive short-term reactions when states do make progress can then make it harder to go back on this, damaging bilateral relationships if reversals or negative developments take place later.
- Base decisions about the transfer of arms, and (as importantly) the degree of political backing for defence sales promotion activities, in part on whether they bolster authoritarianism. European governments tend to focus on Criterion 2 of the Common Position on arms exports, which considers whether arms exports might be used for internal repression or serious violations of international humanitarian law. This focus can be interpreted very narrowly, allowing officials to argue that some of the biggest arms deals in the Middle East and North Africa, such as the sale of warships, are legitimate because they are less likely to be used against protesters or civilians than small arms or guided missiles are. Officials should look harder at Criteria 3 and 4, which require them to consider respectively whether arms proposed for export would worsen conflicts in the countries where they are used, or whether they would affect regional stability. The sale of arms, security equipment, and training can significantly strengthen authoritarian regimes by providing material support and symbolic legitimacy, further undermining stability. European policymakers should examine these questions in depth at the beginning of arms sales promotion activities, rather than when deals are close to completion and much more politically sensitive.
- Increase investments in universal jurisdiction capacities, and use these capacities to provide justice where no domestic remedies are available. Recent years have seen a rise in the use of universal jurisdiction against those accused of crimes under international law, particularly in Germany, which has introduced new flexible legislation to allow for the filing of cases while suspects are outside Germany. (Other jurisdictions require suspects to be physically present in the country before cases can be filed, reducing the prospect of success considerably.) This has been important in Syria, where there are few other opportunities for victims to secure accountability. In a significant development, Sweden is also prosecuting an Iranian former security official. Nevertheless, the situation across Europe is fragmented, with varying laws and processes, and most importantly there is a lack of investigative and prosecutorial capacity. European governments should create more legal space and resources for their law enforcement agencies to pursue these cases. While this will involve being prepared for occasional cases that may cause short-term disruption to bilateral relations with partners, there is an important longer-term foreign policy benefit in providing a meaningful and consistent deterrent to gross violations.
Follow the money
While Europeans may no longer be applying strict conditionality to aid spending in their southern neighbourhood, they nonetheless have financial tools at their disposal to influence the human rights situation on the ground. Where there are moves to open up political space, Europeans should play a leading role in ensuring that these opportunities are accompanied by improved delivery of public services and the meeting of citizens’ economic aspirations. This must involve doing significantly better at addressing their own role as harbours for kleptocrats’ funds. In heavily authoritarian countries, European project funding can do much more than at present to support communities and prevent violations.
Specifically, Europeans should:
- Where there are openings in political space, use financial support to help secure accompanying economic and social rights. When supposedly more democratic systems such as Tunisia and Lebanon fail to secure promised benefits for their citizens, and are marked by corruption and impunity, they unfortunately provide good adverts for the notion of the “efficient autocracy”, in which citizens effectively trade off their civil and political rights in return for a better standard of living and reliable service provision from the state. The “efficient autocracy” model has gained more support recently, particularly as the planet has grappled with the complex challenges of covid-19 and climate change. China is the most noted global example of the model, while Gulf states such as the UAE have sought, with some success, to portray themselves as safe, stable places to live, in contrast to people’s experience of state failure and turbulence elsewhere. The editor of the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper argued in a recent piece for Foreign Policy that events in Tunisia demonstrate that “effective government should be the goal”. This was in contrast, she suggested, to “governments formed simply through the ballot box that don’t deliver for their people.” Where there are positive developments on civil and political rights in the Middle East and North Africa, Europeans must keep a strong focus on economic and social rights, putting their weight behind these. In practical terms, this should include providing assistance that enables the reliable delivery of basic services and the creation of decent jobs.
- Work on the links between corruption and human rights abuse. As well as delegitimising transitions towards democracy, corruption drives human rights abuse. This has long been clear to people living under corrupt systems but has only recently attracted attention at the international level. Europeans have a major responsibility at home – kleptocrats regularly exploit Europe’s financial system, attracted by its combination of flexible banking and corporate regulations, and strict rule of law that protects their assets. In the UK, experts have bemoaned the underuse of the country’s much-heralded unexplained wealth orders, dubbing it a “scandal”. Switzerland’s laws struggled to deal with hundreds of millions of frozen dollars that had been funnelled through shell companies by a Mubarak crony. Europeans should fully engage in international efforts to agree and implement best practices on asset recovery. Earlier this year, France – where Riad Salameh, the Lebanese central bank governor, is under investigation for using French property and banks to launder his alleged $2 billion fortune – passed a new law to improve asset recovery. Europeans should also carefully consider how best to use their aid budgets where corruption is endemic. In Lebanon, international donors have begun to refuse to continue channelling aid funds to the political class, which has failed miserably to deliver for the country’s people and exposed them to grave risk while enriching itself. Experts are calling on the EU to instead “invest in local partners, institutions, and leaders who can deliver on reforms by offering services and challenging the status quo”.
