Ken GodfreyExecutive Director of the European Partnership for Democracy

Willing? Mostly. Able? Not enough. Broadly speaking, the EU is a strong supporter of human rights around the world and has taken recent steps to reinforce this image through a new human rights sanctions mechanism and a new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.

It also seems to me that the European Commission of President Ursula von der Leyen is more willing to speak out on certain human rights abuse when compared to its predecessor—while simultaneously finding agreement on gender rights and LGBT rights a much harder affair. The supportive rhetoric is there, but there are still clear limits for EU action.

The EU is handcuffed by the need for unanimity in foreign policy. Despite internal efforts to move decisions on human rights in the Council of the EU to qualified majority voting, there is a clear bloc of member states that have voiced their opposition.

Despite this failure, supporters of human rights need to keep pushing for change; without it, things are unlikely to improve. At the same time, the EU needs to do a better job of linking its aid and trade—with schemes like the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus—to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

Sending money to regimes guilty of serious human rights violations is a severe black spot on the EU’s human rights record.

Shada IslamManaging Director of New Horizons Project

Yes, the EU has the tools to do so, but its ambitions of being a global human rights defender often crumbles in the face of nasty reality.

Its reaction to the coup d’état in Myanmar on February 1, 2021, is one example. All top EU officials have denounced the suspension of democratic process in the country. There is talk of sharper sanctions on perpetrators of the coup and of eliminating Myanmar’s trade privileges. There will be consultations among the twenty-seven EU states—that may take time.

Other factors also matter. There is an inherent tension between defending human rights but also playing geopolitics. The latter entails having to work with some very bad guys for geostrategic reasons. Also, blanket sanctions can be disastrous for an often already hard-hit population as well as for both EU and local businesses.

In addition, megaphone diplomacy and isolating nasty regimes may feel good, but it often worsens their behavior, and unless sanctions are universally applied—almost impossible these days—governments turn to other partners for money and help.

And finally, regrettably, given its own tarnished reputation in dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, the EU has lost its moral high ground when discussing global human rights.

Sonja LichtPresident of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence

There is no better case for the EU to demonstrate the necessity of respect for human rights than the Western Balkans.

The European perspective of these countries, although less certain today than after the EU’s Thessaloniki summit in 2003, is still the one that can bring lasting peace and development to this enclave of aspiring EU members surrounded by the union itself.

With the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, all the other countries are either already negotiating or about to start negotiating accession with the EU. Thus, this is the moment for them and for the EU to prove, together, that they will pass the crucial test of implementing the Copenhagen criteria anchored on human rights that aspiring member states must fulfill.

The EU’s accession negotiating chapters 23 on judiciary and fundamental rights and 24 on justice, freedom, and security incorporated the basic elements of the Copenhagen criteria. They became the fundaments of the Western Balkans accession process, much more so than in previous enlargements.

The EU will have a unique chance to confirm that it takes its own principles seriously and demonstrate its readiness to be strong and resolute when addressing human rights globally as well as in its immediate vicinity—while remaining a beacon in the struggle against climate change and for peace.

Linas LinkeviciusFormer Foreign and Defense Minister of Lithuania

The EU is willing to do a lot of things. But willingness is not enough. In the union, we have political and economic potential to manage crises and conflicts globally. We have instruments for that.

We can apply sanctions on persons and entities involved in fraud, repression, terrorism, the proliferation of chemical weapons, and cyber-attacks. And very recently, the EU adopted a global human rights sanctions regime.

Unfortunately, it always takes too long before we do something tangible—and we very often do too little. Pragmatism and national economic interests take over at the expense of values, and we can’t reach consensus to act.

Not just us Europeans but also Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, and Uighurs are willing and expect a stronger EU voice.

Bruno MaçãesSenior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and Former Europe Minister of Portugal

It will be difficult. I think most people think of human rights as a moral or legal issue, and perhaps two or three decades ago it briefly looked that way. In fact, they are highly political.

A human rights politics involves difficult choices, carries costs and risks, and has to be supported by a forceful exercise of power. These are all things for which the EU is not especially prepared institutionally. And it’s one more reason why we need institutional reforms.

It would be good if human rights groups—and the public who cares about the issue—could become a voice for greater common powers in the foreign policy area. Values without power are empty, power without values is blind. We need both.

Mariann ŐryHead of the Foreign Desk and Senior Editor at Magyar Hírlap

The EU might be willing to defend human rights, but it can’t. The bloc has reached a point of political irrelevance and makes itself a laughingstock every time it tries to give moral lectures to third countries—especially when it comes to global players.

The EU is not a global superpower, and it’s hard to imagine any foreign leader getting worried when they’re “heavily criticized” by either the Brussels bureaucracy or a carefully worded statement that is the result of compromises and the petty political games of diplomats representing twenty-seven countries.

The sad truth is that much of the morally justified criticism is met with sheer ignorance and these statements make no impact whatsoever.

