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Human rights, democracy and the rule of law


Universal and indivisible

Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights are the values on which the European Union is founded. Embedded in the Treaty on European Union, they have been reinforced by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Countries seeking to join the EU must respect human rights, and so must countries which have concluded trade and other agreements with it.

The European Union is committed to defending the universal and indivisible nature of human rights. It actively promotes and protects them both within its borders and in its relations with other countries. It does this by working in full and active partnership with EU Member States, partner countries, international organisations, regional organisations and civil society.

Beginning at home

Although the EU has a good human rights record on the whole, there is no room for complacency. The EU supports efforts to combat racism, xenophobia and other types of discrimination based on religion, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation, and is particularly concerned about human rights in the area of asylum and migration. The EU has a long tradition of welcoming people from other countries – those who come to work and those fleeing their homes because of war or persecution.

Fighting discrimination

Under its Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity (PROGRESS), the EU funds a wide range of activities to combat racism and xenophobia within its borders. Nearly a quarter of PROGRESS' €743 million budget is going towards fighting discrimination. The EU has also created a Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA).

Efforts to stop trafficking in human beings, especially women and children, are a political priority for the EU. It has run a series of cross-border programmes to fight against trafficking, particularly in cooperation with candidate countries and neighbours in south-eastern Europe.

A global force for human rights

The EU has put the human rights issue at the forefront of its relations with other countries and regions. All agreements on trade or cooperation with non-EU countries contain a clause stipulating that human rights are an essential element in relations. There are now more than 120 such agreements.

The most comprehensive is the Cotonou Agreement – the trade and aid pact which links the EU with 79 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (the ACP group). If any ACP country fails to respect human rights, EU trade concessions can be suspended and aid programmes curtailed. The EU sees democratic political structures as a precondition for reducing poverty – the main objective of its overseas development policy. It applies the same principles to other partner countries.

The EU’s programme of emergency humanitarian assistance around the world is not normally subject to restrictions because of human rights breaches. Aid – whether it be cash, food, services or technical assistance – is provided with the sole aim of relieving human suffering, regardless of whether the cause is a natural disaster or misrule by an oppressive regime.

In recent years, the EU has maintained a human rights dialogue with countries like Russia, China and Iran. It has imposed sanctions for human rights breaches on Burma (Myanmar) and Zimbabwe.

Taking the initiative

To promote human rights around the world, the EU funds the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights. The initiative, with a €1.1 billion budget for 2007-13, puts respect for human rights and democracy into a global context and focuses on four areas:

  • strengthening democracy, good governance and the rule of law (support for political pluralism, a free media and sound justice system)
  • abolishing the death penalty where it still exists
  • combating torture through preventive measures (like police training and education) and punitive measures (international tribunals and criminal courts)
  • fighting racism and discrimination by ensuring respect for political and civil rights.

The initiative also funds projects for gender equality and the protection of children. In addition, it supports joint action between the EU and other organisations involved in the defence of human rights, such as the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy

In June 2012 the Foreign Affairs Council adopted a Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy with an Action Plan for putting it into practice. This is the first time that the European Union has had a unified Strategic Framework for this vital policy area, with such a wide-ranging plan of action for its implementation.

The Framework sets out principles, objectives and priorities, all designed to improve the effectiveness and consistency of EU policy as a whole in the next ten years. They provide an agreed basis for a truly collective effort, involving EU Member States as well as the EU Institutions. The Strategic Framework also anchors a commitment to genuine partnership with civil society. The Framework is also designed to be as readable as possible, so as to be accessible to all citizens.

The EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy brings together 97 actions under 36 headings, prepared on the basis of consultations by the European External Action Service, involving the European Commission and EU Member States, which are jointly responsible for implementation. Informal consultations have also been held with MEPs and NGOs. The Action Plan and covers the period until 31 December 2014.

One of the commitments of the Action Plan is that the EU should present its performance in meeting its objectives in its annual report on human rights and democracy in the world. This should give an opportunity to all stakeholders in EU policy, including civil society, to assess the impact of EU action and contribute to defining future priorities.


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*This text originates from the EU's official website:

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