The EU and Human Rights Defenders
Around the world, people are speaking up and working to defend human rights, frequently at risk to their safety, freedom or life. All too often, these human rights defenders (HRDs) are labelled as “criminals”, “foreign agents”, “terrorists” or threats to “development” or “traditional values”. Many suffer violations of the very rights they defend. They are harassed and intimidated, unjustly prosecuted and imprisoned. Some are tortured, killed or forcibly disappeared.
Amnesty International has looked into how the EU and its member states delivered on the ‘EU HRD guidelines’ in Burundi, China, Honduras, Russia and Saudi Arabia, where HRDs face serious challenges. The report ‘Defending Defenders? An Assessment of EU Action on HRDs’ reveals that EU support can and does offer vital protection to HRDs worldwide, but it is too often silent on human rights abuses in certain countries, leaving human rights defenders in serious danger.
“When the EU and its member states stand for human rights defenders, it can be the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between life and death. But when it fails to act, defenders are left to their own devices which can have a damaging impact for them and the communities they work for.” Said Eve Geddie, Director of the Amnesty International European Institutions Office.
“Our research shows serious inconsistencies when it comes to the application of EU policies to protect human rights defenders. For instance, the EU often speaks out for defenders in China to try to make their plight heard. On the other hand, EU public interventions in Saudi Arabia are virtually non-existent amidst a serious crackdown on dissent – maintaining a close partnership with the Kingdom has evidently taken precedence over human rights concerns.”
Amnesty International found stark differences between how the EU and its member states support HRDs in the five countries analysed. Increasing restrictions that are suffocating civil society in Saudi Arabia have not been met with a clear response from the EU, which rarely if ever speaks out publicly in defence of the country’s HRDs. Meanwhile, despite complex relations with China, the EU uses much more public diplomacy to raise the cases of HRDs facing harassment, arbitrary detention and torture.
Given Saudi Arabia’s economic and geostrategic importance to Europe, maintaining a close partnership with the Kingdom is often given precedence over the EU’s human rights concerns. The unprecedented level of repression has successfully silenced HRDs based in Saudi Arabia and created a climate of fear among the already small human rights community and the general public inside the country.
“This is about journalists, lawyers, health professionals, teachers and activists defending the rights of all of us. But too often, the EU fails to meet its potential as a human rights champion by punching below its weight.” Weak EU responses to the mounting risks faced by HRDs included a lack of public statements in certain countries, or statements which failed to reflect the gravity of the situation facing HRDs. EU statements are often not translated into local languages or shared on social media.
Yet when the EU does act, it makes a difference. In emblematic cases of HRDs in Russia that were facing unfound prosecution such as Oyub Titiev and Valentina Cherevatenko, consistent, high-level and coordinated EU and member state action contributed to the decision by the authorities to reduce or even drop the charges against them.
But EU inaction leaves HRDs to fend for themselves. When Mohammed al-Otaibi, a human rights defender from Saudi Arabia was forcibly deported from Qatar despite having been granted a humanitarian visa by Norway, EU member states failed to speak out on his defense and further exposed him to injustice.
In Burundi and Honduras, Amnesty International’s research highlighted some complex challenges facing HRDs. Human rights defenders working on issues related to the land, territory and the environment are particularly targeted in Honduras, while the majority of Burundian HRDs are now in detention or in exile. The report identifies several good and even innovative EU practices to support HRDs in these countries and beyond, yet these approaches do not appear to be systematized or shared across countries.
WHAT CAN THE EU DO TO BETTER SUPPORT HRDS?
Amnesty International has identified practical ways in which the EU can better support HRDs. EU Foreign Ministers should affirm their commitment to promote and protect HRDs at all levels of their foreign policy. Annual Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions could set out a global strategy for EU action on HRDs. Any strategy should include ways to support HRDs with intersectional concerns such as Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs), LGBTI defenders, Indigenous HRDs and HRDs working on land/ environmental/ territory or business and human rights. The EU should prioritize the impact and reach of its actions to support HRDs, including through media and targeted social media and it should develop a global public communications strategy on HRDs.