A critical assessment of the European Parliament’s 2002 human rights reports


To: The Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee
The Members of the Citizens’ Rights Committee
The Members of the Development Committee

Cc: The President of the European Parliament
The Presidents of the Political Groups

* Introduction

We are writing to you in advance of the final debate in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the draft Annual report on human rights in the world in 2001 and EU human rights policy by Johan van Hecke, and the draft report on The EU’s role in promoting human rights and democratization in third countries by Rosa Diez Gonzalez, which addresses the European Commission communication of the same name of May 2001. In this commentary we will also address the working document of the Annual report on the situation of fundamental rights within the EU by Joke Swiebel, which will be discussed in the Citizens’ Rights Committee later in the year.

As international human rights organizations we always consider the European Parliament’s annual reports on human rights to be important opportunities to assess the EU’s human rights policy inside and outside the Union as well as the role of the European Parliament in this respect.

* The role of the European Parliament on human rights

We welcomed the statement in last year’s Report on Human Rights in the World, which stated that " ... the role of the European Parliament in the EU human rights policy should, in light of the recent development of human rights policy instruments by the Council and the Commission, be more targeted towards controlling the policies of these institution." However, the reality has been different, and this is in essence the reason why our overall response to this year’s report is one of serious disappointment. What two years ago would have been a challenging catalogue of ideas has become an unfulfilled and repetitive promise. It contains some of the same demands and comments directed at the other institutions that we have seen in previous years, and it adds some loosely framed new ones, but without a serious analysis or evaluation. Furthermore, the van Hecke report does not take into account the criticism with the Parliament’s performance on human rights that has been voiced by our organizations for over a year. We have seen the Parliament’s role on human rights over the past years being reduced to ad hoc activism - useful in itself, but only as a complement to what should be its primary responsibility: to hold Council and Commission accountable.

* Evaluating EU human rights policy

An obvious way for the Parliament to develop that role would be to take the EU Annual Report on Human Rights, which the Council presents by the end of each year, as the basis of its own report. The Council and the Commission are the bodies responsible for EU human rights policy, and it would in fact be appropriate for the Annual Report to be presented by the Presidency in plenary. The Parliament should then use its own (annual) report to evaluate the policy of the Council and the Commission and present proposals for improvement of that policy, in what would thus become a proper framework for accountability and control.

Whereas the Council Presidency, in the presentation of the Annual Report to the EU Human Rights Forum last November, emphasized that it did neither intend nor pretend to be more than a descriptive document, and the van Hecke report emphasizes its usefulness as a reference document, we believe that the Parliament should use the Annual Report as a bases for the evaluation of the effectiveness of the EU human rights policy. A call for such an approach could well open the door for a more effective inter-institutional dialogue over the EU human rights policy.

* Inadequate structures and working methods

Although our concerns have found considerable resonance within the Parliament itself, nothing has been done so far. Instead, the van Hecke report repeats many earlier demands, but does not analyze the reasons why these have not been met. Even earlier demands directed at the Parliament itself are not met. The problem is perfectly illustrated in Mr van Hecke’s draft resolution’s operative paragraph 7, which states that "strengthening working methods in the field of human rights would enhance Parliament’s influence in stimulating the development of a coherent and consistent human rights policy and ensuring adequate accountability of the Council and the Commission in their activities". It also recalls "its decision of 5 July 2001 to undertake a review of the structures and working methods of its competent bodies dealing with human rights and democracy".

That no such action has been taken or is being planned should by now be cause of serious concern to all those in the European Parliament who are committed to advancing the cause of human rights. New proposals cannot compensate for this failure. The recommendation to appoint an ’ombudsman’ for human rights in the Parliament to represent the European Parliament vis-à-vis third parties, in particular the EU institutions and the international organizations, is interesting. However, what its precise purpose and role should be remains as yet unclear. Such a proposal should be looked at in the context of a more fundamental review of the role of the Parliament in the field of human rights. A question in this connection would be what the connection might be with the proposal to nominate a special envoy for prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders made by the European Parliament in its resolution on international human rights in 2000 (Malmström report, paragraph 17) - a proposal that has never been implemented.

With regard to the Human Rights Forum it would be appropriate for the European Parliament to consider the extremely limited involvement it has so far had itself with this evolving mechanism before recommending to invite national parliamentarians.

While the primacy of the Parliament’s human rights brief lies with the Foreign Affairs Committee, human rights within the EU are covered by the Citizens’ Rights Committee (responsibility with regard to the enlargement countries being divided among the two). The Development Committee has determined human rights to be an important aspect of its work also. This division risks to have repercussions on the way human rights are being addressed in the various regions of the world by the Parliament. There is in fact no structural connection between the three regarding their respective human rights briefs and how these could effectively interact. This is illustrated by the fact that there has been no contact between the rapporteurs of the two annual reports - one curious result being that the perspective of the enlargement countries is not covered at all.

* Promising methodology

This is all the more regrettable in light of the very positive step that was taken by last year’s rapporteur on human rights within the EU to assess each member state’s performance on human rights against a number of articles of the newly adopted Charter of Fundamental Rights. Thus, a beginning was made to devise a methodology for monitoring and evaluation. As we have argued repeatedly over the past years, and was acknowledged in the May 2001 Commission communication, such a methodology must be the basis for any human rights policy, internally or externally.

