European Union External Action

Human Rights & Democracy

19/11/2020 - 14:30
Policy - Activity

The EU is a firm promoter and defender of human rights and democracy across the world, as well as within its own borders. Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent. Respect for human rights and democracy is essential for addressing global challenges.

Human rights regulate our day-to-day life. They structure how we live together within a society and aim to protect human dignity at all times.  Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent. Each individual is entitled to human rights. Human rights are always and everywhere applicable, including at times of conflict or crisis. All human rights are equally important to ensure human dignity, whether civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Human rights are at the core of both EU internal and external action and policy. The Lisbon Treaty (article 2 and article 21) stipulates that the Union's action on the international scene shall be guided by the values that have inspired its own foundation.

Human rights and democracy at the core of EU external action



In a shifting geopolitical landscape, the EU has remained a strong defender of human rights. New geopolitical rivalries only serve to underline its role as a reliable and stable partner, and a champion of the rules-based international order. While there have been great leaps forward, the pushback against the universality and indivisibility of human rights and backsliding on democracy must be addressed. New challenges such as digital technologies and climate change are intertwined with human rights and therefore a renewed approach is required.

The EU invests in the empowerment of human rights defenders and civil society that promote and protect human rights. Every year, the EU organises the EU-NGO Human Rights Forum where civil society organisations and human rights defenders share their views on how to strengthen EU external policies on human rights.

The EU Special Representative for Human Rights (EUSR) is mandated to enhance the effectiveness, visibility and coherence of EU’s external human rights policies and to bring forward a positive narrative on human rights. Apart from engaging with the UN, the EUSR chairs human rights dialogues with third countries and deepens political cooperation with relevant partners. The EUSR draws attention to urgent human rights violations and promotes compliance with international humanitarian law and support for international criminal justice. While ensuring the integration of human rights in all EU external action, the EUSR plays a central role in guiding the implementation of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.

EUSR Gilmore on a field visit in Qatar, engaging on workers’ rights © EU/EUSREUSR Gilmore on a field visit in Qatar, engaging on workers’ rights © EU/EUSR

The Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024), the third of its kind, serves to implement the Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy (adopted in 2012), which lays out the key principles, objectives and priorities for EU external policies. The Action Plan is structured around five lines of action:

I   Protecting and empowering individuals

II  Building resilient, inclusive and democratic societies

III  Promoting a global system for human rights and democracy

IV  New technologies: Harnessing opportunities and addressing challenges

V  Delivering by working together

© EU/ECHO/Jonathan Hyams

The 13 EU Guidelines on Human Rights translate the priorities into concrete tools for EU policy makers, EU Delegations and Member States:

The EU features a wide variety of instruments for the implementation of its human rights policy. Such tools include public diplomacy, statements and resolutions in multilateral fora, statements and démarches, sanctions, projects and programmes, trial observations and human rights and political dialogue. The EU has launched several targeted campaigns, including the Good Human Rights Stories initiative that promotes a fresh, positive narrative on human rights in the world. The EU seeks to integrate human rights in all its external action, including trade, migration and environmental policies.

Over the years, human rights dialogues have been established with around 60 partner countries throughout the world. They provide a platform for raising human rights concerns, exchange of best practices and strengthening bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

The NDICI programme for human rights and democracy, with a budget of €1.5 billion (2021-2027) is the successor of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). It assists partners, notably civil society organisations and other non-governmental stakeholders, in becoming an effective force for the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law worldwide. The programme supports actions at local, national, regional and global level.

The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime enables the EU to respond even more forcefully to serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide. It will encompass the imposition of travel ban to the EU and asset freeze in the EU.

Key areas of engagement as reflected in the new Action Plan include:

The European Union is strongly opposed to the death penalty. The death penalty is cruel and inhuman, a violation of the right to life and does not act as a deterrent to crime. The death penalty is discriminatory: it disproportionally affects minorities, the poor and most vulnerable.

The EU is a leading political actor and the world’s largest donor in the fight against the death penalty. Huge progress has been made towards achieving full-world abolition. While in 1960, only 25 countries were abolitionist, today 112 countries have abolished in law and there are no executions over the last 10 years in 162 countries, out of the 193 UN member states. These numbers continue to grow.

