Centrality of Human Rights in EU Foreign Policy – Pakistan

The Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad

Lecture on the Centrality of Human Rights in EU Foreign Policy

By the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

23 February 2022, Islamabad, Pakistan


Watch the recording of the speech and the Q&A with audience here

Thank you very much for the warm introduction. Thank you for the invitation to be here. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honour to be with you, an honour to be here in the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. I know you’re in partnership with Strategic Perspectives in this lecture today, and I want to thank all of you for organizing it and for doing me the honour of asking me to speak to you.

I also want to acknowledge the presence here of my good friend the EU Ambassador Androulla Kaminara, who has been instrumental to get me to come to Pakistan. It is a visit I have been wanting to do since the very beginning of my mandate in 2019, but a combination of the COVID pandemic and other circumstances have prevented this from happening until now.

As I came here I was reflecting on the fact that it is 60 years this year since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Pakistan and the EU. Indeed the diplomatic relationship with Pakistan is one of the EU’s longest and most valued.


History of the EU

1962 was only five years after the Treaty of Rome which established the European Economic Community, which was the foregoer of the current EU. It was only twelve years after the very idea of an EU of whatever kind, and the precise term was introduced in the document, was proclaimed in the Schuman declaration on the 10th of May 1950. The great French diplomat Robert Schuman made the modest proposal to establish a common authority, essentially between France and Germany, for the protection of coal and steel.

We need to think about the context in which that proposal was made, and the purpose for which it was made. The purpose for which it was made was firstly to bring together two protagonists of the Second World War, but it was also the idea that if you establish a common authority for coal and steel, you would make it materially impossible for those countries to go to war again. In that context, just at the end of the Second World War, in which France, Germany, and other European countries fought each other in the most bloody conflicts in history in which we saw the worst genocide – the holocaust – in all of human kind; in which we saw the greatest slaughter of civilians, in any war that had taken place; which of course was eventually brought to an end by the horrific heat of nuclear bombs in Japan.

To truly understand what motivates the EU and its foreign policy, and in particular its human rights policies, we need to take ourselves back to that moment in history. When people everywhere throughout the world having absorbed the horror of not just that war but the preceding First World War, one was seeking an answer to the question of how to prevent this from happening again; how do we prevent wars from any kind, but certainly wars of that scale. And not just prevent the wars, but prevent the hatred and the circumstances and the phobias which led to those wars breaking out in the first place. And from that reflection and that thinking, we got the United Nations. We got the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 75th anniversary of which we will celebrate next year. And we got the idea of European states coming together, to work together. That idea of coming together in coal and steel production eventually developed into the idea of cooperation on other things – agriculture, fisheries, and some other areas of trade.

The concept of the European Economic Community or a common market that emerged later evolved into a single market with free movement of goods, peoples, and services throughout the countries that were part of what became an economic and monetary union. A single currency, the Euro, was adopted by most states. The idea of a political union that would embrace the countries coming out of communist dictatorships in the early ‘90s. The very development of what we now know today as the EU, with its own Common Foreign and Security Policy.

As that process continued and deepened, it of course also grew. First there were 6, then there were 9, then there were 12, 15 and eventually 27 (I was going to say 28, but it is 27). When we think about it, it is a unique form of international cooperation in the world, that 27 individual states with different histories, different traditions, different languages. With big states like France and Germany, and small states like Malta and Cyprus, and medium-sized states like my own, Ireland or Finland. Some of whom were democracies like my own [Ireland], since independence in 1922; some of whom suffered under fascism, like Spain, Portugal, and Greece; and some of whom suffered from communist dictatorships like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. We are all now together as one Union.

Treaties and Human Rights

What binds our Union together are the treaties. These treaties and charters are approved by the parliaments of each of its member states, or in some cases by the universal suffrage of its citizens in referendum to approve the treaties and the various amendments to it. When we look at the treaties, I think it is instructive that it tells us what this union is about. The Treaty on the EU, Article 2, just says the following: ‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’ That is not just a statement of objective, it is also a condition for membership of the EU. It is also a condition that member states not only observe these standards – democracy, rule of law and human rights – and the conduct of their business, but that they also agree to promote them in the wider world. From the very outset, human rights are central to the entire EU project. Therefore, it is not a surprise that they should be reflected in the foreign policy of the EU and in all of the major strategic documents that set out that policy.


EU Foreign Policy

Before I get into the detail of what the centrality of human rights in our foreign policy means, I want to say one or two more words about our foreign policy. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU have taken some time to develop. First of all (again, this is unique) that 27 independent sovereign countries would agree to pool their foreign policy effectively, and to pool it in a unique way in which we make decisions in the EU. Because decision making of CFSP is one of the few areas in the EU which is decided by unanimity. To get a policy, all 27 Member States must agree. It’s challenging. Sometimes, it doesn’t happen. Sometimes from the perspective of those of us who work for the system it is frustrating, and there is a statement or a position we take that should be clearly made but it’s not possible to get to unanimity on it. The remarkable thing is that it does succeed.

