EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024
Regional launch event – Asia Pacific
7 May 2021
EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore
Thank you Yuyun. Good morning to all in Europe and good afternoon to all those joining us from the Asia Pacific region. It is a great pleasure to be with you today to talk about the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. This Plan, which has been approved by all 27 Member States of the European Union, will guide the EU’s work outside of Europe on human rights and democracy until the end of 2024.
Many actions in the Plan are based on joint work and all are based on cooperation and partnership. So building awareness about the Plan is essential to make it work. That is why we are launching the Plan in each region, to strengthen collaboration, participation and regional ownership. This is also an opportunity to talk about what the Plan means for our joint efforts in the Asia Pacific region.
The European Union’s relationship with the Asia Pacific region is continually deepening and expanding. It has evolved from an initial focus on economic and trade matters to a much broader and richer cooperation, encompassing political, strategic and security dimensions. And that includes human rights and democracy.
We cannot address any of the major global challenges we all face today without the cooperation of our Asia Pacific partners. These include peace, climate change, energy security, cyber space, environmental protection, poverty, inequality and of course, health crises such as the pandemic we are confronting today. Our work with the region to address such shared regional and global challenges has only deepened our relationship with this dynamic and diverse region. The new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy is an opportunity to further enhance and energise our cooperation, specifically on human rights and democracy.
This is the third Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy adopted by the EU. Each Plan is an opportunity to reinvigorate our work and to proactively plan for the times we live in.
To give you an example of what we seek to achieve, the following are some of the actions we took under the lifetime of the last Action Plan:
- We advocated strongly for the abolition of the death penalty and executions have decreased by 58% since 2015.
- We deployed 98 Election Observation Missions around the world.
- We helped protect over 46,000 human rights defenders at risk.
- We used our trade agreements and trade preferences to improve human rights and implement labour Conventions.
- We strengthen our efforts with financial muscle through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. That Instrument has increased funding to over €1.5 billion for the next 7 years.
This Plan comes at a challenging time for human rights and democracy. Human rights are not selective benefits; they are innate to every human being. However, we are living in a time when this is being questioned and human rights and democracy are being constrained in many parts of the world. This was the case even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has been exacerbated by the ongoing health crisis. We all need to do more and the EU will play its part, because we are talking about universal values and principles. They are not just European, but are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Right and the Treaties. So this Action Plan is about finding ways to fully implement human rights and democracy obligations and commitments that all States have assumed, including those in the European Union.
This a challenging time, but it is also an opportunity. Because the pandemic has also demonstrated in a very real and tangible way the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. To protect life and health, we need to ensure many other rights. Placing human rights at the centre of our response to the pandemic will help make the crisis more manageable and diminish its impact. Moreover, a human rights based response will help us to address other major global challenges, such as climate change, with greater resilience and solidarity.
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
- Delivering by working together
Many actions have been priorities in our daily work for many years, such as the abolition of the death penalty, the elimination of torture, the protection of human rights defenders and many more.
But there are also new elements. These include:
- increased action on economic, social and cultural rights,
- more emphasis on democracy,
- greater focus on business and human rights,
- more emphasis on the link between human rights and the environment,
- maximising the benefits of digital technologies and minimising the risks,
- further action on the protection and empowerment of human rights defenders and
- more investment in communication to create better awareness about what we do.
Much of the work envisaged under the Action Plan will be carried out by the more than 140 EU Delegations around the world, along with Member States Embassies, through concrete and practical actions, tailored for local circumstances. All of these Delegations and Embassies are currently finalising country strategies, which will contain specific actions for implementation at national, regional and multilateral level.
Of course, we must be consistent on what we do externally with what we do at home. The Action Plan is complemented by the new internal 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.
The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime also strengthens the Action Plan. Indeed, the new Sanctions Regime was the first action carried out under this Action Plan. And the first sanctions under this Regime have been announced in the past few weeks. The listings included citizens and entities from two Asian countries, China and the DPRK, who were responsible for serious human rights violations.
