Little enough to celebrate in EU’s effort to promote human rights

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Series Details Vol.4, No.44, 3.12.98, p18-19
Publication Date 03/12/1998
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Date: 03/12/1998

As EU foreign ministers prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights next week, critics question whether Europe is living up to its own commitments on the issue. Gareth Harding reports

THE UK House of Lords' decision to allow the extradition of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to face charges of torture and genocide in Spain was not the most traditional birthday present for an 83-year-old retired general.

But it provided European human rights campaigners with a timely and unexpected gift.

For as the EU prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its own approach to the issue lies in tatters.

The European Commission stands accused of having no coherent policy to speak of, grossly mismanaging projects to promote civil rights and good government around the world and inconsistently applying human rights clauses in trade agreements with third countries which infringe personal liberties.

Meanwhile, according to civil liberties groups, serious abuses of such rights continue to occur within the EU's own borders.

Union foreign ministers are unlikely to allude to this litany of failure when they meet in Vienna next Thursday (10 December) for the anniversary celebrations.

Instead, expect a good deal of finger-wagging at recalcitrant regimes and high-flown rhetoric about the indivisibility of human rights.

But when the champagne receptions are over, the headache for EU human rights campaigners will only just be beginning.

Anyone who telephones the head office of the Brussels-based European Human Rights Foundation (EHRF) is greeted by a recorded message informing them that the office is closed and that all queries should be directed to the Commission's own division.

The reason for this is that after five years of managing the EU's myriad human rights projects, the Commission has failed to renew the foundation's contract for this year.

As well as putting 20 experts out of work, the decision has left the Commission's own services chronically understaffed and unable to cope with the mountains of applications for funding from human rights organisations.

According to the EHRF, whereas previously 41 officials managed the 1,200 projects funded by the Commission, internal turf-wars and bureaucratic bungling have left one civil servant and a part-time secretary in charge of the EU's 100-million-ecu fund for promoting human rights and democracy. Moreover, because of a backlog of applications to be processed, officials are now scrambling to spend this year's budget before the end of the year, when the coffers have to be emptied.

This had lead to 3.5 million ecu being rushed to fund a housing project in Sarajevo, even though representatives in Bosnia say there is no housing shortage in the war-torn city.

In a letter to Commission President Jacques Santer, a coalition of human rights groups - including Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights - warned that the consequences of the cut-backs were "extremely grave" for hundreds of projects based all over the world.

These include schemes providing medical help to torture victims and supporting the democratisation process in a number of developing countries.

The London-based Medical Foundation, which works with torture victims in many countries, has lost a year's worth of money due to delays in payment from the Commission.

In a letter to Amnesty International, the foundation complains that "for smaller organisations ... this delay will be devastating. It is expected that some will close. The effects on the victims of human rights abuses is not to be imagined."

Rather than directly finance smaller grass-roots groups, in future the Commission plans to channel its resources into large intergovernmental organisations such as the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

This has sparked a storm of protests from affected groups and the European Parliament. Accusing the Commission of "serious mismanagement", MEPs on the foreign affairs committee called on Santer to respond to their criticisms in front of the full assembly.

In the event, Foreign Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek turned up to speak on behalf of the Commission. He admitted that the lack of external assistance from groups such as the EHRF had been a "serious blow", but insisted that all funding applications would be dealt with by the end of the year and ways would be found of securing funding for outside assistance in 1999.

This did not placate Dutch Liberal MEP Jan Willem Bertens, who said that the Commission had "not only severely undermined the Union's good reputation in the field of human rights, but endangered it".

THE row over funding for human rights groups has not only sullied the EU's reputation for championing such causes, but has also highlighted the gap between Union rhetoric on the issue and reality.

"Saying you are in favour of human rights is like saying you are in favour of motherhood and apple pie", argues EHRF head Peter Ashman. "To achieve your objectives, you have to set short and long-term goals, otherwise you are just spitting in the wind."

Part of the problem in the past has been that human rights policy has lacked a legal base in the EU treaties.

The Maastricht Treaty went some way towards rectifying this by requiring the EU to respect the principles laid down in the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, signed in 1950.

The Treaty of Amsterdam, which is due to enter into force next year, tightens these provisions by opening up the possibility for member states to be sanctioned if found guilty of "serious and persistent" breaches of human rights.

Despite these new legal obligations, argues Lotte Leicht of Brussels-based group Human Rights Watch, there is "no such thing as a coherent EU human rights policy, nor the credible mechanisms to enforce such a policy".

Leicht is not alone in her criticism. A recent report by a high-level group of human rights practitioners, including the United Nation's Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, concluded that the EU's approach to civil liberties "tends to be splintered, lacks leadership and is marginalised in policy-making".

One way of rectifying this, say MEPs and human rights campaigners, is to appoint a European Commissioner for human rights.

Another suggestion is to set up an EU human rights monitoring agency akin to the centre on racism and xenophobia in Vienna. Both proposals stand a reasonable chance of coming to fruition, but given national sensitivities over these issues, there is likely to be considerable opposition.

The EU's lack of a clear vision for human rights policy creates not only confusion but also inconsistencies.

Barrister and legal expert Matthew Heim points to the EU's trade agreements with third countries as an example. Although respect for human rights is a "fundamental" part of such accords, he says, the Commission has never clarified which rights are fundamental or how it can force countries to respect them. Moreover, asks Heim, as member states are "breaking human rights all the time, who's pointing the finger at whom?"

Human rights abuses in Europe there may be, but in comparison to the rest of the world, EU member states remain beacons of democracy, tolerance and respect for civil liberties. Unlike in large swathes of the world, the noble principles in the UN declaration are enshrined in law rather than agreed in principle but ignored in practice.

However, with neo-fascist parties on the rise in parts of western Europe and growing numbers of asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants sparking racist reactions all over the continent, the 50th anniversary of the UN declaration is no occasion for complacency.

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