The remarkable thing is that 27 countries, so different in many ways, can come together and say: ‘we have a common position on fundamental issues and fundamental directions in the world’.

We have seen an example of that even in recent days in unity that was achieved in the foreign policy of the EU in relation to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The second thing I would say about the foreign policy, is that it is relatively new. The chief (as he is called) of our foreign policy service, the High Representative and Vice President of the EU, currently Josep Borrell from Spain is actually only the third holder of that office. The first holder of it was appointed only 13 years ago, that was Catherine Ashton from the United Kingdom. The European External Action Service (EEAS), which is sometimes described as the Foreign Ministry of the EU, is only 10 years old. So the actual operation of a foreign policy by the EU is relatively new.

The third thing I would say about this is that the foreign policy of the EU is an independent foreign policy. It is a foreign policy that is decided by the governments, foreign ministers, of the 27 Member States meeting together in the Foreign Affairs Council. You will probably have seen in statements that have been made by High Representative Borrell in recent times that we are re-emphasizing the independence of the EU’s foreign policy. It is not a foreign policy that is borrowed from any other power or any other country in the world; we don’t have a foreign policy that is against particular powers or countries in the world. We have an independent foreign policy which we pursue strategically and we’re developing what we call strategic autonomy, a strategic compass, an independent approach to the EU’s place in today’s world.


EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy

Where does the human rights dimension fit into that? First of all, we tend to articulate policies in 27 countries try to reach something, you always have to get it down on paper. We are very good at producing plans and documents and strategies. And this is my Bible. This is a document that I follow with regard to our human rights policy. It is the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy in the world for the period 2020-2024. That document is our roadmap; it was agreed unanimously by all of the 27 Member States in November 2020. It is a comprehensive statement of the EU’s human rights policies and objectives. It is actually the only one of its kind, the only comprehensive statement of this kind for any regional organisation in the world.

It is built on 5 pillars. Firstly, protecting and empowering individuals. Secondly, building of resilient and inclusive democratic societies. Thirdly, the promotion of a global system for human rights and democracy. Fourth, new technologies, the harnessing of its opportunities and addressing the challenges. Indeed, I have just come back from a meeting with your President in which we discussed new technologies and the challenges that arise from a human rights perspective. The fifth pillar of this policy document is delivering by working together, because no individual country or group of countries can deliver our universal rights and objectives.


Human Rights in EU Foreign Policy: Implementation

These objectives we pursue consistently and everywhere across the world. We give effect to this document by what we call individual country strategies. The EU is present now in over 140 countries around the world, headed by a Head of Delegation (like [EU] Ambassador Kaminara), working with the embassies of our member states, and in each of these countries we develop a country strategy which is developed between the EU Delegation and the member states’ embassies. This is done in consultation with civil society organisations and with our interlocutors in the different countries. Inevitably, that strategy differs from country to country because the human rights issues and priorities in different countries vary.


We then give effect to that in every formal agreement that we have with countries outside of the EU. In countries, for example, where we have different kinds of political and association agreements, in all of them, there is a human rights clause or provision which requires us to have an engagement with that country on human rights issues. Big or small countries we are very friendly with, or sometimes we have difficulties with. For example, later this March I will go to Washington to co-chair with my counterpart in the State Department the annual US-EU human rights consultations. We will talk, of course, about the human rights situations in many parts of the world. But we will also talk, sometimes uncomfortably, about human rights issues in our respective countries. I will no doubt raise issues related to the death penalty in the US, issues related to the outfall of recent protests in the US. The US will inevitably raise issues related to protests in member states, rule of law issues in some individual member states, and issues perhaps relating to migration.


Every trade agreement that we have, and we have many of them around the world, we have human rights clauses in those trade agreements. It doesn’t matter what country it is. When I was Foreign Minister of Ireland, I had the honour of leading the rotating Presidency of the EU on behalf of Ireland in 2013. One of the issues that was on our agenda at that time was the free trade agreement with Canada. The discussions on the free trade agreement with Canada were held up, because Canada just could not understand that the EU was insisting on a human rights clause in their trade agreement. They made it very clear to us – and I travelled to Canada at the time, I spent St. Patrick’s Day in that particular year talking about this issue – because they could not understand why Canada, with some of the best human rights records in the world, should be told about human rights by countries that had recently come out of communist dictatorships. It took some time for us to persuade Canada that we insist on having a human rights clause in all of our engagements with any country in the world. We have schemes of what we call trade preferences with different countries. These are mechanisms by which duty free or tariff free access is given to countries for access to the EU market.

