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The European Union

Washington was not the only cause of the global leadership void on human rights.  The European Union might have filled the gap, but instead it continued to punch well below its weight, due in part to institutional disarray and in part to competing priorities. 

The need to achieve consensus among twenty-five members was part of the problem.  The proposed new constitution would have streamlined foreign policy decisions, easing the need for unanimity among its members as well as strengthening the E.U.’s chief foreign policy representative.  However, the constitution suffered a major setback when voters rejected it in referenda held in France in May and the Netherlands in June. 

The continuing need for unanimity, combined with an opaque decision-making process and a lack of leadership among E.U. members, produced a dynamic that favored muted responses toward human rights violations in third countries.  However, with regard to E.U. accession countries, a transparent process coupled with the ability of any single member to block progress for an aspiring state tended to raise the bar on human rights.  Positive pressure for improvement was thus exerted, most notably on Turkey.

When it came to external protests or interventions, however, the E.U.’s decision-making procedures tended to work the other way.  When E.U. governments had already agreed to common pressure, as in the arms embargo imposed on China following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, their consensus rules favored perpetuation of the status quo, even though France and Germany, among others, sought to end the embargo.  More commonly, though, in the case of new initiatives, E.U. procedures favored weak responses. 

The E.U. managed to achieve consensus and play a positive role by sponsoring critical resolutions at the United Nations on human rights in the DRC, North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.  But the E.U. generally failed to give teeth to its human rights protests by effectively using its many trade and cooperation agreements to press for human rights improvements in countries benefiting from massive E.U. assistance and trading privileges. 

For example, the E.U. continued to see its relationship to the Middle East and North Africa primarily in terms of trade and economic assistance.  Most governments in the European-Mediterranean Cooperation Area have concluded agreements with the E.U. that require respect for human rights and the rule of law.  Yet the E.U. rarely, and never publicly, enforced these human rights conditions by, for example, detailing concrete, country-specific steps that a government should take to put it on a positive trajectory, let alone outlining a timeframe for required reforms and spelling out the consequences of non-compliance. 

A good illustration was the Egypt-E.U. Association Agreement, which entered into force in June 2004.  The E.U. has yet to invoke the clause premising the entire agreement on “respect for human rights and democratic principles.”  The same could be said of E.U. agreements adopted with Tunisia in 1999 and Israel in 2000.  E.U. governments are the largest donors to the North Africa region, giving them plenty of potential influence, but they seldom used it in 2005.  Conveniently, the E.U. tended to claim instead that trade and quiet diplomacy on human rights would yield more liberal regimes, but that left the region’s simmering civil society movement for reform without the overt backing of the powerful E.U. 

With respect to Africa, the European Union did not hesitate to act against a pariah state such as President Robert Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe.  There, it adopted a series of punitive measures, including an arms embargo, freezing of assets, a visa ban, and suspension of all non-humanitarian aid.  Key European governments also continued to supply peacekeeping troops in the Ivory Coast and logistical support to African Union troops in Darfur.  But the E.U. did not act with similar forcefulness when it came to abuses by governments with which it maintained closer relationships.  In Angola, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda, for example, the E.U. condemned abuses but did not put the governments on notice that they were in serious breach of their human rights obligations, including those written into the agreement that regulates European assistance to such countries.  In this respect, the E.U. seemed increasingly to favor the status quo in Africa.

Individual European governments were not better in their own policies toward Africa.  Britain’s Prime Minister Blair invited Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zanawi as one of only two African heads of state or government on Blair’s Commission for Africa, but Britain was silent about Meles’s repression of his political opposition.  Similarly, Belgium continued strong support for Rwandan President Paul Kagame despite his government’s repression at home and responsibility for atrocities in the neighboring DRC.  Meanwhile, although the French government maintained its troop presence in the Ivory Coast, its policy of “tactical disengagement” from much of the rest of the African continent posed potential dangers for human rights protection. On a continent where better human rights protection frequently depends on greater external commitment, the decline of French willingness to engage raised the specter of more hardship in francophone African countries such as the DRC, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast.  This diminished European activism on Africa paralleled China’s increasing engagement with the continent on terms that attached no importance to human rights. 

One positive exception to the E.U.’s disregard for other government’s binding human rights commitments with it came in the case of Uzbekistan.  It took more than four months, but in October, the E.U. finally decided to partially suspend its partnership and cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan because of President Karimov’s refusal to permit an international inquiry into the Andijan massacre.  This was the first time the E.U. had suspended any such agreement on human rights grounds—an important precedent on which to build but also a sad commentary on the lack of seriousness with which the E.U. typically has treated the legally binding human rights requirements in all such agreements.

The E.U. also took the lead in the successful effort to condemn Uzbekistan before the U.N. General Assembly.  In addition, the E.U. imposed an arms embargo on Uzbekistan and a visa ban on a dozen senior officials believed to have played a role in the massacre—though, incomprehensibly, not on President Karimov himself.  Germany also allowed the Uzbek interior minister, Col. Gen. Zakirjan Almatov, one of those believed to have ordered the Andijan massacre, to enter Germany for medical treatment despite the travel ban. As the point of the travel ban was to deny such people the privilege of precisely this kind of visit, the German behavior called into question whether the sanctions were really part of a coherent strategy for seeking change in Uzbekistan.

Apart from its trade and aid relationships, the E.U. in recent years has begun to play a positive role in mounting overseas field operations in conflict zones.  By current count, there are at least nine active European Security and Defence Policy missions. The E.U. helped secure a peace accord to end the vicious conflict in Aceh and provided monitors to oversee its implementation, including respect for human rights.  It provided police to oversee the border crossing at Rafah following the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip.  And it provided rule-of-law assistance in places such as Georgia and the DRC. 

