The EU still needs to raise its voice to protect rights

Heidi Hautala’s letter to the editor was published in European Voice, on October 7, 2010.

I fully share the concerns expressed by Finland’s foreign minister, Alexander Stubb, when he wrote that the EU should adopt a dignified foreign policy and a more effective human-rights policy in a world that now tends to listen less to the EU (“Adopting a dignified foreign policy”, 23- 29 September).[:]

A malaise of weak and incoherent performance has plagued most of the EU’s human- rights activities in recent years. Stubb is right to identify the difficulty of getting 27 states to agree as a reason: member states often externalise their human-rights obligations to the EU, while practising bilateral realpolitik.

I would, though, like to express a word of caution to anyone who interprets his statement that the EU should be less preachy and more concerned with results as a call for the EU to tone down its advocacy.

With many states, quiet diplomacy does not work. Words said in public about human-rights abuses have triggered changes in most corners of the world. There was a need for us to raise our voices about the imprisonment of rights activists in Syria, the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan, political harassment in Rwanda and the extraordinary renditions by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency. If EU does not raise such issues, who will?

A critical, practical review of our human-rights policies is required, and so I welcome the plans for a strategic review of EU human-rights policy announced in June by Catherine Ashton, the high representative for foreign and security affairs.

The review should harness the potential provided by the Lisbon treaty in the form of a new external action service and greater powers for the European Parliament, which has, arguably, promoted human rights more ardently than any other EU institution.

Its sub-committee on human rights, which I chair, will make a range of recommendations to the high representative: for example, on how to improve the implementation of the EU’s human-rights guidelines, its human-rights dialogues and consultations, the human rights and democracy clauses in its agreements, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and other similar programmes, démarches and declarations.

Two EU foreign ministers, Lene Espersen of Denmark and Guido Westerwelle of Germany, have already made concrete recommendations. They want foreign ministers to discuss human rights regularly and in-depth, and they want a Brussels-based European Council working group on human rights. I back those calls. I hope that Stubb will lend his support.