In line with the EU Guidelines on Death Penalty, the EU consistently raises the issue in political or human rights dialogues with countries that still use capital punishment. It encourages abolition, alternatively advocates for a moratorium or at the very least to respect international minimum standards. At the multilateral level, a major breakthrough is the adoption since 2007 at the UN General Assembly of resolutions calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty.

The prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is absolute in international law. The EU's strong commitment to the fight against torture and ill-treatment is enshrined in the European Union Treaties and Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The EU follows a comprehensive approach to eradicate torture (prohibition, prevention, accountability of perpetrators, redress for the victims) using all the political and financial tools at its disposal. This is reflected in the EU Guidelines on torture and ill treatment.

The EU encourages all countries to ratify and effectively implement the UN Convention against Torture and its optional protocol (OPCAT) and cooperate with the UN Committee against Torture as well as other monitoring mechanisms. It also promotes the Global Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, a cross-regional effort bringing together more than 60 countries committed to ending trade in goods used for capital punishment and torture, and supports the establishment of international standards in this field.   

The fulfilment of girls’ and women’s human rights is a cornerstone of EU external action. The current backlash against gender equality globally is threatening hard-won progress and a threat to democracy and development. The EU is committed to scaling up action on gender equality in policy and programming.

In addition to the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, the Gender Action Plan III (2021-2025) outlines more specific priorities and actions for the EU. The EU actively participates in the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the biggest global policy-making body on gender equality.

The EU promotes women’s rights in conflict situations and advances women’s leadership and role in conflict prevention and resolution, such as in Syria and Yemen, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325. EU Common Security and Defence (CSDP) missions, civilian and military, have dedicated gender advisors to further advance gender equality on the ground.

Violence against women remains one of the most widespread human rights challenges today, with a drastic increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU Guidelines on violence against women and girls continue guiding EU’s external action. The joint UN-EU Spotlight Initiative aims to eliminate all gender-based violence worldwide by 2030. In collaboration with the African Union, the EU advocates for the criminalization of female genital mutilation, a practice which gradually has decreased globally.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights remains a key priority. Girls and women – in all corners of the world – need to have the right to decide freely over matters relating to their body and sexuality. The EU promotes universal access to SRHR services and comprehensive sexual education.

A human rights defender (HRD) is any person who, individually or with others, act to promote and protect human rights. For example, journalists, bloggers, members of human rights NGOs, academics, lawyers, trade unionists, representatives of indigenous communities can be HRDs. They stand up for the rights of others, which is why it is so essential to protect them and their families. They often do so at great personal cost. In standing against human rights violations committed by States and non-state actors, HRDs are increasingly exposed to serious threats, including physical attacks, harassment, smear campaigns, arbitrary detention, torture and killings.

As laid out in the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, the EU is firmly committed to protect HRDs at risk by enhancing their visibility and recognition, and by publicly speaking out against the threats, they face.

Together with civil society organisations, the EU set up the Protect Defenders mechanism: a 24/7 hotline for HRDs that face immediate risk, which can finance a wide range of measures, including legal representation, medical costs and protection measures. The EU has a variety of tools that it can use to protect HRDs at risk, including trial observations or visits in detention, while using public and private diplomacy to raise individual cases of HRDs at risk.

Human rights are at the heart of multilateralism and are a strong component of the United Nations system. In the context of declining support for multilateral institutions, the EU remains a staunch defender of effective multilateralism and the rules-based international order, which is critical to respond successfully to global challenges.

The EU is a leader in the universal promotion and protection of human rights at multilateral level, mainly through the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly Third Committee. The EU also actively supports the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Council of Europe (CoE), the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), specialised UN agencies, and other organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The EU supports UN human rights mechanisms for human rights protection and standard-setting and the reporting, monitoring and denouncing of human rights violations, such as thematic and country-specific statements and resolutions, commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions, other Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The EU aims for cross-regional cooperation with like-minded partners worldwide in order to ensure wide support and successful implementation.

The EU is fully committed to help ensuring accountability for the most serious crimes of concern to the international community. The EU views the International Criminal Court (ICC) as the cornerstone in the fight against impunity and to help victims of atrocities to achieve justice.

