Eastern Neighbourhood and Central Asia Regional Launch Event for the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 – Keynote Address

EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024

Regional launch event – Eastern Neighbourhood and Central Asia

20 April 2021


EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

Keynote Address



Thank you Luisa.  Good morning everyone.  It is a great pleasure to be with you today to talk about the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which will guide our external work on human rights and democracy until the end of 2024.  Today I would like to talk to you about what the Plan means for our joint efforts in the Eastern Neighbourhood and Central Asia.

Building awareness about the Plan is essential to its success and our engagement.  We cannot implement this Action Plan alone.  Many actions are based on joint work and all are based on cooperation and partnership.  So, following its approval by all 27 Member States of the European Union in November last year, we decided to bring the Action Plan to each region to encourage collaboration and participation.

The European Union enjoys rich ties with the Eastern Neighbourhood and Central Asia, which go far beyond our geographic proximity.  Both regions share common interests in peace, prosperity, connectivity, energy and security.  Our cooperation on human rights, rule of law, good governance and democratisation is continually deepening at national, regional and multilateral level.  The new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy is an opportunity to further develop and energise that cooperation.

This is the third such multiannual Plan adopted by the EU.  Each Plan is an opportunity to renew our work and it is important to have a roadmap that fits our work and priorities for the challenging times we live in.  I believe that this Action Plan fits that purpose.

The following are just a few examples of what we did during the last 5 years:

  • We helped protect over 46,000 human rights defenders at risk.
  • We advocated strongly for the abolition of the death penalty and executions have decreased by 58% since 2015.
  • We used our trade agreements and trade preferences to improve human rights and implement labour Conventions.
  • We deployed 98 Election Observation Missions around the world.
  • These efforts were reinforced through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.  That Instrument has increased funding to over €1.5 billion for the next 7 years.

While this work has made a real difference to many, the EU is expected to do more and to do it better.  This comes at a time when human rights and democracy are under increasing pressure.  Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a persistent deterioration in democracy and human rights.  This has been aggravated by the ongoing health crisis. The pandemic has magnified every inequality in our society.  It has worsened existing problems and generated its own human rights challenges.  It also has a tremendous impact in terms of shrinking space for civil society and independent media.

Despite this, 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.  I am convinced that placing human rights at the centre of our response will not only help us mitigate the impact of the crisis and make it more manageable, but it will help us to better face future crises.

And so, 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 protection of human rights defenders, the abolition of the death penalty, the elimination of torture, the eradication of discrimination 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.

This Action Plan is a framework and so has to be adapted for local circumstances.  This will be done by the over 140 EU Delegations around the world, along with Member States Embassies, through concrete and practical actions; for example supporting human rights defenders on the ground, protecting free and independent media, observing trials and elections, tackling the misuse of digital technologies and working on a diverse range of projects, such as advancing the rights of women and strengthening civil society.  They are currently finalising country strategies, which will contain specific actions for implementation at national, regional and multilateral level.

No country or region has a perfect record on human rights and democracy and that includes the European Union.  While this Action Plan is external in focus, it must be consistent with what we do at home.  The Action Plan will be 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 Action Plan will also be strengthened by the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.  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 weeks.  This includes restrictive measures on 4 individuals responsible for human rights violations connected to the case of Alexei Navalny, as well as 2 individuals responsible for torture and repression against LGBTI persons and political opponents in Russia.

As the European Special Representative for Human Rights, I have a key role in guiding the implementation of the Action Plan.  And as I mentioned in the beginning, dialogue is key.  The Action Plan is not about imposing a model on anyone.  We are always ready to listen and work closely with others to improve and address our common problems.  But we will raise concern when needed and we expect our partners to do the same.

Even during the pandemic, we have held virtual Human Rights Dialogues with a number of countries in the region, largely thanks to the efforts of partner countries.  I myself recently participated in the Dialogue with Armenia and next week, I will take part in the 9th EU – Azerbaijan Subcommittee on Justice, Freedom, Security and Human Rights and Democracy.

Our longstanding partnership with Eastern Neighbourhood and Central Asia has ensured positive cooperation throughout the region. This allows us to address jointly the broader human rights challenges with our partner countries in the region, at all levels.  And there are many positive examples of cooperation.

In all our efforts, we work jointly with partner countries in the region. Let me give a few examples:

At national level, in Kyrgyzstan, EU support to democratic elections has been provided since 2010, and a programme for democratisation through electoral reform has been implemented since 2016 (€13.1 million).  A substantial rule of law programme (€13 million for 2018-2021) helps to enhance the quality of legislation and increase the efficiency, independence, professionalism and capacities of the judiciary.  We stand ready to support partners in addressing issues of concern.  For example, the EU has been particularly vocal this past year with the death of human rights defenders Azimzhan Askarov in detention in Kyrgyzstan.  I myself had visited Azimzhan in prison some time ago and was very saddened to hear of his passing.

Through Human Rights Budget Support programmes, such as the one in Armenia (€15.7 million), or through ‘EU4Human Rights’ programmes, such as the one in Georgia (€11 million), we support legal reforms and institutional capacity building in key areas, such as free elections, torture prevention, the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups and the combating of discrimination.

In Ukraine, we intend to allocate €1.1 million (via EIDHR) to support civil society, human rights defenders, economic and social rights, rights of minorities and the fight against discrimination as well as human rights in the digital sphere.  Last year, with the EIDHR grants of total €2.7 million we ensured support to fight against torture, access to justice, support for human rights defenders, the rights of Roma minority strengthening human rights protection in the non-government controlled areas, and rights of IDPs.

At regional level, joint work with regional bodies is also an important component of our work.  We work very closely with the OSCE and in particular ODIHR, exchanging information on human rights issues.  The EU also provides the substantial financial support to the OSCE/ODIHR work in the region and we actively participate in the Human Dimension Implementation meeting (HDIM).  In addition, we work closely with the Council of Europe. For instance, in Ukraine, a joint project with the Council of Europe on media freedom contributed to a balanced and professional media coverage of the 2019-2020 elections.

At multilateral level, EU engagement with the UN on the Eastern Neighbourhood and Central Asia is significant.  In one such example, at the EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting in November, the EU announced the launch of the EU-UN Spotlight initiative in Central Asia aimed at eliminating violence against women.  It will promote zero tolerance for sexual and gender‑based violence as well as harmful practices like bride kidnapping and early marriage.  It will support legislative reform, strengthen institutions, tackle social norms and attitudes, and offer strengthened support to civil society and women’s movements throughout the region.

In 2020, we held the second EU-Central Asia Civil Society Forum to underline the importance of active civil society participation in the implementation of the new EU Central Asia strategy.  And there are other civil society platforms throughout the region, including the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, which is an important bridge connecting the European Union and Russian civil society, and the EU-Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.  That Forum aims to promote European integration, facilitating reforms and democratic transformations in the six Eastern Partnership countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Civil society is a crucial partner across the Eastern Neighbourhood and Central Asia and I can assure you, civil society will also be a crucial partner in the implementation of the Action Plan.  We will also expand engagement with other actors, in areas such as sport, the arts, culture and the private sector.

To make this Action Plan a living plan, it will require all of us to work together.  Your ideas, suggestions and active participation will be fundamental to the implementation of the Plan.  I look forward to working with you all in this endeavour and especially to the discussion we will have today.

Thank you.


See the link to the recording: https://www.facebook.com/EUinKZ/videos/793251111595684/