Can Europe Make It?

Silence – the EU’s strategy for human rights abuses in its neighbourhood

Talk in Brussels among non-governmental organisations and parliamentarians is that the EU lacks a strategy to address human rights violations in the European neighbourhood. However, what if the EU has a strategy?

Florian Irminger
29 February 2016
 'Putin, if you love something - set it free!'

Euro-maidan two years ago: protestor holds a sign (in Russian): 'Putin, if you love something - set it free!'Meeting in Brussels on Monday 15 February 2016, foreign ministers of European Union member states adopted the EU’s strategy for engagement at the United Nations. However, when studying the document, one wonders if the strategy isn’t actually more to do with a lack of EU engagement on human rights at the UN.


Belarus, for example, remains what it has always been: a country in which anybody can at any given time be arrested or released according to rules set out in presidential decrees, rather than the rule of law. What does the EU Council have to say about this? The answer is nothing more than an empty avowal that, “the EU will continue to follow closely the human rights situation.” Even the Council’s conclusions specific to Belarus (also issued on 15 February), which lifted the sanctions whilst expressing concern over the human rights situation, do not state that the EU will maintain Belarus’s place on the agenda of the UN.

The EU should have used this opportunity to clarify its strategy. Belarus is the only European country that is not a member of the Council of Europe, and the continued use of the death penalty will prevent any rapprochement in this regard. Belarus must therefore be monitored by the UN.

The EU is willing to lift the sanctions on Belarus, but this should not come without conditions. A renewed mandate for the special rapporteur on Belarus at the UN should be a minimum condition for the EU’s opening of links with the country.

This would link the EU’s economic influence with a push for universal human rights, and signal an EU human rights strategy in which the EU uses its political and economic ties in its neighbourhood as a tool to advance human rights at the UN, rather than as a reason to remain silent on these issues.


Delving further, it seems that the EU’s strategy of silence at the UN is not confined to Belarus, but extends to any country within its neighbourhood.

Azerbaijan now has more than 100 prisoners of conscience, as documented by Azerbaijani human rights groups. Since 2009, it has systematically built legal apparatus to crack down on civil society. Since 2014, it has arrested leading civil society figures or forced them to flee the country.

Many of the human rights defenders who had projects funded by the EU are now effectively prevented from implementing them, as they sit behind bars.

The EU should stand up for them at the UN, not only to do justice to the EU’s human rights commitments, but also because it is European institutions, decisions, and laws that the Azerbaijani authorities have ignored in their crackdown on civil society.

The EU should have a strategy for raising the situation in Azerbaijan at the UN, increasingly making its human rights violations visible internationally, but instead it remains silent. And one worries whether this silence is actually the EU’s strategy.

Russian Federation

Turning a blind eye to the repression of civil society also seems to be Brussels’ approach to repression in the Russian Federation, since President Vladimir Putin’s election in 2012. Legislation inspired from Belarus has spread to Azerbaijan and Russia and has even been perfected, refined and strengthened by the Duma in Moscow. From “foreign agents” to “undesirable organisations,” human rights non-governmental organisations have no space to participate in public debate without being stigmatised, harassed or punished. Advocating human rights, seeking information about human rights abuses, and documenting violations have become not only “political activities,” but indeed suspect behaviours.

The EU states that it values “a strong partnership with civil society,” and that it opposes restrictions on the activities, registration, and access to funding of civil society organisations. However, it fails to say how it will oppose these restrictions. Even worse, it remains dramatically silent on the human rights situation in Russia, when in fact such a crackdown on media, political activities and civil society at large should be on the EU’s agenda at the UN.

Russia is mentioned only in the context of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea. And one must worry that, again, it is the EU’s strategy to ignore the fact that rights groups in Russia have been labelled “foreign agents” due to their human rights work in relation to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, such as the Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint Petersburg, which denounced the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine and the silence of the authorities in this regard.

Countries within the EU

It seems it is hard for the EU to speak the truth about its neighbours on human rights, and this is particularly dangerous at a time when this repression is spreading across the continent, such as the degradations in Hungary and Poland. These are countries within the EU, directly affected by the EU’s neighbours and their policies of repression.

These are EU member states, and EU neighbours, and it is the EU that needs to address this at the UN, naming the countries in Europe where civil society space is disappearing, and having a strategy at the UN to oppose the exportation of civil society repression.


Sadly, the EU even limits its engagement at the UN on Ukraine to human rights violations linked to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea. On the second anniversary of Euromaidan, not a word is said about the deaths of demonstrators, of whom many had the European flag in their hands, not a word on the Kyiv government’s inability to combat a sense of impunity for those acts, and not a word about the Ukrainian government’s lack of engagement in implementing the recommendations to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which the EU has lent its “full support.” Again, silence is not a credible strategy in this case.

Two years after Euromaidan and the beginning of the occupation in Crimea, the EU should have announced that it will use the UN, both the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, to hold the Ukrainian government to its human rights commitments, to secure credible steps to implement the UN recommendations, and to take further action to detail at the UN what progress is expected from Kyiv, as well as what will await illegal armed groups and what the occupying force in Crimea must know about its responsibility for human rights abuses.

Too far to go for a strategy?

The talk in Brussels among non-governmental organisations and parliamentarians is that the EU lacks a strategy to address human rights violations in the European neighbourhood. However, reading the conclusions of the EU’s strategy for the UN adopted on Monday, one fears that the EU does in fact have a strategy for human rights.

It is a strategy of silence, which does not hold states accountable to their universal commitments, does not raise their wrongdoings publicly, and avoids, in any case, the EU raising its voice against the deteriorating situation in its neighbourhood.

The EU needs a strategy that treats countries equally, that holds the leaders of states to their commitments by engaging with the international community, and that clarifies that the EU’s political agenda is indeed the promotion of universal human rights.

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