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(Brussels) – With the adoption on June 25, 2012, of a comprehensive human rights package, European Union (EU) foreign ministers made a powerful pledge to prioritize human rights in EU policy at home and abroad. Now EU institutions and all 27 member states will have to exercise a firm, coherent, and uniform approach to human rights abuses worldwide, in a transparent and accountable manner.

The EU human rights package adoptedby foreign ministers consists of a strategic framework on human rights and democracy, an EU action plan, and a decision to appoint an EU Special Representative on human rights.

“Today we celebrate the EU’s stated commitment to protect and promote human rights around the world,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “Tomorrow, the hard work begins of turning words into action, and we will be watching to see that EU member states and institutions practice what they preach."

EU foreign ministers pledged that human rights, democracy, and rule of law will be promoted “in all areas of the EU's external actions without exception” and that the EU will “place human rights at the center of its relations with all third countries including strategic partners.” The true test to this commitment will be whether the EU will make good on its promise to throw its “full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy, and human rights throughout the world,” Human Rights Watch said.

For decades, the EU has been complacent in dealing with rights-abusing governments in the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere, overestimating the power of abusive regimes, refusing to criticize allies, and underestimating people’s legitimate demands for social and political justice, rule of law, and democracy, Human Rights Watch said. The Arab Spring was the EU’s wake-up call, and a stark reminder of many EU members’ own recent history of transitions from totalitarian and abusive regimes following public protest.

“The overthrow of autocratic regimes in Europe in 1989 and the public uprisings during the Arab Spring show that the power of the people is ultimately more significant than the people in power,” Leicht said. “The EU should put the rights of people, rather than their rulers, at the center of their dialogues with abusive countries.”

Around the world, repressive governments continue to go to great lengths to silence activists who expose abuses and corruption, including by harassing, detaining, torturing, disappearing and even killing human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and others. The EU foreign ministers said on June 25 they would work to end this. To do so, the EU institutions and its 27 member states should always take the side of human rights and their defenders when responding to serious and persistent abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should also raise the price that will be paid by abusers, including by naming and shaming them, imposing targeted sanctions, and ensuring justice for serious crimes.

In the past, the EU too often channeled criticism of abusive governments through quiet diplomacy using lower-level “dialogues” rather than high-level ministerial meetings to express concerns and demand corrections. If the EU truly intends to “raise human rights issues vigorously in all appropriate forms of bilateral dialogue, including at the highest level,” as ministers’ pledged today, its criticisms must be made in public and not behind closed doors, Human Rights Watch said.

Activists take great risks to shine a light on abusive governments and officials, who in turn go to great lengths to silence these courageous voices. Too often the EU and its member states have favored the use of quiet diplomacy as the best tool to address human rights violations.

“EU quiet diplomacy is fine if it produces results, but in cases of persistent human rights violations the EU should speak up to ensure its message is heard both by abusive governments and their people,” Leicht said. “Activists need to know that powerful players such as the EU are willing to confront government abuse. The EU’s use of quiet diplomacy seems primarily to protect itself from abusers’ anger and retaliation.” 
Human Rights Watch called on high-level EU officials and member states’ foreign ministers to make meetings with human rights defenders a non-negotiable element of all visits to other countries. In doing so, the EU would empower human rights defenders and democracy activists, while also engaging civil society, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the decision to appoint an EU Special Representative for human rights, but stressed that the new special representative would only be as effective as unified efforts by EU institutions and member states to implement the human rights package. 

It is also critical for the credibility of the EU’s work in human rights, that the EU and all its member states are seen to adopt and practice the highest standard of human rights in their domestic and foreign policies. This includes ratifying all the human rights treaties, ensuring human rights are fully respected in migration and counter-terrorism policies, including ensuring prosecution for torture and complicity in torture, and ensuring equality and full rights for minorities, including religious minorities.

It took the EU nearly two years to draft and agree on the comprehensive human rights package adopted by EU foreign ministers. Efforts to implement the plan should be vigorous, swift, and ambitious, Human Rights Watch said. The EU’s human rights strategic framework and action plan represent a floor, not a ceiling, for what EU institutions and member states are now bound to.

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