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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a presentation on Europe's Digital Future at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen landed in Tunis in July, she knew the country’s security forces had just collectively expelled hundreds of Black African migrants and asylum seekers to the Libyan desert. Abandoned in a punishing climate with insufficient water and food for weeks, at least 27 of these migrants died.

Even before then, African migrants had already been facing a wave of racist attacks, forced evictions and other abuses, fueled by speech that U.N. experts dubbed racist — including the words of Tunisian President Kais Saied himself.

And yet, von der Leyen chose to ignore what was happening.

Instead, she trumpeted a new Memorandum of Understanding, pledging hundreds of millions of euros in aid, in return seeking only Tunisia’s cooperation on stopping migrants from heading to Europe. The memorandum pointed out no rights concerns, and required no human rights guarantees. Add to this her silence on the detention of dozens of government critics, the destruction of judicial independence and the harassment of journalists, civil society and opposition figures.

In short, von der Leyen pushed human rights under the rug in Tunisia. And this posture — portrayed as a “blueprint” for other EU partnerships in the region — has epitomized her approach to human rights, one of double standards that severely undermines the EU’s reputation on the world stage.

Tempted by more access to Caspian oil and gas, in July 2022, von der Leyen signed a strategic energy partnership with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev amid a government crackdown on critics — another failed opportunity for the EU to condition closer economic ties on human rights improvements.

And other recent visits abroad have confirmed the trend.

In Manila, von der Leyen only spoke of an improved human rights environment under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., despite the ongoing murderous war on drugs in the Philippines and continued attacks on activists, government critics, journalists and human rights defenders.

In the United Arab Emirates, she made no public reference to dozens of jailed activists, missing another golden opportunity to champion human rights ahead of the COP 28 U.N. Climate Change Conference. And during her G20 trip to India, where civil and political rights have sharply deteriorated under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, human rights was seemingly not a topic of discussion.

Furthermore, even though von der Leyen had previously warned of the Chinese government “becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad,” this didn’t come up during her December visit. She didn’t publicly speak about how Beijing’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and grave human rights violations elsewhere could impact the EU’s relations with China.

And now the Commission leader appears ready to double down on a renewed partnership with the Egyptian government — another grave rights violator — with no indication that she wants to even try to use EU leverage to secure genuine human rights progress.

Finally, since Oct. 7, von der Leyen’s response to the escalation of hostilities in Gaza and Israel has prompted even more questions. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks by Hamas and other armed groups on southern Israel, the Commission chief rightly condemned Hamas’ unlawful killing of civilians and hostage taking. But for weeks after the start of Israel’s military operations in Gaza — which have been marred by war crimes, including a blockade of humanitarian aid — she referred only to the fact that Israel has the right to defend itself, without ever mentioning obligations to respect international humanitarian law.

It took thousands more Palestinian deaths and intense criticism before von der Leyen called on Israel to respect the laws of war. And even then, she has persisted in avoiding pointing out Israeli authorities’ responsibility for mass civilian deaths in Gaza and potential violations of international law.

Von der Leyen’s record isn’t altogether bleak. She did prioritize new EU legislations on human rights and environmental due diligence for companies, and on banning the import of goods made through forced labor — both are still under negotiation. And she took a strong stand in favor of justice and accountability for the crimes that Russian forces committed in Ukraine — though she has refrained from doing the same for victims in Israel and Palestine.

The EU also remains the world’s top humanitarian donor, as well as a key promoter of human rights in the U.N. and other global forums. But as its top official, von der Leyen has a responsibility to ensure that protecting human rights is a key component of EU external action. Instead, more often than not, she seems to overlook rights in favor of migration, trade and energy deals.

Arguably, von der Leyen may believe it more appropriate to press for rights in private dialogue or at lower political levels, but if so, this isn’t proving effective. And if EU leaders aren’t willing to lay out consequences for bilateral relations when abuses persist, this strategy is doomed to fail.

Von der Leyen’s reluctance to be tough on human rights isn’t just morally wrong — it also undermines EU credibility, erodes its long-term leverage and emboldens oppressive leaders who see the EU’s silence as a green light. Leaders who eliminate checks and balances at home become less reliable partners and are increasingly ready to exploit the EU’s weak spots, and this will inevitably backfire. It also betrays brave activists on the ground, and exposes the EU to credible accusations of double standards.

A principled defense of human rights in foreign policy is enshrined in the EU treaty, and fulfilling this obligation requires an unwavering commitment to both condemn and act upon violations wherever they occur. But von der Leyen has proven increasingly reluctant to use her powerful role to steer the EU in that direction.

Now, as she considers a second term at the helm of the Commission with only a few months left before the European election, von der Leyen should reconsider and finally commit to putting human rights at the center of her vision of a geopolitical Commission.

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