The EU is resolved to continue protecting the independence of the Court and the integrity of the Rome Statute. The EU promotes the national implementation of the Rome Statute and its principle of complementarity, in particular by strengthening national justice systems. The EU also encourages the universal ratification of the Rome Statute and full cooperation with the Court.

Everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief. This right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Religious intolerance and discrimination often underlies and precedes conflict. In line with the EU guidelines on freedom of religion or belief, the EU is committed to promote and protect FORB for all. The EU condemns persecution, discrimination and violence against persons belonging to religious minorities and communities, while defending the right for individuals to manifest their religion or belief, to change or leave a religion or belief.

Both in its bilateral action and in multilateral fora, the EU raises concerns for the criminalization of apostasy and blasphemy, as well as legislation that hinders official registration for religious groups.

The EU is committed to prevent intra and inter-faith violence, and to promote interfaith dialogue. Some key initiatives such as the community-based initiative Global exchange on religion in society facilitates the exchange of positive examples of interreligious coexistence to counter the polarizing narrative of a clash of civilizations that often dominates today. It aims to empower key actors in fostering social inclusion in their societies.

Free, independent and pluralistic media are indispensable for democratic society. The EU has adopted specific EU Guidelines on freedom of expression online and offline

Technological innovations in information and communications technology have created new opportunities for individuals to share their opinion with a mass audience and have enhanced political participation and access to information. However, innovations have also brought new challenges, such as online censorship, hate speech and surveillance. Narratives about “fake news” and disinformation campaigns affect our ability to form an opinion independently.

All human rights that exist offline must also be protected online. Against the background of EU measures to tackle online disinformation, a number of large online platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter have agreed with the EU on self-regulatory Codes of Conduct on Hate Speech and Disinformation.

The EU mainstreams the Rights of the Child in all its external policies, whether in the context of humanitarian or conflict situations, school, poverty, displacement or migration, because there are very few issues that do not concern the Rights of the Child.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights convention in history. Investing in children means investing in the future: it is vital for breaking the cycle of poverty. The Convention inspired the EU to adopt and change laws and policies aimed at ensuring that all children can fully enjoy their rights. The EU is guided by its principles: devotion to the best interests of the child, non-discrimination, respect for the views of the child, and their right to life, survival and development.

The EU continues to implement the EU Guidelines on the Rights of the Child and on children in armed conflict. In response to the Syrian crisis, the EU funded for example the Back to the Future project to provide education to refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan.

© Batuhan Yildirim  

The EU has stepped up its efforts over the last years to reinforce economic, social and cultural rights and strengthen the link between human rights and the environment in its external action.

The EU supports activities to raise awareness of the negative impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on human rights: to health, food security, safe drinking water and sanitation, adequate housing, education, culture, work and development and even life itself. Everyone’s ability to enjoy these human rights depends on healthy ecosystems.

© Patricio Crooker
© Patricio Crooker

Today 2.2 billion persons who have no access to safe water services. With the goal to support universal access to water and sanitation, the EU adopted the EU Guidelines on Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. The EU moreover promotes a human-centred future of work in which the right to safe and healthy working conditions are secured and that is free of violence and harassment.

The EU is the largest contributor to UNESCO and works closely with UNICEF to ensure the right to education, for example through the Generation Unlimited project. Only through free, inclusive and quality education for every child will we be able to eradicate poverty, inequality and resolve climate change challenges.

Upholding human rights is a responsibility of all actors of society, including business enterprises. The growing complexity and globalisation of supply chains renders it increasingly important to promote the application of high human rights and sustainability standards in third countries. In line with this, the EU is a frontrunner in implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the first globally agreed standard to prevent, address and remedy negative effects on human rights caused by business activities.

The EU has adopted a smart mix of voluntary and mandatory measures on business and human rights and responsible business conduct, including due diligence requirements for companies to identify and mitigate adverse human rights and environmental impacts associated with their activities and measures to guarantee access to remedy by victims of human rights violations. To date, 15 EU Member States have adopted National Action Plans on business and human rights to ensure the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. The EU also promotes responsible business conduct through projects assisting governments and businesses in Latin America and Asia.

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