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11 October 2016

Can the EU step up its public diplomacy on HRDs?

By Emma Achilli

While the current nature of EU foreign policy means it has to be built on a delicate compromise between 28 member states, most observers have felt that it has been excessively – perhaps needlessly? - timid in communicating on issues related to human rights. Human rights, after all, are both a founding value of the EU, so important that they appear in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, and one of the most important objectives of its foreign policy (again, enshrined in the Treaty as the second objective after the eradication of poverty). So noted was its low profile, that in its most recent 5-year EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, adopted in July 2015, it “committed to improve public diplomacy and communication on its human rights actions”.

In particular, the quality of EU statements on human rights defenders has long been so inconsistent as to leave one wondering whether this was done on purpose or not. One statement would call for arbitrarily detained or charged HRDs to be immediately released, while another would ask for a judicial process to respect international norms, even though the absence of rule of law in that country would be common knowledge. One communique would ask for “proportionality” in the punishment for an alleged offence, without regard for the groundless nature of the charges inflicted upon the HRD, while others would call for charges to be dropped.

The Human Rights and Democracy Network, a grouping of 50 civil society organisations working on EU policy and human rights, decided to focus on EU commitments to protecting HRDs in the year long campaign on HRDs called “Stand4HRDs”. Front Line Defenders EU Office in Brussels is coordinating this campaign, within a working group that includes Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights, and Open Society Foundations. One initiative from the campaign was the distribution of a short guidebook, “Do’s and Don’ts in EU public statements on HRDs,” highlighting what we found were key positive and negative elements that should, or should not, feature in EU public diplomacy. A round of advocacy meetings followed with key EU diplomats.

Since then an improvement in the statements can be observed. On 5 August, the Statement by the Spokesperson on the conviction of Chinese lawyers and other human rights defenders on charges of state subversion, boldly calls for:

“the immediate release of those who have just been sentenced and the reinstatement of their right to practise their profession. All charges still pending against the other lawyers and human rights defenders detained since July 2015 should be dropped. China should allow trial observation by foreign diplomats.”

The statement also suggested that China “release all those detained for seeking to protect these rights”.

It gets directly to the point, as far as HRDs are concerned.

The statement also highlights the failings of the judicial process in China, making it clear that the trials have been a farce. While the EU wouldn’t go as far as the United States in calling the charges “apparently politically motivated”, it is a far cry from the days where the EU would simply express its “concern” and would “await the result of the procedure, trusting that its outcome will be positive”.

Other recent statements have been forthright in recognising previously denominated “activists” as “human rights defenders”, a more legitimising term that can increase their protection. Calling them HRDs is helpful in referring directly to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which recognises and protects HRDs.

EU statements are also now recognising the work and achievements of the harassed defender, which helps legitimise not only the defender, but her/his work when faced with criminalisation and character assassination attempts from authorities. The EU has also started to systematically denounce the killings of HRDs, and calling for “more urgent and decisive steps by the authorities to protect Human Rights Defenders (...) and fight impunity”.

But EU officials are still reluctant to see the need for open, engaged and vibrant diplomacy, regularly stating that behind-the-scenes work is ‘more effective’. That is because they often tend to view the usefulness of their work in terms of immediate impact.

While recognising the importance of ‘secret diplomacy’, which has often been key to achieving action in favour of defenders, Front Line Defenders hears also every day from defenders praising public statements for a range of results such as helping them with legitimacy, public recognition and protection due to visibility, moral support, and standing.

Authoritarian governments are investing huge efforts and resources to close down, silence, restrict and discredit human rights defenders and independent civil society and media critical of government policies: often the only voices that will speak out for them are foreign ones.

Other reasons given for not going public are the fear to be seen as meddling in ‘internal affairs’ or as ‘moralising’, ‘preaching’, ‘giving lessons’, or that being public is ‘activism’ better left for the media and civil society. Human rights, however are not internal affairs. International human rights standards are amongst the most signed and/ or ratified developed set of international agreements, and their discussion in the public sphere is an explicit part of the agreement.

Just because governments reject this scrutiny should not be accepted as legitimate, but as proof that they are fearful of the accountability they have to face in the public domain when they can't meet international standards.

This includes the EU too, as there is almost no state which is fully transparent and unconditionally accepting of critical scrutiny.  But this is not "activism"; this is governments having accepted to hold each other accountable, at a State level, and taking responsibility for what this entails. It is not only for NGOs or the media. Indeed, by helping citizens of third countries fight for their rights, the EU would encourage local solutions to local problems, and not the exporting of so called ‘Western models’.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights stated, at the opening of the 33rd Human Rights Council, "We request access so we can better work to help bring your laws and practices in line with international agreements which you, the States drafted and ratified - and to assist you to comply with recommendations which you have publicly, and often fulsomely, accepted. Are human rights exclusively a national issue?

Governments have the responsibility to uphold their human rights obligations and to respect the standards. But the human rights of all people, in all countries, also require - unquestionably - our collective attention. The Vienna Declaration, adopted unanimously 23 years ago, confirmed this: "the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate concern of the international community."

The need to act publicly in case of risk is indeed acknowledged in the Guidelines on freedom of expression, where it is expressly said: "The EU will publicly condemn the killings, attack, execution, torture, enforced disappearance or other acts of serious violence or intimidation against any individual for exercising his or her right to freedom of opinion and expression". This is an open recognition that private diplomacy works up to a certain point, and certainly that it should not continue to be pursued when it is clearly not working, or in cases of emergency when alarm bells need to be sounded loud and clear.

EU officials often mention that since the creation of the European External Service, the EU ‘Foreign Ministry’, Member States are only too happy to leave human rights to the EU and get on with business promotion and other more juicy, less cumbersome interests. This leaves the EU acting alone, unsupported by its members. Saying that speaking out on human rights defenders could be left to the UN, as NGOs often hear, would then follow the same logic and further put this issue in a ‘silo’ with no multiplier effects.

In EU policy, human rights are clearly stated as strategic objectives of foreign policy, such as in the newly minted EU Global Strategy. Therein, the High Representative herself has stated that human rights are key to security and development, which are necessary for the EU and for third countries in stabilising the world and making it a safer place. When the EU negotiates with other countries to further its objectives, it does so with vigour, whether in trade, investments, migration or security. Why could it not apply the same vigour to human rights?

While diplomacy must exist and must be done with skill, there must also be direction, as Winston Churchill noted: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Progress should be recognised and welcomed, but it will require close monitoring to see if it signals a real shift in awareness and ultimately concrete policy change in favour of HRDs at risk.