MENA 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 – Middle East and North Africa


14 June 2021


EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore


Keynote Address


Thank you Luisa. Good morning to all wherever you connect from – the Middle East, North Africa or Europe. It is a great pleasure to be with you today to talk about the new European Union 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 global work on human rights and democracy until the end of 2024.


Building awareness and partnerships is essential to make the Action Plan work. That is why we are launching the Plan in each region, to strengthen collaboration, participation and regional ownership.


This event is also an opportunity to talk about what the Plan means for our joint efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. It is our last regional launch. We started in the Americas and we will crown our regional discussions today close to Europe.


The Middle East and North Africa is an important region in many respects. First, there is a clear geographic proximity. North Africa is our Southern Neighbourhood. The Middle East is very close to our immediate neighbourhood and a key to global stability. Not so long ago ISIS spread terror, trampled on human rights, and threatened stability in the region and globally. The Syrian conflict is one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is another stark reminder – we must move from a protracted process to a lasting peace.


But this region is much more than that. It is also a region of good human rights stories and human rights inspiration – for the European Union and for others.


In Tunisia, for example, reforms and democratic elections have boosted women’s participation in political and public affairs. After the first democratic municipal elections held in 2018, 47 percent of the elected members of the municipal councils in the country are now women. In Morocco, the government has stepped up the fight against corruption through the law on access to information and the operationalisation of the National Commission against Corruption. In the Gulf, we have seen robust measures against the COVID-19 pandemic with free health care provided to all, including the large migrant worker populations.


The European Union’s relationship with the Middle East and North Africa has evolved from an initial focus on economic and trade matters to a broader and richer cooperation, encompassing political, strategic and security dimensions, including human rights and democracy.


Indeed, in today’s intertwined world, major challenges a country faces are often global challenges we all tackle in one way or another – be it the climate change, environmental protection, inequality and discrimination or the current COVID-19 pandemic. The new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy is an opportunity to further enhance and energise our cooperation with all countries, everywhere in the world.


This is the third Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy adopted by the EU. To give you an example of what we seek to achieve, I will give you a snapshot of some of the actions we took under the lifetime of the last Action Plan between 2015 and 2019:


  • 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 Action 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, this basic premise is being questioned and human rights and democracy are being constrained in many parts of the world. And even more so during the ongoing health crisis. We all need to do more because we are talking about universal values and principles, about indivisible and interdependent human rights belonging equally to individuals in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe or elsewhere in the world.


This Action Plan is about finding ways to fully implement human rights and democracy obligations and commitments that all States have assumed. It is built on five 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, notably:


  • 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 their 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 European Union Delegations around the world, along with EU Member States Embassies, through concrete and practical actions, tailored for local circumstances. All of these Delegations and Embassies have finalised or are finalising country strategies, which contain specific actions for implementation at national, regional and multilateral level.


The Action Plan is complemented by our resolve to reinforce human rights and democracy at home, in Europe. The new internal European Democracy Action Plan, together with the new Rule of Law mechanism, will further empower our citizens and make democracies across the EU more resilient and better fit for the digital age. For no country has a perfect human rights record. Advancing the human rights agenda is and will always be work in progress.


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 Plan. The first broad package of sanctions under this novel Regime was adopted this March, including sanctions against two Libyan militiamen responsible for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.


As the European Union 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 stress again: human rights are universal.


We have established Human Rights Dialogues with a number of countries in the region. We strive to hold them even in the pandemic, albeit online. A few days ago, for example, the European Union held the 10th informal Human Rights Dialogue with the United Arab Emirates. And we hope to launch more of these standing bilateral consultations. For example, discussions are under way on the launch of a Human Rights Dialogue with Saudi Arabia.


In my capacity as the Special Representative for Human Rights, I have engaged with a number of interlocutors in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, one of my last missions before the pandemic lockdown was to Qatar where I focused extensively on labour rights. Last month, I had a series of meetings on Yemen, including with a Yemeni Minister and local civil society. I have a regular human rights exchange with my Egyptian counterparts. Throughout the pandemic, I have pleaded for the humanitarian release of vulnerable detainees in the region, including jailed human rights defenders – in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, or Egypt.


I have mentioned some positive examples. Nonetheless, there are many challenges. One of them is the death penalty. Almost 90 percent of known executions in 2020 took place in North Africa and the Middle East – in Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia [NB: However, countries like China or DPRK are not part of the picture as they keep the data secret]. As you know, the European Union strongly opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and invests much effort in its abolition worldwide. The death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment that neither deters violent crime nor contributes to a safer society.


Although there have been some progress over the last years, women and migrant workers still face numerous obstacles in the Gulf countries. The recent steps towards the full abolition of the so-called kefala system in Qatar or Saudi Arabia’s reforms to advance women’s economic participation are encouraging developments.


Unfortunately, a number of human rights defenders, dissenters, independent journalists and bloggers continue to be detained across the region. I have repeatedly raised many of these individual cases. The European Union will continue to call for the release of all human rights defenders and political prisoners in the region and beyond. In this regard, the Action Plan foresees very concrete lines of action – by our Delegations, through human rights projects and through political engagement.


As a staunch advocate of multilateralism and the international human rights system, the EU addresses some of the key challenges in the region at United Nations fora, in particular at the Human Rights Council. We are launching a strategic dialogue with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which will be a good opportunity to address our Action Plan and some select issues in the Middle East and North Africa. And I am very pleased that we have with us today the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights [Ms Nada Youssef Al Nashif].


Last but not least, I wish to underline the role of civil society and non-state actors such as National Human Rights Institutions, trade unions, academics, or legal professionals. These are key stakeholders playing a hugely important role. Their contribution and active participation will be fundamental to the implementation of the Action Plan. I would like to thank all those who continue to work to defend human rights and democracy, often at great personal cost.



Today, as the end of the pandemic is at sight I hope that the Action Plan could also serve as a springboard for post-COVID recovery, as a stepping stone for “building back better” with human rights up front.


I look forward to our discussion today.


Thank you.