One of the beneficiaries of that system is Pakistan. Pakistan enjoys a status called GSP+. It basically gives Pakistan access to the EU market. In fact, Pakistan is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the GSP+ trade preferences, particularly in the area of textiles. Part of the discussions that I had this week with representatives of the government of Pakistan relates to that GSP+ arrangement. Later in March there will be a monitoring mission which will come to Pakistan to have a look in detail at how it is functioning.

All of these agreements result, as I have said, usually in formal annual dialogues; we have about 60 different formal human rights dialogues and some of which are with regional organisations like the African Union. Here in Pakistan, it is in the form of a sub-group of the EU-Pakistan Joint Committee, which is a subgroup on Democracy, Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights. Its last meeting was in June and that group meets every year.

In addition to those formal arrangements, our delegations of the EU Member States embassies in individual countries have dedicated human rights officers who talk regularly with governments in host countries about human rights issues. Sometimes they raise individual cases, sometimes talking about the implementation of existing legislation, or the promise of new legislation, sometimes doing things like observing trials or meeting with civil society organisations.

And then there is my role, which is kind of a backup to all of that. I sometimes say that if it was football I would be the sweeper. My role principally is to engage more in the political side, to meet with governments and ministers, to participate in multilateral events in relation to human rights issues. All of the engagements that we have with countries outside of the EU are conducted on the basis of partnership and respect.


The Universality of Human Rights

Sometimes I hear people in Europe refer to the human rights or the contents of our treaties as European values. They’re not European values. They’re universal values. The EU happens to support them and to support them very strongly. Indeed in our engagements with countries outside of the EU, I think it is also important that we are cognizant of the troubled history of the European continent in relation to human rights issues, and to approach all of our discussions around the world with a degree of humility. Insofar as we can make a contribution to the human rights landscape of today, it is based on the journey that the EU has travelled and that the EU Member States have travelled, and to be willing to share that experience, to share that journey with our friends and partners around the world. The whole of that shared experience and the learning that we also get from the engagement will improve the human rights for people everywhere.

We do that because, as I said, we take the view that human rights are universal. They are not the property of any state or group of states. They do not belong to any political system. They belong to people, and they belong to people everywhere and in every country of the world. That is why we say they are universal and indivisible.


The UN and the Human Rights Council

It is also why we believe it is important to pursue those objectives through the multilateral systems. In particular, we support the United Nations system, the Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Special Procedures. This year for the first time, we commenced a formal strategic dialogue with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which I had the honour of co-chairing along with the High Commissioner Bachelet. We support the Special Procedures to monitor, investigate, and report on human rights in different countries around the world, and we encourage countries everywhere to cooperate with those Special Procedures. We often lead on country-specific and thematic issues at the Human Rights Council and at the General Assembly in New York.

Next week is the 49th session of the Human Rights Council, which will commence in Geneva. We have our resolution on Myanmar, one year after the military takeover in that country and the ignoring of the democratic will of the people of Myanmar in which we will once again highlight the plight and the situation of the Rohingya people. We have a resolution on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a closed country with serious human rights abuses. We will have resolution on Belarus, where there are over 1.000 political prisoners, who are imprisoned for no reason other than that they questioned or dared to question the result of the elections. There will be a resolution on Freedom of Religion and Belief. I had the privilege of participating last week in the meeting of the Istanbul Process, which was hosted by Pakistan. We will also have a resolution on the Rights of the Child.

We will be following up on our resolution on Afghanistan, which called for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan. We hope that that Special Rapporteur will be appointed before the end of this session of the Human Rights Council and then we will seek ways in which to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur to ensure that he or she is able to work effectively. We will be giving attention to Ethiopia, because of the situation that is developing there. And of course we are paying attention to issues of our contemporary era, such as freedom of press, freedom of expression, freedom and safety for journalists.

The issue of technology that I already referred to, on which coincidentally we are also doing some work in the domestic policy of the EU, preparing a new Digital Services Act. We have also been doing some work on how to address issues such as hate speech, some of the vile content that has been appearing online on different platforms. Just a couple of years ago we agreed a code of conduct with the social media companies which they are largely complying with, but we would like to develop on that through some legislative measures in the Digital Services Act.

On business and human rights, which is an increasing area of interest today, we are preparing some EU legislation which will put a requirement on European companies and companies functioning within the EU to carry out due diligence in relation to human rights in their supply chains. That legislation is being discussed and worked on at the moment by the European Commission.


