Belarus has weaponised refugees and migrants. “Europe’s last dictator”, Alexander Lukashenko, does not care one jot about human rights. He cynically uses human beings as pawns to keep himself in power at all costs. Lukashenko understands that the European Union is desperate to avoid another migrant crisis (and the resulting political shockwaves), and he is exploiting this fear by using migrants as a “hybrid weapon”.
Does the European Union care about human rights? Or is it more interested in political stability and trade deals? Do political and economic interests trump so-called European values? How can the EU be taken seriously when it tries to promote democracy, civil rights and human rights internationally?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Pamela, who is concerned about human rights globally (and she specifically mentions the killing of environmental activists and indigenous peoples in South America). How, then, can the EU protect human rights defenders in oppressive regimes?
To get a response, we put Pamela’s comment to Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of the Beirut-based Samir Kassir Foundation, an NGO campaigning for press freedom in Lebanon and the Levant region, and a 2017 MENA Young Leader. How would he respond?
Hi, Pamela. The issue of human rights defenders being assassinated is also quite similar to the issue of journalists being assassinated all over the world. The EU can do a lot. First, by shedding light on what’s happening; democracy and freedom die in darkness, so by talking about these people, about their legacy and about their values, by shedding light on their legacy, we would be protecting or contributing to the protection or shielding of other people. The EU should make sure that the memory of assassinated human rights defenders is always there, but the second major problem is related to internal EU mechanisms, to make sure that the culprits are sanctioned and, very often, these culprits are very much affiliated with regimes, with governments. So, this is the real question. Is the EU willing to hold accountable specific leaders, even if this means potentially disrupting internal political processes and even if this means contradicting the will of individual Member States of the EU? This is the real question. This is the real debate we all need to have with the EU.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and currently Chair of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism. How would he respond?
First of all, I think it’s a very important question because, indeed, the reality we see is that human rights defenders around the world are at risk. Many are killed, including environmental defenders, including in indigenous communities, as mentioned by Pamela, but far beyond this. We have hundreds of human rights defenders at risk each year, because of doing nothing else than helping victims, giving them a voice, protecting rights which should be a normal thing in a democratic society, but they end up in prison, so there’s an enormous protection need.
But maybe, before I speak about what the EU can do about this, I think it’s important to say why it needs to do something. It’s because human rights defenders give a voice to those who don’t have a voice usually. They are like the oxygen in a democratic society. If you can’t have dissent, if you can’t have different opinions, then democracy can’t deliver on something like social equality, or on sustainable development in the face of climate change. We have to see human rights defenders as the oxygen for a just and fair society.
So, how can the EU help protect them? There are European guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders, adopted by the Council of the European Union back in 2004 and repeated ever since, about the priority to protect human rights defenders outside the European Union. And, I would say, the EU should also protect them inside the European Union, as we see in the migration context, for example, at the moment…
In addition, the European Commission has created what they call the European Union Human Rights Defenders Protection Mechanism, and it’s called protectdefenders.eu, and I’m presently chairing this mechanism. It’s not an institution, it’s not a powerhouse in terms of the EU – with a fantastic building in Brussels or something – it’s a consortium that is funded by 11 organisations that has the reach and the ability to protect people.
What does it mean in practice? It means we index attacks and threats against human rights defenders, provide advocacy material and resources, and support when people are victimised. It might mean that we have to find ways to get people into safety temporarily. It might mean that we have to support the lifelines of organisations that are being threatened in so many countries in many, many ways.
So we, in a very practical way, can protect human rights defenders. But we also – and I think this is the essence of the question – we need the European Union for its political support to protect human rights defenders, to speak out, to go to the trials, to question impunity, to draw attention to the killings of environmental defenders and the killings of human rights defenders. So, there are many practical ways to support human rights defenders around the world, and what we need is, indeed, the political will to speak out and give voice to the issue.
On Wednesday 17 November, Friends of Europe’s annual peace, security and defence summit will bring together up to 200 senior stakeholders from the world of European and transatlantic security to discuss potential synergies between the EU Strategic Compass and NATO 2030 and bring forward recommendations on how these initiatives should establish collaborative frameworks to work together towards shared objectives.
How can the EU protect human rights defenders in oppressive regimes? Is it hypocritical of the EU to promote human rights abroad before getting its own house in order? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!