EU – Council of Europe’s Online event for the launch of a new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024

EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

Opening remarks

7 December 2020

Thank you Ambassador Kuneva, for your kind words and for the excellent work done by you and your Delegation on a daily basis.

Good afternoon everyone.  It is a great pleasure to be with you today.  I am delighted to be joined by my good friend, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic to talk about the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.

Following its approval by all 27 EU Member States, just a couple of weeks ago, the Council of Europe was a natural first partner to talk to about the new EU Action Plan.  The Council of Europe and the European Union come from the same vision, spirit and ambition, to preserve peace and ensure prosperity.   We have a long tradition of cooperation, which draws on the values that define us both and guide our work: human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

In my engagement with political leaders around the world, I often refer to Council of Europe as the standard setter in human rights and democracy.  Many of the standards and guidance set by the Council of Europe are of course used by the European Union itself, such as the toolkit to help respect democracy, rule of law and human rights in the context of the COVID pandemic

 Partnership is a process, and ours is one that grows stronger all the time.  In July, new priorities for EU cooperation with the Council of Europe were adopted by EU Member States.  These include the promotion of effective multilateralism, the impact of the pandemic, digitalisation and artificial intelligence, the protection of the environment and rule of law issues, both inside and outside the EU.

So what does the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy have to do with the Council of Europe?

This Action Plan is external in focus, but of course it must be reinforced by what we do at home.  We know too well that when the rights of one person are threatened, others are made vulnerable.  This applies in our own region, neighbourhood and beyond.  Protecting the rights of our own citizens is not enough.  We must look to others, outside our borders, to ensure our own peace, freedom and security.  States that respect the rights of their citizens are more secure, more prosperous and more just.   That is why advancing democracy and respect for human rights is central to the external action of the European Union.  It is profoundly in our interest. 

 The new Action Plan is the third such multiannual Plan adopted by the EU.  This is an opportunity to breathe new life into our work, to build on what we have done and plan and to act proactively for the next 5 years.

 Let me give you a few examples of what we did during the past 5 years:

  • We helped protect over 30,000 human rights defenders.
  • We backed up our efforts through €1.3 billion in the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.  The next programme will see that budget increased to €1.5 billion.
  • We deployed 98 Election Observation Missions to help strengthen democratic institutions and build public confidence in electoral processes.
  • We supported democracy in more than 70 countries with €400 million, through projects supporting election organisation, oversight bodies, independent media and parliaments.
  • We advocated strongly for the abolition of the death penalty and executions have decreased by 58% since 2015. 114 countries do not have death penalty in law and another 46 have not carried out an execution for 10 years.
  • We launched the Spotlight Initiative to strengthen gender equality and combat gender based violence worldwide with funding of €500 million.
  • We used our trade agreements and our trade preferences to improve human rights and implement labour Conventions.

But the EU is expected to do more and to do it better.  Even before the pandemic, we were witnessing a backsliding in democracy and human rights; the undermining of women’s rights, restrictions on civil and political space, human rights defenders attacked, journalists censored and information manipulated.  We have even seen attempts to undermine the International Criminal Court, the court of last resort, which brings the worst perpetrators to justice.

For the first time since 2001, the majority of the world’s countries are now autocracies: 92 countries – home to 54% of the world’s population.  Trust in public institutions has diminished and disinformation campaigns targeting democracies are a real threat.  This includes within the European Union.  These trends have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the pandemic has also clearly shown us the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights.  To protect life and health, we need to ensure many rights, including access to information, safe drinking water, food and adequate housing.  That is why human rights and democracy will remain at the heart of the EU’s response to and recovery from the pandemic.

This new Action Plan is built on 5 pillars:

  • Protecting and empowering individuals
  • Building resilient, inclusive and democratic societies
  • Promoting a global system for human rights and democracy
  • New technologies
  • Deliver by working together

We are intensifying action on long-standing priorities on human rights and democracy, including the death penalty, human rights defenders, torture and many more.  But there are also new elements which include:

  • increased action on economic, social and cultural rights,
  • more emphasis on democracy, including shrinking civic and political space,
  • strengthening the link between human rights and the environment,
  • leveraging the benefits of digital technologies and minimising the risks,
  • greater focus on business and human rights,
  • further action on the protection and empowerment of human rights defenders and
  • greater investment in communication to explain what we do.

The 140 EU Delegations and Member States Embassies around the world will bring this Action Plan to life, to translate it from objectives to concrete actions targeted for local circumstances.  Each of these Delegations will devise country strategies, and it will be implemented at local, national, regional and multilateral level.  We will work with all stakeholders, including civil society, as well as broadening engagement with other actors, such as sport, the arts, culture and the private sector.

And as the European Special Representative for Human Rights, I will have a key role in guiding the implementation at central level.

The work done through this Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy will complement the implementation of the EU’s new internal plan, the European Democracy Action Plan, as well as our new internal and external framework on gender equality, the Gender Equality Strategy and the third Gender Action Plan, and of course the Rule of Law mechanism.  Action will also be backed up and bolstered by the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime which as just been adopted by the Council this morning.  This new regime will further strengthen our collective action on human rights and ensure perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses have nowhere to hide.

So where does the Council of Europe fit into the Action Plan?  As I stated in the beginning, we already have a rich collaboration.  Our joint programmes are instrumental in supporting justice reform, fighting corruption, and promoting the development of an independent media and civil society in Europe and its neighbourhood.

For example: the Quick Response Mechanism under the Partnership for Good Governance II programme allows the Venice Commission to provide ad-hoc legal assistance to the six countries of EU’s Eastern Partnership.  This covers democratic institutions, rights, elections, referenda and political parties, as well as justice.  The Horizontal Facility II encourages democratic reforms in the Western Balkans and Turkey through training and expert recommendations.

There a number of areas where the new EU Action Plan will allow us to forge an even deeper partnership with the Council of Europe.

Ensuring that digitalisation respects human rights is a common goal for the EU and the Council of Europe and inter-organisational cooperation on this issue is significant.  For the first time this year, the EU included environmental protection as a priority for cooperation with the Council of Europe.

On freedom of expression and media freedom, the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, remains an essential tool to protect journalists and ensure access to reliable information through monitoring crimes against journalists and media workers.

Early warning is a key element of the Action Plan and in this context, the Venice Commission and the Group of States against Corruption provide us with invaluable insight on the rule of law situation across Europe. The European Commission’ own first annual Rule of Law report, assessing all 27 Member States, based many of its findings on recommendations by these Council of Europe bodies.

And of course the EU remains fully committed to its accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, which celebrated its 70th anniversary just last month.  Once the EU becomes the 48th Contracting Party to the Convention, citizens will be able to challenge the EU’s actions before the European Court of Human Rights

The new Action Plan comes at a critical moment, a moment of many challenges, but also of huge potential.  Better protection and respect for human rights and democracy around the world will reduce inequality, poverty and social exclusion.

The founding fathers of the European Union and the Council sought to bridge the gap between the reality of our times and the promise of a more peaceful, secure and prosperous world.   We are at our strongest and most resilient when we work together.

I look forward to working with you Dunja and all your colleagues in the Council of Europe in this endeavour.  Thank you.