This Week In Europe

“When You Think European Elections, Think Human Rights!”

This article was produced thanks to our partnership with EU Events.

The EU claims to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms both within Member States and elsewhere – but to what extent do the European Institutions really secure the personal safety and liberty of individuals? And how can our participation in this week’s long-awaited European Parliamentary elections have any effect on both European citizens’ rights and those of people around the world?

The World Solidarity Forum (WSF) hosted a panel discussion last week on the achievements of the European Parliament as a supporter of human rights and democracy since 2014, as well as some of the challenges that remain for the next five years. What is the role of the EU institutions in promoting human rights and freedom of speech?

Leading up to the event, WSF commented: “we believe that it is crucial to debate about the mechanisms that the European Parliament is using and the ones that would like to implement in order to contribute to the fight for human rights across the globe.”

Meet the speakers:

Stefan Krauss – Head of the Human Rights Action Unit, Directorate for Democracy Support, Directorate-General for External Policies of the Union, European Parliament

Raphael Fisera – Advisor at AFET and DROI Committees for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament.

Brigitte Bataille – Senior Advisor at AFET and DROI Committees for the S&D Group in the European Parliament

Gabriela Virostkova – Advisor on at AFET and DROI Committees for the EPP Group in the European Parliament

Khalid Hameed Farooqi – Dutch national originating from Pakistan. Previously imprisoned for resisting the oppressive Pakistani regime, he now serves as a reporter on human rights and EU institutions

Krauss opened the panel by commenting on the Sakharov prize, which since 1988 has acted as a sort of “Nobel Peace Prize for human rights.” This prize, he commended, recognises extraordinary individuals for their courage and commitment to human rights. The award is a commitment to award these people and mobilise parliamentary actors to intervene. Sent as ambassadors of freedom of thought to Member States and third countries alike. This effort to support democracy is an example of how the EU promoted progress in human rights in concrete ways.

The faces behind the crisis

We may all agree that human rights are important, but are the implications of a lack of them really felt those of us living in relative stability and freedom? Perhaps it would be impossible to truly understand the horrors which go on worldwide – from starvation in Yemen, to the orwellian nightmare still ongoing in North Korea – does Europe really care about global human rights, or about preaching compassion and peace while turning a blind eye to the truths which cast shade on this sunny image? It seems that the jury is still out.

Krauss stressed that as social creatures, we need faces and stories to even begin to grasp the variety of human rights violations which people face each day. Stories, proposed Krauss, are not only crucial, but complementary to what the Subcommittee of Human Rights is doing. So as not to forget what we are fighting for, we must listen to personal testimonies by those at the heart of the problem to truly empathise on a human level. This and only this may be the cure to Western apathy when it comes to the issues out of sight.

Human Rights Holidays?

Fisiera then raised the issue of corrupt MEPs, who allegedly go on missions to locations charged with human rights violations, such as Azerbaijan and the UAE, only to enjoy the comforts of five-star accommodation and treatment and then add a rose-tinted lens over whatever blemishes are tarnishing this particular country’s human rights record… If this is the case, surely MEPs – along with the European Institutions which they represent – are losing credibility?

Bataille challenged Fisiera’s skepticism: “The role of EP is very important for human rights,” she protested, “it makes a huge difference whether you vote progressive or not. From LGBT rights to women’s reproductive autonomy, and  euthanasia.” 

Undoubtedly, whoever gets elected can drastically impact the human rights in that country, state or region. Take Alabama’s sudden roll-back of women’s reproductive rights, for example, or Taiwan’s recent legalisation of gay marriage. As reported by the BBC this month, it only takes 3.5% of a society to protest for something to shake a government – this, of course, could be good or bad news.

With regards to MEPs’ questionable human rights’ visits, Bataille assured the crowd that most MEPs take their job extremely seriously. “We’ve achieved a lot of progress. A crucial role played by the EU ambassador in the country where human rights crimes are committed, as well as the European Parliament. If an overseas project is approved by European Parliament, it can surpass the national government – which means that funding can go directly to that project.” 

Virostkova added that diplomatic relations are important in order to encourage real change in countries facing human rights crises –  to really get through to other politicians, or to be granted visitation rights to political prisoners. These seemingly unsavory alliances with corrupt governments can sometimes be well-intentioned, even tactical. 

