Since the early 1990s, the European Union (EU) has included human rights clauses in international agreements. In 1995, the EU Council formally adopted a policy which stated that all EU cooperation and international trade agreements must incorporate human rights clauses. These clauses entitle a party to respect democratic principles and human rights and take appropriate measures, including the suspension of the contract if the said norms are violated. However, in some instances, the application of standards and policies by the Union and member states fall short, exposing the vulnerable and marginalised to abuse. Moreover, the EU’s internal actions exhibit inadequacy in upholding the human rights of external migrants and the internal population. The 2023 World Report observes the state of human rights in nearly 100 countries, also encompassing the EU region.
The human rights clauses serve dyadic rationales, which reflect the EU’s obligations in Article 21(3) of the Treaty on EU: respect and promote human rights norms in its external actions. First, human rights clauses enable the EU to uphold human rights and avoid contributing to its violations by permitting the EU to suspend obligations that could lead to such violations. Second, the clauses establish a normative basis for human rights dialogues, induce third countries to comply with human rights standards, and prevent third countries from objecting towards EU promotional activities in their territories, like supporting human rights defenders, by threatening them to withdraw benefits or promising to restore the already withdrawn benefits.
Against this background, the World Report 2023 examined human rights abuses within the EU during 2022. It assessed the responses to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers; unequal treatment, intolerance and discrimination amongst natives and non-natives; poverty and social exclusion; backsliding on the rule of law; fatalities caused by climate crisis; and cooperation with foreign countries which overlook human rights.
The EU’s internal actions exhibit inadequacy in upholding the human rights of external migrants and the internal population.
The report highlighted the EU’s positive attitude towards the influx of Ukrainian refugees following Russia’s invasion in February, but it sharply contrasted with the strict treatment experienced by other regions. By September, more than 4 million (of which 90% were women and girls) refugees from Ukraine had migrated to and were accommodated in Europe. Meanwhile, other asylum seekers, for instance, Afghan refugees, encountered unlawful violence and pushbacks at EU borders, a halt in the evacuation of local staff and decreased recognition rates. EU members involved in illegal pushbacks of migrants from other regions mainly included Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Lithuania, and Estonia. Due to the substandard reception conditions for asylum seekers, fatalities and other health risks occurred. Moreover, despite arbitrary arrests, detention, extortion, reduced freedom of movement, and other abuses, the EU and its member states continued accommodating asylum seekers from Libya, Egypt and Morocco, among others.
Discrimination and prejudice were encountered by non-Ukrainians within and across EU borders. European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) annual report published in June 2023 depicted the emerging racism, excessive use of force, and ethnic profiling of migrants in identity checks in European countries. Reportedly, Roma refugees were provided poor accommodation compared to Ukrainians under the same circumstances and were sometimes declined shelter by local authorities.
Apart from the mistreatment of refugees and migrants, the disregard for human rights within the EU is also a matter of concern. Due to the energy price inflation and social exclusion, people were deprived of their fundamental rights and support. EU data extracted from September 2022 indicated that 95.4 million people, approx. 21.7% of the population was at risk of social exclusion and poverty. The proposed measure of instrumentalisation, to ensure the right to seek asylum and make amendments to the Schengen Borders Code, falls short as the regulation is expected to exacerbate ethnic profiling and expand the use of surveillance technology at borders.
The rule of law is threatened in most European states, notably in Hungary and Poland, such that the former is even described as “no longer a democracy.” The European Commission did not address the lack of implementation of EU Court of Justice rulings by the governments of these states. And despite releasing its third rule of law report, which incorporated recommendations for the member states for the first time, it was termed unspecific and vague.
In May, European Commission introduced the REPower EU Plan to reduce dependence on fossil fuels but also proposed new investments in fossil gas and LNG, which contribute to the climate crisis. Approximately 62,862 heat-related deaths occurred in Europe, with Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom having the highest mortality numbers. This depicted an insignificant climate crisis proposal formulated by the Union. Lastly, the EU’s relations with foreign states conducting human rights violations and abusive leaders raised questions over its credibility in advocating for human rights. It sealed energy deals with Israel and relaunched negotiations with India over free trade, depicting the EU’s silence over human rights abuses in these nations. Similarly, the Union’s decision to reconvene its Association Council meeting with Israel faced criticism from human rights groups as well as European Parliament members due to Israel’s escalating repression of Palestinians’ civil society.
Despite these limitations, the EU has established a leading role in UN General Assembly resolutions concerning human rights issues in Syria, North Korea, Iran and Myanmar and condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine. There are a few recommendations for EU and member states to adopt to secure its place as a human rights advocate: all EU governments not only have the opportunity but the responsibility to take action to protect human rights within and beyond their borders; human rights violations can never be anticipated to be a part of border control practices; the utility and effectiveness of human rights clauses need to be improved by improving their operability, monitoring, and enforcement; the fourth edition of the rule of law report addresses 65% of last year’s recommendations and should fully implement further suggestions; European Commission proposed directive on adequate minimum wages, a vital principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights, needs to be implemented to minimise social exclusion and ensure right-based approach.