After 2012 and 2015, it was the third time that the Commission presented a European action plan on human rights. As regards relationships with third countries, it shall determine joint priorities in respect of democracy and human rights and enable the EU to follow a consequent and coherent approach.
Respecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law form part of the European Union’s self-declared fundamental values. On 25th March 2020, the Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, presented their proposal for the action plan on human rights. The action plan shall determine the priorities and possible measures concerning human rights for the foreign-policy approach of the EU and its Member States. It shall also help to meet the challenges of our time - for example “the pushback against the universality and indivisibility of human rights” - in conformity with their own values to prevent “backsliding on democracy”.
Parallel to the published Communication, the Commission and the High Representative also presented the Council with a Proposal regard a recommendation to the European Council. Following the recommendation of the Council, it shall decide to adopt both Communication and Action Plan as resolution on the strategic interests and targets of the EU. Such a resolution would underline the significance of the plans and enable the Council to issue specific implementing measures for the action plan, whereby these would have to be adopted by the Council with a qualified majority.
In its proposal, the Commission determines five priorities, which shall help to tackle geopolitical change, digitalisation and the climate crisis. These five priorities shall serve as the basis for relevant measures at national, regional and multilateral level, whereby the Commission emphasises that “local conditions and particularities” shall be taken into account. Among the specific targets are implementing a zero-tolerance approach towards child labour, abolishing the death penalty and ending forced labour. Another point, which has been mentioned as part of the action plan, is the furthering of corporate due diligence in global supply chains. Here, the Chamber of Labour urges the EU und its Member States to legally oblige globally operating companies to respect both human rights and the environment. Apart from that, support shall be given to drawing up a binding UN-Treaty on business and human rights; furthermore, the compliance with human rights, environmental rights as well as with ILO (International Labour Organisation)Core Labour Standards shall be given the highest priority in future trade agreement negotiations.
Measures and instruments
The Commission proposes within the scope of the action plan to draw on a wide range of political measures and instruments. These include for example (human rights) dialogues, thematic and geographic instruments of the Multiannual Financial Framework, communication measures and awareness campaigns as well as observing elections and court proceedings against human rights activists. Apart from that, the EU’s trade policy including the Generalised Scheme of Preferences shall be used as an instrument. In doing so, the action plan shall also ensure that in future a greater role will be attached to the subject area ‘Human rights and Democracy’, if dealing with foreign trade issues.
Evacuation of Greek refugee camps due to the Coronavirus pandemic
According to the Commission’s press release, the EU “will remain steadfast as a strong defender of human rights and democracy.” However, looking at the conditions in the refugee camps on Lesbos and other Greek Islands, it becomes clear that there is an urgent need for action also within the EU. The existing capacities at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos have been exceeded many times over and the medical care of the refugees is as dire as the supply with electricity, heating or running water. In view of the first confirmed infection in a Greek refugee camps the world is witnessing the onset of a humanitarian disaster. Bearing in mind the overcrowding and the lack of supply structure, it is impossible to comply with the necessary hygiene rules. That is why the Austrian SPÖ MEP Bettina Vollath has been campaigning for running“ an EU emergency response on the Greek islands with immediate effect” and to evacuate the camps affected. This demand has not only been put forward by Juan Fernando López Aguilar, Chair of the EU Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, but also by about 150 NGOs. The petition “leave no-one behind”, which already has been signed by more than 260,000 people, is running at the same time.
In connection with the presentation the new action planes for human rights, Josep Borrell referred to the “particular challenges”, which the Coronavirus pandemic would entail “for the effective exercise and protection of human rights”. The EU can now prove that such acknowledgements are not just empty phrases and that the principle of “leaving no-one behind” was indeed taken seriously. It is not least the credibility of projects such as the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which is at stake.