Given the E.U.’s difficulty speaking in a common voice, the member states might have treated the E.U. common position on external human rights matters as a floor rather than a ceiling—as the minimum they would do for human rights rather than the maximum.  That might have especially been the case with respect to such important countries as Russia, China, the United States, and Saudi Arabia—all countries with which E.U. members have active individual foreign policies in addition to their common position.  For the most part, though, the lack of human rights leadership toward these countries that stymied effective common action was also visible in bilateral dealings. 

The E.U. position on Russia in 2005 made the U.S. defense of human rights seem vigorous.  Business, energy, and other political interests dominated E.U. concerns, abetted by an unseemly competition among British Prime Minister Blair, French President Chirac, and former German Chancellor Schroeder to proclaim the closeness of their relationship with Russian President Putin.  Germany, for example, was preoccupied with negotiating the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia, which was agreed to in September, and sought Russia’s support for its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.  Schroeder, who reportedly met with Putin thirty-seven times during the years he was chancellor, continued to make little public reference to Russia’s human rights record.  France sought to maintain warm relations to facilitate cooperation on the Security Council, especially with regard to the Middle East. 

At an E.U.-Russia summit in October hosted in London by the British presidency, the assembled leaders, according to the E.U.’s account, merely “addressed in a constructive spirit internal developments in the E.U. and Russia, including the situation in Chechnya and the forthcoming elections there,” and “welcomed” an E.U. decision to provide financial assistance to the North Caucasus as “a further sign of E.U. willingness to cooperate in the region.”  There was no hint in this embarrassingly positive statement that the central problem in Chechnya was Russia’s refusal to end atrocities by its forces.  Along similar lines, the E.U. failed to sponsor a resolution critical of Russia’s rights record in Chechnya at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. 

With respect to China, business and other political interests again dominated.  For example, France and Germany pressed to lift the arms embargo toward China that had been imposed in protest of the Tiananmen Square massacre, even though no progress had been made in holding accountable those officials who ordered the killing, and the Chinese government refused to provide information about the number killed, injured, and arrested.  The embargo stayed in place because of strong American security objections, supported by Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden, among others. Britain initially supported the U.S. position, reversed its position under pressure from France and Germany, and then reversed its position again after Chinese threats against Taiwan made lifting the embargo untenable. In November, Germany, under its new chancellor, Angela Merkel, came out in favor of continuing the embargo, leaving little prospect for the embargo to be lifted in the foreseeable future.  Meanwhile, the E.U. continued to refuse to sponsor a resolution on China at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. 

As for Saudi Arabia, German Chancellor Schroeder visited it without public mention of political reforms.  British Prime Minister Blair conducted his visit secretly.  The British government pressed hard for Saudi Arabia to buy arms from British manufacturers while remaining virtually silent on the kingdom’s abysmal human rights record.  France received Crown Prince Abdullah, an occasion that President Chirac used to speak in glowing terms about “reforms,” calling them “an ambitious program of transformation.” He praised the above-noted municipal elections, with their circumscribed scope and absence of women voters or candidates, as well as “recent developments in the Consultative Council,” which had merely expanded from 120 to 150 members, all appointed, with no women and only a minor increase in minority representation (from two to four seats).

As for trans-Atlantic relations with the United States, the E.U. understandably was eager to repair the damage done by disagreements triggered by the invasion of Iraq, but its strategy seemed to include largely ignoring U.S. rights transgressions.  For most of the year, the E.U. collectively utterly failed to raise concerns about the U.S. practice of “disappearing” terrorist suspects.  The sole exceptions were national investigations opened in Italy, Germany, and Sweden into the CIA’s role in seizing or luring suspects from their soil and sending them to Egypt or Afghanistan.  The E.U. became more assertive only in the face of broad public outrage triggered by evidence that was made public in November suggesting the United States had maintained secret detention facilities near airports in Poland and Romania.  Only then did several national parliaments and prosecutors launch investigations, the European Commission opened an informal inquiry, and the E.U. foreign ministers requested clarification from the United States about CIA activities on E.U. territory. The Council of Europe began a formal inquiry and the council’s secretary-general sent a rare formal request for information about the matter to all forty-five member states.

After successfully securing custody of its nationals held in Guantánamo, Britain went so far as to become an apologist for the United States.  Britain’s 2005 human rights report spoke of “five substantial [U.S.] inquiries” into prisoner abuse which “concluded that the incidents of abuse were the result of the behaviour of a few sadistic individuals and a failure of oversight by commanders, rather than the result of US policy or procedures.”  In fact, as noted, U.S. policy has beento subject detainees to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, if not torture.  Meanwhile, none of the dozen self-investigations into past abuses launched by the Bush administration was independent, let alone substantial: only one examined the role of senior Pentagon officials, and it was run by members of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s own Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee; only one looked at the role of the CIA, and it was run by the CIA’s own inspector general; and none looked at the role of senior White House officials.  The Bush administration opposed creating an independent, bipartisan panel on interrogation abuses similar to the September 11 Commission and refused to appoint a special prosecutor, even though Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, as a central architect of the administration’s interrogation policy, had an obvious conflict of interest.

Closer to home, the E.U. threatened to flout human rights standards in its own treatment of refugees and migrants.  International refugee law requires that a government give any asylum-seeker a fair determination of his claim and protect him from return to persecution or torture.  But in an effort to deter asylum-seekers from seeking refuge in Europe, the E.U. pursued policies that would shift to neighboring countries—such as Libya and Ukraine—responsibility for processing asylum claims, hosting refugees, and managing migration, despite these countries’ demonstrated lack of capacity to protect even the basic rights of asylum-seekers and migrants in their territories, let alone to provide a fair determination of asylum claims.  Libya, for example, does not even have laws by which its judiciary could assess claims for asylum.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006