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, 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, 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!

Image Credits: Photo by Jana Shnipelson on Unsplash

24 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    EU Reform Proactive

    “Is it hypocritical of the EU to promote human rights abroad before getting its own house in order?”

    Yes- in more than one way! How many times does one need to repeat this?

    From the end of WWII to the ECSC- EEC- EU- adding more cinder and eventually losing its purpose by staggering from one into the next global political & military chaos & confrontation!

    Out of the 27 EU Members- 21 have NATO Membership as well.

    Both the EU & NATO entertain an aggressive & serious enlargement agenda.

    NATO under its Article10. The EU Enlargement policy falls under its Article 49 and Article 2 (“the EU values”). To the obvious dismay of Russia & China.

    This is a toxic combination which can lead to an unintentional eruption not seen since WWII- even leading to a next global war under US command- which everyone tried to prevent in Europe- but its eventual outcome could be the opposite!,%2C%20North%20Macedonia%2C%20and%20Turkey.

    It is the Council of Europe who is the original custodian of Human Rights in Europe- not the EU!

    The EU was originally proposed & supposed to be a purely economic & peace enhancing project between the (too easily excitable) war mongering European Nations.

    Either, the EU hands over the human rights issues to the CoE and returns to pure economics & trade- or continues on the present muddled path and risks to divide the CoE (& Russia) & plunges Europe into a serious of not economical- but political & military confrontations.

    The paradox- announcing to be friends with Russia while both feel the other is destabilizing & souring relations.

    What a mess!

    • avatar
      EU Reform Proactive

      Sorry- some more:

      DE: “Belarus has weaponised refugees and migrants”. “Europe’s last dictator…..“

      Yes, this dictator acts with the tacit support of Russia. Why?

      Well, if cynical & hypocritical politics is the order of the day, then similarly, the EU acts with the tacit support of NATO & still uses “in-officially”- a by Germany- self-appointed & discredited EU negotiator- namely the Honorable Mrs. Merkel. Why?

      Is this the zenith in illegal human migrant trade- the EU would take 2000- Belarus will send 4000 back? That’s not a deal! But another EU concession & defeat!

      Further, the EU in turn has weaponized its obedient citizens to stage street protests in support & defense of- (actually) the CoE’s Human Rights agenda.

      Cynically and hypocritically paraded as the copyrighted “EU27 HR agenda”.

      What happened to all 47 European nations who are signed & paid up members of the mother-body and HR custodian in Europe- THE CoE?

      Why is nobody using & reporting any CoE47 HR transgressors?

      Selective judgement? Coincidence or by EU design?

      Why is Poland left to carry the burden to secure its & the EU outer border alone? Another failure!

      Is it revenge, because Poland was in breach of the EU “rule of law” for some time now?

      Just another mess!

  2. avatar
    catherine benning

    How can the EU protect ‘Human Rights’ defenders in oppressive regimes?

    How about protecting the ‘Human Rights’ of those who pay their taxes to keep these politicians on their gravy train, right here inside of Europe.. This obsession the EU has with countries and foreigners from outside of European borders is a fanaticism very few, if any, voted for!

    Migration from across the world and financial aid to those putting this cash in private Swiss bank accounts, for whatever reason, is something never addressed on the platform of political intention, when these individuals run for office.. Why is that?

    What kind of kick back do they receive for such loyalty abroad? And more importantly why do European citizens vote these people back in, time and time again? Surely at some point, even the dullest of us must realise we are to blame for all we get when we do this.. The UK is identical.. to the point where now, in British Parliament, we have no opposition to what takes place on this issue.. The leading party is mimicked by the so called ‘opposition’ on this policy of cultural destruction.. And we all go to the polls and back them..

    No good saying, ‘well they don’t put anyone else up to opt for, so we have to’.. Do we? Do we really?

    Swiss Direct Democracy is the only answer to this fraudulent claim of rule we have ourselves caught in!

