Keynote Address at the Launch of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024

Launch of EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024

EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

Keynote Address

23 November 2020

Good afternoon everyone.  It is a great pleasure to be with you today to launch the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.

I want to begin by thanking all of those who contributed to the development of this Plan.  It went through an extensive process of consultation with a wide range of actors before it was discussed by Member States.  I want to thank all concerned for their contributions.

I particularly want to express my appreciation to colleagues in the Human Rights and Democracy Divisions of the European External Action Service for their tireless work and commitment to bringing the Action Plan to fruition.  This Plan has been adopted by the Commission and approved by all 27 Member States of the Council.  The High Representative and Vice President of the Commission, Josep Borrell, has asked me to also convey his best wishes and appreciation and to state that he will be keenly engaged with the implementation of the Plan.

This is an important moment.  In the middle of a global pandemic, the European Union is renewing and reinforcing our leadership on human rights and democracy.  Why?

Because the Union is founded on respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.  These values define us and guide our work.

 No country or region does more to promote human rights and democracy around the world than the European Union and its Member States.  History has taught us that when the rights of one person come under attack, we are all vulnerable and when one community or group is denigrated or discriminated against, it diminishes us all.  States that respect the rights of their citizens are more prosperous, more just and more secure.

That is why advancing democracy and respect for human rights is central to our external action.  It is what our history and our values demand, but it is also profoundly in our interest.  Supporting human rights and democracy is central to furthering the EU’s strategic autonomy.  More human rights means more freedom, prosperity, peace and security for us all.

Every day in different parts of the world, the EU and its member states are working for human rights and democracy in concrete ways.  On the ground, our EU Delegations and Member States Embassies are supporting human rights defenders, sometimes taking them out of danger, observing trials and elections and working on projects to advance the rights of women and to support civil society.

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

  • We helped protect over 30,000 human rights defenders.
  • We deployed 98 Election Observation Missions to help strengthen democratic institutions and build public confidence in electoral processes. Examples include strengthening Paraguay on campaign finance and increasing women’s political participation and leadership in Pakistan.
  • We supported democracy in more than 70 partner countries with €400 million. This included supporting the organisation of elections as well as support to oversight bodies, independent media, parliaments and political parties
  • We put financial muscle into 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 advocate 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 violence against women worldwide with funding of €500 million.
  • We used our trade agreements and our trade preferences to improve human rights and implement labour Conventions. Last year, we had monitoring missions in 11 key countries and when necessary, we act to withdraw trade preferences, like we did in Cambodia last year.
  • Through a network of 100 universities, the Global Campus, we helped fund human rights education.  More than 3,600 graduates of these universities are now human rights ambassadors and defenders in international, governmental and civil society organisations.

All of this is vital work and it has made a real difference to many lives.  But the EU is expected to do more and to do it better, particularly now when human rights and democracy are under increasing pressure.

For example, this weekend alone, my inbox included the following:

  • A federal death row execution in the United States, the first-ever during a presidential transition. The EU considers the death penalty to be a cruel and inhumane punishment, which fails to act as a deterrent to crime. We urge the U.S. Administration to halt all executions.
  • The arrest in Cairo of the Director and several senior managers of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which is a well-known organisation working in defence of human rights. This is very worrying development, the EU has already conveyed its concern to the Egyptian authorities and we call for the release of those detained; as of course we also call for the release of all the peace protestors detained in Belarus, including the 345 this weekend.
  • And as we speak events in the Tigray region in Ethiopia are rapidly unfolding which may have serious repercussions for human rights and international humanitarian law. The protection of civilians, ethnic targeted violence, allegations of atrocities and human rights abuses are of deep concern. EU has called for the violence to stop and for all parties to return to dialogue.

Across the world, human rights and democracy are facing challenges not seen in decades. Even before the pandemic, we were witnessing a gradual and persistent backsliding in democracy and human rights.  Women’s rights are continually questioned and we see too many governments censoring journalists, manipulating information, closing civil and political space and attacking human rights defenders.  We have even seen attempts to undermine the International Criminal Court on which we rely to bring the worst perpetrators to justice.