It’s particularly true these days when the EU’s joint vaccine-procurement strategy seems to be a total failure; all other major powers are ahead of us. An organization which is unable to solve such an important problem and protect its own citizens really shouldn’t expect anyone to care much when they “strongly condemn,” “deplore,” and “pledge” for the zillionth time.

Saime ÖzçürümezAssociate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Bilkent University

The immediate answer to this question inspires a comment and a follow-up question: The EU may be willing to defend human rights globally, but is there a clear path for the EU to do so effectively?

The EU’s resolve to promote and protect human rights globally constitutes a respectable goal, especially at a time when the EU’s own institutional troubles and those of its member states are so evident.

But the EU’s capacity to follow through on dealing with human rights abuses in the field of migration, however, is seriously constrained.

First, human rights abuses constitute one of the main causes of forced displacement. So far, and despite decades-long efforts, the EU has been unable to address the core causes of conflict—such as persistent poverty and inequality—effectively.

Second, the EU is a destination for the forcibly displaced. However, it has difficulties building a solid and effective EU framework for solidarity and the fair sharing of responsibilities and refugee protection.

Third, defending the universal values of human dignity requires recognizing the diversity of the violations themselves and their impact on survivors. Indeed, the global record on addressing human rights violations related to human trafficking, forced labor, gender-based violence, and the extremely vulnerable unaccompanied children remains inadequate.

Despite all the above, due to advancements in transboundary communications, states have difficulties concealing human rights violations and restraining nonstate actors.

The EU can construct and implement innovative instruments to protect human rights more boldly, for example by addressing the links between human rights violations and economic policy more explicitly with the involvement of labor and business in a variety of international settings.

Radosveta VassilevaLawyer and Social Advocate

The adoption of the so-called European Magnitsky Act, the EU’s new human rights sanctions regime, showcases the union’s willingness to defend human rights globally—but there is a long way between talking the talk and walking the walk.

Recent failures to protect European citizens from autocratic regimes within its own territory have created doubt about the EU’s legitimacy in promoting human rights abroad. There are at least three ongoing rule-of-law crises in the union: Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria. But the EU has not taken advantage of its tools to curtail them.

When it comes to Bulgaria, which has seen more than 200 days of protests since July 2020, the European Commission has remained silent, refusing even to condemn the random arrests and violence against peaceful citizens. December’s Faustian compromise on the so-called conditionality regulation, supposed to link EU funds with the respect for the rule of law, is another red flag.

Moreover, some member states act like Trojan horses for authoritarian regimes abroad. In 2016, Bulgaria deported adherents of the Turkish opposition Gülen movement to Turkey, although the Bulgarian court had concluded that there were no grounds for extradition.

Considering that sanctions under the new regime will be imposed by the Council of the EU and that much of the enforcement will be left to individual member states, these dependencies will resurface.

Hugh WilliamsonDirector of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch

The European Union has generally shown openness on human rights issues and leadership in international forums but often fallen short on implementation. Take events in Belarus, Russia, and Turkey.

The EU took a firm stance on severe human rights violations in Belarus after the flawed election in August 2020. The bloc imposed sanctions on over eighty people, including Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and spearheaded action at the UN Human Rights Council and the OSCE. But it needs to define a clear course of future action.

On Russia, the EU knows the severity of the human rights crisis in the country but has found few means to effectively pressure the Kremlin to change course. As a practical step, the EU should support Russian civil society with easier access to visas and scholarships.

On Turkey, the EU has stated the importance of human rights in a country still formally negotiating its accession but made human rights a lower priority than the growing geopolitical tensions involving Turkey and EU-Turkey cooperation on migration.

The EU and its member states should do more to ensure that human rights are a consistent priority when they weigh the geopolitical and other factors shaping their decisions. People suffering rights violations around the world need Europe’s support.

Richard YoungsSenior Fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe

Depends on where and how. The EU’s commitment to upholding human rights varies considerably across different countries and different points in time.

In some countries, the EU foregrounds human rights considerations, while in others, it is willing to overlook them. At one level, the EU has been more willing to sideline human rights to clinch commercial and security accords; while the new investment agreement with China has attracted much attention, this is only one of many recent examples of this tendency.

At another level, the EU’s funds for human rights projects inside third countries have increased. In particular, the EU has ratcheted up its funds to help protect human rights defenders under direct assault from authoritarian regimes—something now relevant to events in Russia.

One problem is that the disjuncture between such on-the-ground support and the EU’s high-level diplomacy invariably undercuts its effectiveness.

The new EU global human rights sanctions regime represents a change in tactics, as it is set up to target individuals implicated in human rights abuses. In a recent assessment of the new regime, I examined in detail how this entails both advantages and disadvantages.

One risk is that the EU focuses on restrictive measures against small groups of individuals while neglecting the more systemic, institutional features of authoritarianism—a cardinal lesson to take from EU policies in Myanmar’s ill-fated post-2012 political reform process.