  3. avatar

    I have a better question: how EU can protect people escaping ruined by US and NATO allies’ life in their homes, instead of using pepper gas & water and threaten with weapons on the border? I feel ashamed being european looking at how we treat those who seek for a better life.

    • avatar
      catherine benning


      You want a better life, make it better in the country you are a citizen of.. It is not up to other people, who are just barely making a living for themselves, to offer you a a better way to make it.. You are an adult.. Club together with your community and fellow citizens and work at home toward the lifestyle you seek.. It is what we all have to do historically. You want an easy way to take it from those you perceive as having what you want.. That is rubbish.. Fight for your own life with your fellow man…. We are not your parents… Stop playing at being deserving infants.. You are not our infants.. Work on you own government, do not invade ours..

      And even before entering you complain about our right to tell you we don’t want your invasion.. So our freedom doesn’t suit your requirements does it? No point entering here then.. As you can’t cope with democratic freedom of speech..

  4. avatar

    Viktor? His name is Alexander. The EU doesn’t even know that name of the person they want to spread propaganda against.

    • avatar
      Debating Europe

      Hi Крис, thanks for picking up on this. We’re not “the EU”, but we do appreciate the correction. It’s been fixed. 😉

    • avatar

      cool lapsus though. There is a Viktor inside the EU who’s also acting like an a**.

  5. avatar
  6. avatar
    catherine benning
    How can the EU protect human rights defenders in oppressive regimes?

    This doctor made this video as a mission to help protect the ‘human rights’ of us all. This is important for the entire world to see and hear and judge for themselves if we are at danger from the Western defenders in our global world order?

    As an update of personal knowledge.. My close relatives have all taken the full requirements of the Covid vaccine.. It was demanded by their work regime.. They would lose their ‘Right’ to work should they decline this offer.. Yet, three weeks ago, three of them came down with Covid.. one seriously ill. She being early 40’s. The men in late thirties did not suffer so greatly.. So the purpose of this necessity to remain employed is?


  7. avatar

    After The Royal Court of Justice UK allowed extradition of Julian Assage to the US, is EU going to do anything to protect Assage? The UK court has already accepted that Assage has a suicidal tendency.

  8. avatar

    Why not ? Let’s protect Austrians, French, Germans…

  9. avatar

    Is the EU really interested in protecting Chinese people’s human rights or is it just a soft power strategy to recover presence in the international arena, hand by hand with the US as protector of liberal democracy?

  10. avatar

    Get rid of their own authoritarian dictatorship.

    • avatar

      exactly, invading other nations in the name of democracy or HRs only leads to more suffering and bloodshed

    • avatar
      JT HK

      Securing peace is for long-term. Offering asylum is only remedial. If peace negotiation and peace-keeping troops of the UN are sent, asylum is not required.

  11. avatar

    you mean protecting farmers in the Netherlands?
    i’m okay with that.

  12. avatar
    JT HK

    As a matter of fact, the whole world are shocked with the abnormal behaviour of the US and its allies, rather than help to negotiate for a peaceful settlement of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, they sent weapons and missiles to fuel the conflict, which has been leading to the perish of many Ukraine and Russian people. The US & EU have their hands soaked with blood, while China has been helping by sending humanitarian aid to the Ukraine. Zelensky has been calling for Turkey and China to help with the negotiation for peace with Russia. It is because Biden wanted Ukraine to fight for the American Great Again and would fuel the war until the last Ukrainian has died.

  13. avatar
    JT HK

    I seriously feel the threat of a second wave of refugees influx from the Middle East. It is because Biden appeared to be trying to ignite a war between Israel and Iran. Europe ought to monitor very closely what the US is trying to do in the Middle East. The US troops have been transporting oil and food out of Syria to Iraq. It might be a way to pile up resources for a regional conflict.

  14. avatar
    JT HK

    When you people of the “free” countries are busy protecting human rights on the street, people of the oppressive China are enjoying the prosperity and abundance the regime has brought them. European people ought to seek the truth rather than enjoying fake news. The following youtube is from an American who has been living more than a decade in the “oppressive regime”China :

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