Action and Funding

But we don’t just talk and do resolutions and make statements. We also back it up with firm action, with money. We have what we call the Global Human Rights and Democracy programme recently launched for the period 2021-2027, which provides for a fund of 1.5 billion euros for that period, to promote human rights and democracy in the world. How do we spend that? We spend some of that by supporting the various programmes of the United Nations and its agencies. We do it by providing support to human rights defenders. Over the last five years we provided support to about 50.000 human rights defenders in different parts of the world. Some of that support is in the form of emergency grants when it is necessary for a human rights defender to be taken out of their country because of risks they are facing. Some of it goes to election observation missions.

Over the last five years we have conducted election observation missions in over 100 elections around the world. One of them was in Pakistan in 2018. The normal format is that there is an election observation mission headed by a Member of the European Parliament that looks at what is happening during the elections and produces a report which is publicly available. And then it follows up on that, to have further discussions with the government of the country about what has happened to the recommendations. The election observation mission which was here in 2018, the chief observer of that mission will be visiting Pakistan in the next couple of months to conduct the follow up mission.

On top of that, we also have programs of specific areas of human rights. One particular one is what we call the Spotlight programme, which is aimed at addressing violence against women. It funded about 500 million euros for various programmes around the world. On top of that are the various bilateral programmes of the individual member states.

Recently we also adopted a Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime for gross violations of human rights. Among the earlier sanctions we imposed under that regime are sanctions of some Chinese officials in respect of treatment of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang. We also have country-specific sanction regimes; they include the sanctions regime that we have on Myanmar, the sanctions regime on Belarus, and (as you will have seen yesterday) the sanctions regime that we have on Russia, on which we made decisions yesterday to increase significantly the number of officials and entities that are governed by those sanctions.


Political engagement

The work that I do is mainly political engagement. I chair some of the human rights dialogues. I speak for the EU at various multilateral events. Next week, for example, in the Human Rights Council I am participating in events on the Rights of the Child, on Belarus, and on Ukraine. I also conduct country visits, where I go to countries to do a visit like I am doing here this week, to talk to Ministers, to talk to civil society, and to talk with members of the diplomatic community. First of all to inform myself about the human rights situation in the country, but also to talk about the follow-up of the implementation of our action plan. Sometimes also to talk, as I have been doing this week, about some of the expectations that we have of Pakistan in relation to GSP+.

Here I was able to underline the importance of human rights in the EU-Pakistan relations, referring indeed to the continuous frank and constructive discussions that we have with this country, including with the subgroup on Democracy, Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights that I have already mentioned. Welcoming the legislation that the country has introduced in some important areas related to human rights. Also expressing some disappointment at the speed with which some legislation is not happening, referring in particular to legislative initiatives on disappearances, anti-torture legislation, journalist welfare, and on the reduction of crimes for the death penalty. And indeed on that point, I am very encouraged that there has not been any executions in Pakistan for a number of years.

I had the opportunity of welcoming the national commission for human rights and the appointment of the commission on the status of women, and expressing the hope that those important bodies will be adequately resourced to carry out the work they need to do. Welcoming all sorts of legislative progress made on the protection from harassment of women at the work place, and landmark judgements regarding juvenile offenders, and mentally ill people in relation to the death penalty.

But I have also been highlighting some areas of concern. The bills still pending in the parliament, including the one on enforced disappearances and the bill on torture. There are challenges in relation to access to justice; many cases pending in courts for many years. One particular case, the case of Professor Junaid Hafeez who is now in prison for almost nine years. He has to be brought to trial to determine his innocence. That would be nine years, that is almost a full life sentence in many of the EU Member States. I have been talking about the safety of journalists, issues relating to religious minorities, and also about labour rights. There are a number of people who are not yet receiving minimum wage, issues relating to contracts of employment for many of the people who work in the industries that benefit from the GSP+ trade preferences, and the relative lack of inspections in the factories system.

It is a discussion, no doubt, that we will continue. It is a discussion that I am looking forward to continuing, and it is a discussion that I believe will continue because I know that Pakistan is a country that is committed to human rights. When I was here on Sunday and the [EU] Ambassador was taking me around some of the sites of the city, I was struck by the quotations on the wall from the founder of this state, Jinnah, and many of the quotations I saw on the wall [were] in relation to human rights, the rights of women and the rights of minorities; they could have been lifted straight out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which of course both appeared in and around the same time.

It does strike me that in many ways we are on the same page. Sometimes we don’t always see it or recognise it, but I think the work that we have to do that certainly I consider part of my work is to find the common page, and to make common goals in advancing the goals of human rights, and the centrality of human rights not only in foreign policy of the EU, but in the engagements that we have and the friendships that we have with countries all over the world, and especially the friendship we have with Pakistan.

Thank you very much.