- Acknowledge and address the problem of sanctions “overcompliance”. In Syria and Iran, particularly, the problem of overcompliance significantly undermines the ability of Europeans to support civil society on the ground. In the case of the right to health in Iran, it can result in European companies harming human rights. This concern, which relates primarily to US secondary sanctions but also in part to EU measures, requires systemic treatment. Previous efforts to solve this issue, such as by providing guidance and support from sanctions-enforcing bodies, have foundered. European governments and the EU, working with civil society organisations, need to find much more effective, sustainable workarounds including exploring the creation and backing of specialised financial institutions to help manage this risk. They should also reflect carefully on the potential impact of overcompliance when considering any future sanctions regimes, and weigh this issue against the intended benefits of the measures.
- Ensure that European investments in the Middle East and North Africa are supporting communities and align with international law and standards. NGOs scrutinising EBRD and EIB investments find that the institutions do little to ensure that citizens have a say in project decision-making, and that the voice of the private sector tends to dominate. European governments should subject EBRD and EIB financial investments in the Middle East and North Africa to much greater scrutiny, demanding a more systematic approach to human rights due diligence. In heavily restricted, authoritarian countries, this may offer the opportunity to make progress on economic and social rights by providing space for progress on labour rights or community participation, even if only on isolated projects. More broadly, in line with the EU’s forthcoming mandatory human rights due diligence regime, Europeans should provide clear guidance to investors and businesses on their obligations and responsibilities, including with respect to differentiation. The divestment earlier this year by a major Norwegian investor from 16 companies linked to settlements in the West Bank illustrates the potential if European investors are expected to take seriously the human rights risks in their portfolios.
Be consistent and self-reflective
If Europeans want to make a greater impact on the human rights situation in the Middle East and North Africa, they must commit to at least some tough diplomacy, including in public. Critically, they need to be much more consistent in how they treat abuses by both their regional partners and rivals – something that will be easier to manage if they can act together.
Specifically, Europeans should:
- Consider developing core minimum standards, drawn from the EU Human Rights Guidelines, on which kinds of issue they will speak out on, either via the EU, as individual governments, or through bespoke coalitions of like-minded states. The failure to be consistent in holding other governments to account for human rights violations has a seriously corrosive effect on Europe’s claims to stand for human rights and democratic norms. It has proved possible for the EU to agree to consistently speak out on the death penalty but much less so on other questions. European governments should seek to apply the approach they use vis-à-vis the death penalty to a limited set of commonly arising, objective issues. They must do so regardless of whether the issues relate to strategic partners or rivals. This could, for example, include always speaking out on: the detention or charging of recognised human rights defenders; the passing of laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression or that curtail the rights of women, LGBTI people, or religious minorities; reports by UN agencies of war crimes or crimes against humanity. Grounding critical statements in a set of pre-agreed standards would help to manage relations with partners in the region.
- Consider establishing a semi-formalised grouping that commits to standing for human rights norms. Diplomats and activists generally agree that speaking together always makes a greater impact than individual statements. However, as noted, reaching consensus within the EU has proved increasingly difficult. Additionally, EU statements arguably carry less weight than when groups of named European governments join together to speak out, particularly when the Middle Eastern or North African government in question cares about certain bilateral relationships in particular. Governments that take human rights seriously should consider whether there is benefit in establishing a semi-formalised group of “like-minded states”, which would speak up for the core minimum standards outlined in the previous recommendation. A loose network already exists of the nine European governments that have appointed human rights ambassadors. This suggests that there is appetite for expanding cooperation outside formal structures that require consensus.
- Call out regionally destabilising activities of strategic partners that give rise to human rights abuses. Europeans should be clear-eyed about the fact that some of their key regional partners, which they provide with legitimisation and credibility, undermine stability in their southern neighbourhood. Europe regularly comments on Iran’s “destabilising regional activities”. It has little to say about the activities of the UAE, which include: funnelling arms and trafficking mercenaries to Libya; breaching a UN embargo and directly undermining UN-led peace talks; forcibly disappearing Yemeni children and holding them in black-site detention centres; allegedly funding the military coup in Egypt in 2013; and seeking to shore up the military and undermine civilian rule in Sudan after the protest movement toppled Omar Bashir in 2019. Europe should begin to speak out more concertedly on such regional activities; doing so through bespoke groups of “like-minded states”, as described above, could be one way of dealing with this.
