The Coalition pledge to put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy is bearing fruit. Thanks especially to pressure from the European Parliament – where as Vice-President for democracy and human rights I have lobbied hard – and the Foreign Office, civil society, the EU’s 27 governments recently adopted a comprehensive new approach. Jeremy Browne, our excellent minister for human rights, and I co-authored a recent article published by the Independent explaining the background of the ambitious new EU Human Rights package.
Although the EU’s foreign ministers gave the green light to a new Strategy with an associated Action Plan on human rights and democracy worldwide on June 25, the new EU ‘voice’ for this cannot be appointed until the House of Commons has given its formal approval next Thursday [12 July]. For the first time, the EU’s new foreign policy body, the European External Action Service led by another Brit, Cathy Ashton (albeit a former Labour Leader in the House of Lords) will have a thematic EU Special Representative on Human Rights.
Several candidates are in the frame, although the government decided not to put forward a Briton to work with Cathy Ashton. Among them are sitting and former MEPs and human rights diplomats.
Two years ago, Cathy Ashton told the European Parliament that she intended to make the issues of human rights and democracy a ‘sliver thread’ running through all the EU’s external policies. Now that aspiration is about to become a reality, with some 37 elements in the Strategy and 96 points in the Action Plan, most involving the Member States as well as EU bodies, ranging from the fight against the death penalty, the prevention of torture or the rights of the child.
On 12 July, the day of the debate in the House of Commons, I am chairing a lunchtime Roundtable on the new EU Human Rights approach at Europe House, home of the European Parliament in London. My intention is to cement the idea that the EU -and the new EU Special Representative for Human Rights- can amplify Britain’s already loud and principled voice on human rights worldwide.
British leadership in encouraging reform in the Arab world or Burma and elsewhere has been enhanced through the EU. Our ambition to make development policies increasingly based on reform, not simple handouts is bearing fruit, especially as the EU is largest aid donor in the world. Our relations with countries like China and Russia form part of a web of conditional arrangements, including human rights dialogues. While I have always argued that those human rights dialogues should be more frank and trade should where possible be separated from human rights and other democratic reforms – sanctions usually hurt the poorest, not the elites – there is no doubt where Britain and the EU stand on the principles: we stand together.
* Edward McMillan-Scott was MEP for Yorkshire & Humber 1984 – 2014, Conservative then Liberal Democrat since 2010. He was Vice-President of the European Parliament for Democracy & Human Rights 2004 - 2014