European Views | In hosting the first-ever Global State of Human Rights conference a couple of weeks ago, the European Parliament clearly signalled that it sees itself at the vanguard of promoting the rule of law, both inside and outside the bloc. Indeed, at the last plenary session alone, the Parliament adopted resolutions on the democratic crisis in Nicaragua, the repression of the opposition in Turkey, Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty, press freedom in Hong Kong, political prisoners in Iran, and the rights of Hungary’s LGBT citizens.
While these resolutions are non-binding, the steady drumbeat of criticism has made the European Parliament one of the most prominent global voices calling for the universal respect of human rights. At the same time, it’s not clear whether the EP’s interventions are always the most effective way for the European Union to safeguard fundamental rights around the world.
As the European Parliament continues to use its platform to call out egregious human rights violations, MEPs may come to appreciate the need to modulate their approach depending on the situation, in order to avoid doing “more harm than good.” While collaborative engagement can incentivise countries with human rights issues to reform, experts such as Shada Islam of the New Horizons Project warn that antagonising countries with problematic human rights records can often have the perverse effect of worsening their behaviour.
Shaming human rights violators not always a winning strategy
The clearest example of the “too much stick, not enough carrot” approach can be seen in the way EU-China relations have soured in recent months, after the European Parliament refused to ratify the landmark Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) until Beijing lifts sanctions on a number of European policymakers. The Parliament has also threatened to refuse to approve the investment accord, depending on the human rights situation in China.
Beijing has reacted defiantly, and the state of human rights in China has only worsened since the Parliament’s gambit. This fits a long pattern in which efforts to shame Beijing into improving its human rights record have ultimately proven counterproductive, sparking “indignation born of national pride” and little else. A fresh Parliament resolution urging European officials to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics is unlikely to improve ties—or China’s attitude towards human rights.
Human rights experts advise that Western policymakers need to instead turn avenues of cooperation with Beijing into levers of pressure if they are serious about reforms in China. The European Commission was attempting to do something similar with the CAI, in which Brussels managed to secure commitments from Beijing on climate change and international labour standards after nearly seven years of negotiations.
While MEPs were right to point out these promises were somewhat vague and difficult to enforce, EU officials emphasised the deal was still a rare chance to get China to commit to something on paper. Refusing to ratify the accord allowed MEPs to emphasise that they prioritise human rights over the economy, but this has not yielded any concessions from Beijing nor has it led to an improvement in human rights in the country.
Reforms are rarely an all-or-nothing proposition
When MEPs argue third countries’ efforts to improve their human rights records do not go far enough, for example, they risk discouraging would-be reformers and even stalling their progress. Take Kazakhstan, where president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev replaced long-time leader Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019 and has advocated large-scale economic and political reforms to make the Central Asian country a more open and democratic society.
While the pandemic has slowed progress somewhat, Kazakhstan has taken some concrete steps forward. The country formally abolished the death penalty in January, following through on the commitment it made when joining the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Electoral reforms have paved the way to direct elections of rural mayors, and this spring, authorities in Almaty allowed a march to celebrate International Women’s Day to go ahead for the first time. In June, Tokayev signed a decree laying out further efforts to improve the country’s handling of human rights questions, including measures to reform the criminal justice system and crack down on discrimination against women – both issues previously raised by the EU in its human rights dialogue with Kazakhstan.
Most importantly, Kazakhstan’s government seems willing to acknowledge shortcomings and attempt to remedy them. Kazakh Human Rights Commissioner Elvira Azimova recently admitted Nur-Sultan previously considered the “economic situation comes first, human rights second” but insisted that Kazakhstan is now ready to prioritise human rights. However, these efforts seem to have fallen on deaf ears in the European Parliament, as MEPs continue to flex their diplomatic muscles, passing resolutions that do not acknowledge the steps forward the country has taken in recent years.
Human rights advocacy undermined by political plays?
Some other cases, meanwhile, risk denting the European Parliament’s credibility, especially when human rights complaints appear to be weaponised against the background of diplomatic spats. For example, the Western Sahara question has long been a thorny one for the European institutions, with often-contradictory policies straddling the line between Europe’s economic ties to Morocco, the right to self-determination, as well as war crimes allegations against Polisario Front fighters. Making matters worse, an explosive 2015 report from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) showed that the Front had spent decades embezzling EU humanitarian aid intended for the Tindouf camps in Algeria.
The latest flare-up in the Western Sahara saga, in which Spain surreptitiously admitted controversial Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali for medical treatment and Morocco apparently responded by allowing thousands of migrants to cross into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, was no less murky. The European Parliament’s decision to adopt a resolution pushed by Spain, condemning Morocco for exploiting migrant children, raised the uncomfortable question of whether European politicians were co-opting the fight for human rights to score political points.
While there’s no question the European Parliament has become a vital voice fighting for human rights around the world, the critical role it has come to play in upholding fundamental rights only underlines why it’s important for MEPs to ensure their interventions represent the right move at the right time. Otherwise, it could very well be much ado about nothing.