Over the years since its creation, the EU has developed a unique commitment to human rights, culminating with the Lisbon Treaty, which gave binding status to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and listed human rights among the Union’s foundational values. This commitment means that human rights must consistently be the Union’s compass for action. On the occasion of Human Rights Day 2016, it is no luxury to restate this, and to take stock of how this commitment is being implemented in troubled times. For human rights are increasingly threatened, both within the EU and in the rest of the world.
Within the EU, a number of governments are taking an authoritarian turn, cracking down on media, undermining the independence of the judiciary, or discriminating against minorities. The refugee crisis has too often been used as an excuse for legitimizing racist narratives, and is being tackled largely at the expense of the human rights of refugees who, when they do not drown in the Mediterranean Sea and reach our coasts, are made to suffer human rights violations in the process of applying for asylum.
One should not only criticize national authorities. The economic crisis which struck in 2008 was ‘solved’ with an active contribution by EU institutions to maintain the status quo and preserve powerful financial interests, hurting economic and social rights of many citizens. Just a few examples. The recent OECD-EU report ‘Health at a Glance’ points to the slowing down of health expenditure since the economic crisis and the widening gap in access to healthcare and social coverage. Eurostat shows that, since 2007, an increasing share of working households with children are at risk of poverty, whereas at the same time its data indicates that the share of total income received by the top 20 % of the population has been rising since 2007, the curve being steepest in countries like Greece or Spain, which suffered most from the crisis. The EU has often been an active participant in these assaults against the human rights of the weakest among us, by imposing or encouraging harsh austerity plans to be financed mainly by cuts in public spending.
Outside of the Union the situation is even more frightening. Atrocious conflicts are raging in Syria and other places, with war crimes and crimes against humanity proliferating while the world watches. More generally, a downward trend in human rights enjoyment can be observed, leading Amnesty International to declare human rights ‘in danger’ in its latest annual report. Looking back at 2016, arguably only a handful of countries have seen their human rights situation improve, including Myanmar, Colombia, and Tunisia – which all still have a very long way to go. Authoritarian governments around the world are encouraged by the lack of a strong response by the international community.
Where does this bleak picture leave the EU and its commitment to human rights? In these troubled times, it is more important than ever that human rights be restated as being at the very core of the European project, and that both the institutions and the Member States solemnly reconfirm their attachment to them. But, actions must match this.
The EU must be coherent and live by its human rights commitment at all times. It must not let other interests such as security, energy supply or trade liberalization come in the way of this: rather, it must find a proper balance between fostering human rights and preserving other legitimate interests. Let us remember that human rights are not only aspirational values, but above all binding standards. In many policy fields, they are legally enforceable before the Court of Justice of the European Union, such as when the Court annulled the Data Retention Directive in 2014 for failing to strike the right balance between the protection of citizens’ personal data, their right to private life, and the security interests of retaining data. An independent body should also review draft legislation and monitor EU policies for coherence with the Union’s commitment to human rights. The system of impact assessments indeed proves somewhat insufficient. Not only are fundamental rights not listed as a major pillar of the assessments, they are also diluted in many other issues, running the risk of overlooking or condoning tradeoffs. Additionally, currently just one unit in the European Commission’s Directorate-General Justice is in charge of this exercise, and struggles to review all proposals systematically. If an independent review body cannot be set up, the Commission should at least create properly resourced fundamental rights units within its structures.
Moreover, the EU should be less complacent with Member States taking liberties with human rights, and the Commission should readily seize the opportunity of bringing infringement cases, as it now prepares to do regarding the Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia. It should also be recalled that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights applies to all Union policies, including the management of agricultural and European Structural and Investment (ESI) Funds: the EU has more possibilities than one commonly thinks to discipline its own Member States. The recent Guidance on ensuring the respect for the Charter when implementing ESI Funds should in this regard be accompanied by trainings in Member States, a complaint mechanism, and, if need be, infringement proceedings and financial corrections.
There is more to be done, though. Part of the reason why authoritarian temptations are gaining ground in Europe is because liberal democracies are failing increasingly large segments of the population. As shown by the statistics above, our system of social rights is put under pressure by budgetary constraints justifying cuts in social programmes, leaving the poor at the bottom in increasing numbers, while inequalities rise and a small fraction of the population becomes richer. This dichotomous development is not sustainable. We must think hard about how to make sure that our system of rights is fairly financed and leaves no one behind. Time will tell if the ‘Pillar of Social Rights’ for the Economic and Monetary Union recently proposed by President Juncker holds real promise or constitutes rather a fig leaf.
In the wider world, the EU must strive to be a beacon of light in the current dire conditions. Its commitment to human rights is unmatched by any country around the world. The EU must be prepared to stand firm against human rights violators everywhere – whether state or non-state actors – and to leverage its influence and instruments to that effect. Until now, the Union has been much too pusillanimous in the application of conditionality, especially against countries in which it has vested interests. This lessens the credibility of the EU’s commitment to human rights and dilutes its leverage. Additionally, the EU must put all its weight in helping countries in transition steer firmly and durably towards respect for human rights, in particular by decisively supporting reforms. The Arab Spring was a missed opportunity for the Union to be an agent of change in that region; it should learn the bitter lessons of it. Last but not least, as many countries witness an increasing crackdown on civil society actors, the EU should continue to support human rights defenders around the world.