On 25 March 2020, the European Commission and the High Representative published the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020-2024, which has been submitted to the Council for consideration and adoption.
The HRDN welcomes the renewed attention and stated commitment by the European Union to further advancing the protection and promotion of human rights and democracy in its foreign policy.
BACKGROUND: The new Action Plan is the third of its kind since the adoption of the landmark EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy in 2012. In their joint communication to the European Parliament and Council, the Commission and the High Representative rightly recognise several rising challenges to human rights and democracy worldwide, including emerging threats posed by new technologies and environmental challenges, which require swift, ambitious and principled EU responses, and the need for the EU to play a leading role in a changing geopolitical landscape.
The HRDN is acutely aware of how this has become increasingly difficult over the past years, due to external and internal challenges such as the retreat of some traditional EU allies on human rights, a growing assertiveness by hostile actors, and the unhelpful role played by some EU member states. In that spirit, the HRDN fully supports the Commission’s and High Representative’s joint proposal to the Council to act by qualified majority vote (QMV) in implementing the new Action Plan.
PROCESS: The HRDN regrets the overall lack of transparency and genuine cooperation with human rights NGOs by the European External Action Service (EEAS) during the drafting process of the new Action Plan. While two rounds of formal consultations with NGOs did take place, they focused on the headlines and provided limited opportunity for meaningful exchange. These formal consultations should have been followed up with timely in-depth consultations on specific actions, and to ensure transparency NGO submissions should be published by the EEAS. Moving forward, the Network hopes for a closer, better structured and more open engagement with the EU institutions and member states, with regards both to the implementation of the Action Plan and to its monitoring and evaluation.
BENCHMARKS AND MONITORING: As in previous action plans, this 2020-2024 plan contains no benchmarks or clear ways to monitor progress. The final section of the action plan should clearly set out these steps including examples of benchmarks, measures of progress, who will carry out monitoring and what external checks will be present.
CONTENT: The HRDN welcomes improvements in some areas which were neglected in previous action plans, including, among others, democracy support, digital rights, environmental issues and corporate responsibility. At the same time, macroscopic discrepancies between action points are of concern: while some points include clear, detailed actions on how to achieve a certain goal, others barely identify an action, and simply state a very broad objective.
Unlike previous action plans, the new proposed structure includes an incomplete list of “means of implementation”, leaving it fully to delegations on the ground and other actors to decide whether and what tool to pick to prevent or react to human rights violations. While a certain degree of flexibility is necessary given the specific circumstances of each case, country or topic at hand, experience shows that the implementation of previous action plans and EU human rights guidelines, in general, has been at best uneven; factors including different attitudes and levels of proactivity, openness and commitment by European diplomatic personnel on the ground, diverging views and foreign policy agendas among member states, and at times poor coordination among different parts of the Commission, have led to significant inconsistencies in EU action, the price of which has ultimately been paid by activists on the ground. The implementation of the action plan by QMV, accompanied by genuine and open cooperation and consultation with international and local civil society, as well as greater transparency around human rights country strategies, would help address some of these concerns.
Together with this statement, the HRDN is submitting to the concerned Council’s working groups a detailed list of recommendations and comments to the current text of the proposed Action Plan, which we hope EU member states and institutions will use in their upcoming discussions and deliberations.
The HRDN and its members look forward to working with EU institutions and member states towards the adoption and effective implementation of an ambitious Action Plan that fully reflects and translates into action the powerful pledges formulated by EU foreign ministers in the 2012 Strategic Framework.