These trends have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  This is the first time since 2001 that the majority of the world’s countries are autocracies: 92 countries – home to 54% of the global population.

Despite more prosperity since the end of the Cold War, our societies are beset with uncertainty and unease.  Trust in public institutions is diminished.  Disinformation campaigns targeting democracies are a real threat.  This includes within the European Union.

The need for strong, coherent and effective, collective action on human rights and democracy is more vital than ever.  COVID-19 has clearly shown us this.  Fighting COVID-19 is itself a battle for human rights, to save lives and to protect the health of all of us, and it has brought the interdependence of human rights sharply into focus.  The right to health cannot be protected effectively without realising many other rights, including access to information, safe drinking water and sanitation and a safe, clean, heathy and sustainable environment.

Respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law must remain at the heart of responding to the COVID crisis and supporting the global recovery.  The new Action Plan sets out concrete objectives in this respect, because other crises will come and we need to be more resilient.  States can respond better to crises if they protect human rights and democracy, as well as accelerate delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals.

This EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy is the third such multiannual Plan adopted by the EU.  As with the previous two Action Plans, the objective is to strengthen and sharpen EU efforts to promote human rights and democracy across the world.  This Plan is an opportunity to reassess, renew and reinvigorate our work; to build on what we have done, think hard about how to meet current challenges before us and proactively work over the next 5 years.

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: harness opportunities and address challenges
  • Deliver by working together

This is a proactive Plan for the next 5 years.  We are stepping up action on long-standing priorities on human rights and democracy, such as gender equality, the protection of human right defenders, freedom of expression online and offline, the eradication of torture, the abolition of the death penalty, the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence and many more.

But there are also new elements which include:

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

This Action Plan is not a one-size-fits-all.  It is a roadmap, with a broad range of policies, tools and political and financial instruments at our disposal to implement it.  Its implementation will be tailored to local needs and circumstances and the 140 EU Delegations and Member States Embassies will bring this Action Plan to life, to translate it from objectives to action.

The Action Plan will be implemented at local, national, regional and multilateral level and we will work with all stakeholders, especially the United Nations.  Civil society will continue to be a crucial partner in realising the goals of the Action Plan and making it a living document.  We will also continue to work closely with the European Parliament on the implementation of the Action Plan and look forward to its continued engagement and contribution.  In addition, we look forward to broadening engagement with other actors, such as the private sector, the arts, sport and culture.

Consistency and coherence on what we do externally and what we do internally are vital, not just for our credibility, but because human rights are universal and democracy provides the best way to protect those rights.  The work done through this Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy will complement the implementation of the EU’s internal plan, the European Democracy Action Plan, which is expected to be launched in December.

That Plan will foster democratic and electoral integrity inside the EU.  The EU is also renewing its internal and external policy framework on gender equality with the Gender Equality Strategy and the third Gender Action Plan.  And of course we have the European Rule of Law Mechanism to identify challenges as soon as possible to help Member States find solutions to safeguard and protect the rule of law.

Action will also be backed up and bolstered by the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, which is currently being discussed by Member States in the Council.  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.

When the Action Plan was proposed by High Representative Josep Borrell and the Commission earlier this year, it was accompanied by a joint proposal to the Council asking Member States to allow for faster and more effective decisions by using qualified majority voting.  It was proposed that Member States might do so when implementing elements of this Action Plan.  Member States have not agreed to this initial proposal, but the High Representative has indicated he will pursue this discussion to promote greater use of qualified majority voting in external relations in defence of our interests and values.

All of this work comes at a critical moment, a moment of many challenges, but also of huge potential.  To make this Action Plan a living plan, it will require all of us to work together.  Better protection and respect for human rights and democracy around the world will reduce inequality, poverty and social exclusion.  I look forward to working with you all in this endeavour.

Now let’s get to work.

Thank you.


Watch the full event here.