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The EU’s Promotion of Human Rights in Foreign Policy

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The promotion of Human Rights has been a key objective of the EU’s Foreign policy for decades. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty already established the promotion of Human Rights and fundamental freedoms as an aim of Foreign Policy (Crawford, 2008: 174). However, it was the Lisbon Treaty that ‘injected’ most unequivocally the promotion of HR into external action (Velluti, 2016: 42) as per article 21 of the Treaty of the European Union.

The EU has at its disposal a number of policy instruments that it can use to promote Human Rights (HR) in third countries, such as public declarations about the Human Rights situation of a given state or démarches –which are private statements raising concerns about particular cases of HR violations (Smith, 2015: 163)- and Human Rights dialogues -involving representatives of the EU and the concerned country- (Crawford, 2008). Since these rather diplomatic ways of spreading HR values alone do not give enough leverage to the EU, other material instruments including incentives and sanctions are also available.

In this sense, the Generalised System of Preference (GSP) gives poorer countries preferential access to the EU market, provided that the particular state ratifies and implements international standards of HR (Velluti, 2016: 50). Moreover, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) offers funding, mainly to NGOs, to develop projects that enhance HR. More generally, however, it is common practice for the EU, particularly since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, to include so-called Human Rights Clauses (HRC) in bilateral agreements, not only for trade, but also for Association, Partnership, Development and Cooperation agreements (Ghazaryan, 2015). Some of them, such as the European Neighbourhood Policy Instrument (ENPI), also include an incentive facility, which allows the transfer of extra funding to those countries that are making progress towards their HR objectives: Ukraine, for example, benefited from this by 2008 (Smith, 2015: 165).

With respect to trade agreements, the EU can suspend the entirety or parts of the agreements if the HRC is violated by a third country. The EU-Morocco agricultural agreement was cancelled on these grounds (Velluti, 2016).

It does not come as a surprise then that ‘Normative Power Europe’ (NPE) –a concept coined by Manners (2002)- has become increasingly influential among academics. Manners (2002: 236) defines NPE as the EU’s ‘ability to define what passes for normal in world politics’. In this sense, he identifies five core principles that make up the EU’s identity as a global actor –peace, liberty, democracy, rule of law and human rights- (2002: 243) and which it uses to ‘redefine international norms’ through different diffusion mechanisms that generally exclude military means. Nevertheless, subsequent studies have been critical towards this rather benevolent image of the EU, concluding that normative principles are often trumped by economic or other strategic interests of the EU in third countries (Orbie et al. 2015; Pollack, 2016; Mattlin, 2012).

However, this view is somewhat reductionist as it ignores the fact that different types of interests exist and that they are not clearly separable at all times (Langan, 2012: 253). It equally does not take into account the nature of the EU as a global actor. In this regard, various academics have pointed out that member states are roughly divided into two groups: northern countries –such as the UK, Sweden or the Netherlands- who are more inclined towards using sanctions and southern countries –such as France, Italy or Spain- that are more in favour of engaging with other states, regardless of their HR situation (Nováky, 2015: 249). Therefore, dialogue is the EU’s common denominator (Smith, 2015).

Regarding the different types of interests of the EU, if we take the case of Ukraine, we can easily understand the difficulty of managing different types of interests. The EU has security interests in Ukraine, especially since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sebastopol has been described as the biggest security threat that the EU is facing in the post-Soviet era (Downes, 2017). Economically, the EU also has close ties with this country, particularly since the signing of the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement in 2016, which make the relationship one of the most ambitious with a third country, despite the absence of membership perspective (Rabinovych, 2016: 12). Although HR are set as essential elements in these agreements and even if the non-executive advisory mission EUAM deployed in Ukraine in December 2014 also includes a normative element (HR professionals count among EUAM’s staff and the mission’s purpose is ‘to assist relevant Ukrainian authorities towards a sustainable reform of the civilian security sector through strategic advice and hand-on support for specific reform measures based on EU standards and international principles of good governance and human rights’; EUAM, 2014); Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch denounced that Ukranian government forces violated HR between 2014 and 2017. Notwithstanding the HR dialogues held with Ukraine in this period, the EU did not impose sanctions on the country, neither did it terminate the above agreements. This can be explained by the EU’s security interests, since the stability of the neighbouring states –such as Ukraine- contributes to the EU’s own stability (Rabinovych, 2016a). In this sense, it can be said that the EU has probably privileged positive measures and incentives to promote HR, so as to avoid alienating Ukraine with Russia by the introduction of sanctions. In this regard, Nováky (2015) argues that what the EU is doing is trying to ‘soft-balance Russia’, as making the Ukrainian Security Sector more accountable would not only contribute to protecting civil rights, but also it would mean that Russia would have less influence on them.

Similarly, this context in Ukraine equally explains why the country has not been more receptive to the EU’s diplomatic calls for HR reforms, since the high levels of corruption among the elite and the armed conflict against Russia suggest that fully respecting HR would put them in a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis Russia, as the latter does also indiscriminately violate HR (Amnesty International, 2016).

Having said that, if the EU wishes to define itself as a HR advocate in its external action, as seems to be the case given the aforementioned treaties and agreements, along with the fact that in 2012 a Special Representative for Human Rights was appointed to ‘enhance the effectiveness and visibility of EU human rights policy’ (EEAS, 2016), then it will need to be more firm and clarify whether HR principles in agreements with third countries are binding. A pre-requisite for being able to do this is that member states agree on being firm about normative principles. This could be achieved by making sure leaders are clear about their country’s position at national level and giving the electorate the option to contest it. This would give legitimacy to the EU’s actions by providing citizens with constitutional agency through national governments. Citizens would also feel that they have a say in EU affairs, which does not seem to be the case at present.

Posted by Sara Aguilar-Suárez, MA candidate in "The European Union and International Relations" at Aston University

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