- Reflect seriously on their own human rights challenges and avoid ‘Europeanising’ human rights. The concept of “European values” has come to the fore in recent years. The term has become something of a rallying cry as the EU grapples with the aftermath of Brexit, internal disagreements over migration and refugees, and Poland’s and Hungary’s refusal to adhere to normative standards on democracy and the rights of minority communities. While its use is understandable in this internal context, it jars when it is used outside Europe, such as the EU’s Global Strategy committing the union to “promoting our values in the world”. The suggestion carries with it the whiff of neocolonial arrogance, undercutting the notion that human rights are universal, and associating civil society organisations in the Middle East and North African with an apparently foreign agenda. Additionally, it invites critical scrutiny of the comparison between Europe’s professed values and its actions. In 2019, the Turkish foreign minister said that racism and xenophobia have “eroded … European values.” Self-reflection and humility will make European diplomacy much more effective. Indeed, a key issue is Europe’s policy on refugees and migration, which arguably does more to undermine its credibility on human rights than any other issue. For all the difficulties of finding consensus across the continent, unless leaders can come together around a coherent approach to managing migration, and imbue this with the values they claim to support, this will continue to be an impediment. Realistically, the core of any new policy on migration has to include a much stronger commitment to provide more, and more accessible, safe routes to Europe for refugees and pathways to dignified, rights-respecting work opportunities.
Provide a backstop for civil society
Civil society is struggling in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It is under attack by state prosecutors, harassed and hacked by intelligence agencies, and hemmed in by restrictive NGO laws. Europeans can play a vital role by helping buy time for civil society until conditions in the region improve enough to allow it to more freely drive positive societal change. The challenge is that, as Europe has increased its support for civil society organisations in the past decade, so have authoritarians stepped up their repression. To help prevent a slide towards complete state control, Europeans have to more proactively seek ways of creating and defending meaningful space for non-governmental activity to flourish. This should include defending civil and political rights and tackling economic, social, and cultural issues.
Specifically, Europeans should:
- Be more consistent, and coordinated, in expressing public support for civil society and human rights defenders. The contrast is stark between how European governments talk about human rights in China compared with, say, Saudi Arabia. Some human rights experts also praise the support that European governments have given to Egyptian civil society, contrasting this with Tunisia where embassies are far more cautious. As argued above, at a minimum, they should agree some benchmarks to defend. For example, they should make clear, with as much unity as possible, that regressive legal steps on NGO registration, activities, or funding are unacceptable, and that they risk precluding symbolically important forms of cooperation such as state visits or cultural partnerships.
- Protect civil society groups from electronic surveillance. Revelations about the NSO Group Pegasus programme highlight the availability of sophisticated surveillance technology to a much wider group of governments than previously realised, and its use to subject civil society across the Middle East and North Africa to “state terror”. NGOs have called on Europe to do much more to implement its own regulations and stop the issuing of export licences for such technology. Given the gravity of the situation, European governments should support UN calls for a moratorium on the transfer and sale of spyware. UN experts have criticised the fact that NSO Group has been allowed to promote its products at UK defence fairs while under investigation by the FBI and facing a lawsuit by WhatsApp for hacking.
- Provide more systematic support to activists being targeted, and create human rights defender visas. European governments should develop ‘rest and respite’ schemes for human rights defenders in their countries, supporting European organisations that can provide the facilities and services that exhausted and sometimes traumatised activists need. Temporary visa schemes for human rights defenders exist in a small number of European countries including Ireland, Spain, and the Czech Republic. But given the small numbers involved it should be straightforward for more states to open schemes of this kind.
The challenges remain considerable for Europeans seeking to make a meaningful and positive contribution on human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. European influence in the region is weaker than it once was and Europeans’ credibility on human rights has been damaged, not least (but not only) by their approach to migration.
In this context it might be tempting for European diplomats to retreat from promoting human rights in the region and focus instead on securing discrete strategic goals. If, however, they are genuinely committed to defending global norms and institutions, this is not an option. Europe can only claim to stand for global human rights values and principles if it is demonstrably prepared to apply these in its bilateral relations. Stepping back from addressing these challenges also presupposes that authoritarian leaders can deliver long-term stability on Europe’s borders, when recent history suggests the contrary.
While Europeans can no longer (and should not try to) dictate terms in the Middle East and North Africa, they can still make a difference. Now is not the time to walk away. Rather, they should aim to: achieve specific and realistic human rights goals, developed with a clear-eyed assessment of where they have meaningful leverage; support this by making overarching commitments to challenge authoritarianism, or at the very least not to bolster it; and provide a reliable and flexible backstop for civil society.
About the author
James Lynch is a visiting fellow with ECFR and a co-director of FairSquare, a human rights research and advocacy group. He worked at Amnesty International from 2011-2017, where among other roles he was deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa programme. Lynch worked for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office between 2004 and 2011, mainly focusing on the Middle East, and is a former deputy director at the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. He is a contributing author to What Next for Britain in the Middle East?, published in September 2021.
The author would like to thank the many current and former diplomats, human rights activists, and other experts who generously shared their time and thoughts to assist with the development of this paper. He would also like to thank ECFR’s Middle East and North Africa programme for their help and advice, in particular Julien Barnes-Dacey and Kelly Petillo, as well as Adam Harrison for his editing expertise.
This paper was made possible by support for ECFR’s Middle East and North Africa programme from the foreign ministries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
 Videoconference interview with the author, September 2021.
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