We welcome Ms Swiebel’s stated intention to develop and improve on this important initiative. The question must however at the same time be asked whether it ought to be the role of the Parliament to undertake such a task itself. Ms Diez Gonzalez’ report implies (draft resolution operative paragraph 7) that such reporting should be the task of the EU Human Rights Agency it proposes to be set up (operative paragraph 17). As a result of the first annual human rights forum (December 1999), the Commission in its May 2001 communication offers a considered argumentation for rejection of this Human Rights Agency idea. We are concerned that the Parliament comes back with the suggestion without any precision as to its role and purpose, and without any reference to the Commission’s arguments to reject it. Whatever its merits, it is clear that the role the Parliament can and should play regarding human rights within the European Union should be closely linked to the methodology of monitoring and evaluation of the reports of other institutions.

* Mainstreaming

We welcome the analysis in the May 2001 Commission communication regarding the need for mainstreaming human rights into other policies and activities of the EU. It is clear however that to bring mainstreaming into practice without losing the necessary focus requires adaptations both to the operational side and to the structural and institutional arrangements.

In this context we note with interest that where we had, at the occasion of the recent midterm review, called for a separate human rights committee in the European Parliament, this is now proposed also in Ms Diez Gonzalez’ report (operative paragraph 16) to be introduced after the next EP elections in 2004. However, it is important to determine what the scope for such a committee should be. The report refers to a committee "responsible for problems relating to human rights, democratization in third countries and relations with international organizations active in the sphere of human rights". We believe firmly that a comprehensive EU human rights policy should integrate both the internal and external dimensions. The internal dimension is all the more important for an EU that aspires to broaden its scope and membership. So far not much more than lip-service has been paid to this notion of integration, and the European Parliament would be well placed to address it, both substantively and in terms of adjusting its own approach and structure. We would therefore favor at least the creation of a proper linkage between that new body and the Citizens’ Rights Committee.

* Balancing dialogue and denunciation

The insufficiency of internal coordination within the Parliament is also shown by the difference of approach, between the van Hecke report and the Diez Gonzalez report, towards the balance between cooperation and pressure, between dialogue and denunciation. Here, Mr van Hecke’s report with its relative emphasis on dialogue (which is in line with the approach in the Commission’s communication) appears to strike a different tone from Ms Diez Gonzalez’ report. The latter’s proposal for a Code of conduct for the Union’s external relations in the field of human rights arranges already existing provisions and practices in a way that in fact reflects more of a sanctioning approach. We hope the Parliament will, when discussing these reports, take issue with the above dilemma and adopt a consistent view in both reports.

The real challenge here will be to move from a black-or-white choice between applying sanctions or doing nothing to a serious examination of the ground in-between, of the scope for constructive engagement without selling out. Clearly, this is the heart of the debate about human rights, where the analysis, the voice and the authority of the European Parliament are needed.

In this context reference can be made to the General Affairs Council’s own acknowledgement of these and other dilemmas that are intrinsic to conducting an effective human rights policy. And when addressing these questions, the Parliament should consider the disappointing experience with the human rights clause and look for ways to enhance the effectiveness of the human rights dialogues following the recent adoption of the ’European Union guidelines on human rights dialogues’. The guidelines have the potential to mainstream human rights into all political dialogues, ensure the setting of clear benchmarks for progress regarding human rights, and allow for transparent evaluation.

* Terrorism and human rights

The Parliament reports have recently each focused on a limited number of themes. In 2000 women’s rights, 2001 freedom of expression and this year the themes are human trafficking and terrorism and human rights. We welcome this thematic focus in the reports, since it enables the Parliament to place a theme on the political agenda. But in order to ensure that these thematic specializations are not just one-off events, the Parliament should establish a mechanism to ensure proper follow-up.

This year’s focus on "terrorism and human rights" is actually very appropriate and welcome. We welcome the fact that the report identifies several problems related to the need to balance security and human rights, not least the need for the EU not to sell out to so-called allies in the "war on terrorism" (formulated more diplomatically in the report). It also refers to the importance in this context of the International Criminal Court.

At the same time it is riding roughshod over the complexities of international humanitarian law when it proclaims the Geneva Conventions obsolete. It would have been more appropriate to have a comprehensive and focused debate in plenary, in which the internal dimension would also have been fully integrated. For however welcome Ms Swiebel’s intention to deal with the internal question of security and human rights in her report (which will be debated in plenary several months later than van Hecke’s report), this is of course part of the larger picture. The same is true for the emergence of police and judicial cooperation in relation to third countries, which can be signaled in new association agreements as well as in the latest programming document of the European Initiative on Democracy and Human Rights.

* Conclusion

We urge the Parliament to exercise caution with regard to various ideas and initiatives that may at first sight seem appealing but that are sometimes ill-conceived, or not properly motivated, and never considered in the larger context of what the Parliament perceives as its own specific role and responsibility with regard to the EU’s policy on human rights. The European Parliament is called upon first and foremost to hold the governing and executive organs of the Union accountable.

Having for many years worked closely with the European Parliament, we hope you will carefully consider the issues raised in this submission. Our assessment is very critical indeed, but it is presented to you in the firm belief that the role of the European Parliament should be restored to its proper function and authority.

We therefore call upon the European Parliament to implement as a matter of urgency its own decisions and undertake a thorough review of its overall role and of the structures and working methods of its competent bodies dealing with human rights.

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