As the European Special Representative for Human Rights, I have a central role in guiding the implementation of the Action Plan. Dialogue and cooperation is critical. We are always ready to listen and work closely with others to improve and address our common problems. The Action Plan is not about imposing a model on anyone. But we will raise concern when needed and we expect our partners to do the same.
I believe we have constructive dialogue with several partners across Asia and the Pacific. Even during the pandemic, we have managed to hold virtual Human Rights Dialogues with a number of countries in the region. And this has been largely due to the efforts made by partner countries. I myself co-chaired Human Rights Dialogues with Myanmar and I participated in the first ever Sub-Committee on Good Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights under the new EU – Philippines Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. Last month, we held a local human rights dialogue with India, which was the first such dialogue held since 2013. Of course we have all been shocked and deeply saddened by the impact of the pandemic in India in recent weeks and the EU has offered its concrete support.
Trade has proven a useful tool to encourage labour rights reforms and ensure compliance with the core international human rights treaties. The biggest beneficiaries of our trade arrangements, which incentivise sustainable development, human rights and good governance (GSP+ and EBA), are Asian countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Serious human rights violations may lead to a withdrawal of trade preferences. And we do use this option, as the last year’s partial withdrawal of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia shows.
We also have good cooperation with many countries in the region in areas such as gender-based violence, rights of the child and the rights of LGBTI persons, notably through the Spotlight Initiative. This is a global, multi-year partnership between the EU and the UN to eliminate all forms of violence against children, women and girls. And it is implemented throughout the region, in particular in the Pacific, in South East Asia, as well as in Afghanistan.
I am pleased to see many good human rights and democracy stories throughout the region, including in difficult contexts. For example, Bangladesh has continued to demonstrate solidarity with refugees providing shelter to Rohingyas, in a very difficult humanitarian situation. The first intra and inter-faith roundtable was held Pakistan in December, which resulted in a joint statement to promote the constitutional rights of minorities and combat hate speech. The importance of the inclusion of minorities in social and political life has also been a focus. For example, in Bhutan since the 2018 elections, nine members of the Lhotsampa minority sit in the national assembly, and two of them hold important Cabinet portfolios.
Nonetheless, there are many challenges. The EU has spoken repeatedly about the situation in China, where journalists as well as free-lance bloggers who reported about the pandemic, as well as about other sensitive issues, disappeared, were detained, sentenced or otherwise harassed. The situation of people belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet, but also more recently in Inner Mongolia, is also a key concern.
I am deeply concerned about the erosion of fundamental freedoms and democratic principles through the adoption of the draconian national security law in Hong Kong earlier this year, as well as the crisis in Myanmar. The EU stands by the people of Myanmar and continues to call for de-escalation of the current crisis through an immediate end to the state of emergency, the immediate release of all political prisoners, the restoration of the legitimate civilian government and the opening of the newly elected parliament.
As a staunch advocate of multilateralism and the international human rights system, the EU addresses some of these challenges at United Nations fora – for example, through resolutions on Myanmar and the DPRK and in regular discussions with human rights bodies and mechanisms.
I am pleased to have with us today representatives from National Human Rights Institutions, as well as a representative from a network of Parliamentarians. These institutions have a key role to play in the implementation of the Action Plan.
Civil society and human rights defenders continue to play a hugely important role and I would like to thank all those who continue to work courageously to defend human rights and democracy, often at great personal cost. I can assure you that civil society will also be a crucial partner in the implementation of the Action Plan. Your contribution and active participation will be fundamental to the implementation of the Plan.
We will broaden engagement with other actors, such as sport, the arts, culture and the private sector, to maximise the impact of our action and ensure we strengthen our cooperation in order to better face common challenges. This past year has been a wakeup call like no other and we have clearly seen the vital importance of unity and solidarity. We believe the work and cooperation generated by this Action Plan will contribute to a better future for all.
I look forward to working with all of you in this endeavour and especially to the discussion today.