Europe: your rights aren’t guaranteed

Virostkova suggested that even being able to put human rights issues on the table is already very good. “We see human rights from different angles,” she commented, “but we are all now at least talking about human rights, and regarding them as a goal.” Indeed a positive development we should celebrate, it is all too easy these days for many EU citizens to fall into the trap of believing that their human rights are already in the bag – that no election result could inflict significant damage on their personal freedoms. But as previously warned, no one should consider their rights guaranteed, and the EU could be in for a real ideological shift in the near future.

Virostkova used the example of her home country, Slovakia, which currently has the lowest vote turnout rate in the EU, at a measly 13%. Coincidentally, the country is now seeing the populist party, Kotleba, often labelled as “far-right,” “racist” and even “neo-nazi,” regaining a concerning amount of support. “How is this happening..? We shouldn’t wait for our politicians to fix this or come up with a miracle solution. We as citizens also must work to fix it. Take to the streets and tell the truth. It depends on all of us to get this message through.”

The view from the outside

Farooqi, a self-proclaimed media activist, began his intervention by explaining that he has been engaged in human rights activity since school, where he fought for democracy in Pakistan. His appreciation of the European Parliament’s stance on human rights stems from their preference for action over words alone. “We see the EP take real action,” he commended. “The EU is the only power centre for universal human rights.”

While he was in prison, major French newspaper le Monde published a small photo of protests in Karachi. “We saw it in jail, which encouraged us that the world was listening… that there were voices on our side.” This certainly reflects the global importance of the EU and the freedom of the European press. “The EU,” he continued,  “has a colossal leverage, now claiming 60% of Pakistani exports backbone of Pakistani economy. This interest can push the country to respect human rights in return.” So it seems that the role which the EU plays in global human rights goes beyond their philanthropic missions and awareness campaigns. Even the leverage provided by its spending power can have a positive knock-on effect overseas.

According to Farooqi, the EU is Pakistan’s only hope, with the alternative global powers of Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia all representing the crumbling and not the reinforcement of human rights. That said, the concern is that the EU is more concerned about preserving a good relationship with third-country governments, rather than attending to their human rights violations. After Saudi Arabian journalist Khashoggi’s assassination by his national government for his progressive journalism, the monarchy continues to be welcomed by world leaders. “Why is it that in Iran,” he asked, “the West ready to bombard and pose sanctions, but they turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain?”

Does the EU really promote peace?

A question passionately raised by a spectator was that of arms exports. Somewhat the elephant in the room, it is difficult to proclaim the message of peace and equality allegedly preached but the EU when it is known that Member States provide arms to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel who are taking innocent lives of civilians in Yemen and Palestine respectively. 

Indeed, although the EU Common Position on arms exports is the only legally binding, region-wide arrangement on conventional arms exports, the EU is the second largest arms supplier in the world, accounting for almost a third of global arms export.

In 2016, over 40% of licences for arms exports were granted to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

The panelists made no effort to deny that arms exports to conflict zones present a huge ethical challenge to the values allegedly promoted by the EU.Reports on ms exporting arms to SA directly killing Yemeni civilians. People from non-EU countries are challenging EU’s credibility for different standards between ms and third countries.

Bataille agreed that the EU shouldn’t pretend to be perfect, but should still unite against conflict and strive for human rights for all. She admitted that double standards exist, but proposed that perhaps the very fact that these values are enshrined in our treaties is a positive first step. “We have progress to make,” she admitted, “but should we abandon the principle simply because of our own imperfections? No, of course not.”

Overall, how can the EU improve human rights?

Overall, the role of the EU increasingly important. Now that the US has withdrawn from so many multilateral institutions. That being said, the contribution of NGOs cannot be overlooked – the countless organisations across the world, specialising in specific areas of human rights, not only offer great independent contributions, but many also collaborate with the European Parliament, to shine the spotlight on this area of humanitarian advocacy.

So as the elections approach this week, remember this message from Human Rights Watch: “The representatives we all elect to the European Parliament will have an impact on the future of our rights and our communities. When you think elections, think human rights!”

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Roxanna Azimy
Roxanna is a British and Iranian advocacy writer specialised in human rights, health, and welfare. With a languages degree from King's College London, a Masters in European Studies from LSE, and an EU communications background, she strives to increase the visibility of ethical and sociocultural issues in Europe and beyond. Twitter: @RoxannaYasmin Medium: @RoxannaAzimy

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