The European Commission and the European External Action Service adopted on 28 April 2015 a new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2015-2019. It builds on the experience from the implementation of the first Human Rights and Democracy Action Plan 2012-2014.
The first Action Plan fostered a human rights culture within the EU both in Brussels and in EU Delegations third countries. It triggered further development of the EU’s thematic policies by adopting new sets of EU Human Rights Guidelines, and advancing their implementation through tailor-made human rights country strategies. It facilitated mainstreaming of human rights into other EU external policies, such as development, crisis management, and counter-terrorism. But its implementation also unveiled challenges in promoting the universality of human rights in the changing global order. It did not succeed in ensuring internal-external coherence, which undermined the EU’s position vis-à-vis third countries and in multilateral fora. Engagement with civil society at local level also showed its limits, as there was no systematic cooperation with NGOs, especially at higher levels.
The new Action Plan kept some features of its predecessor. Both documents refer to the EU’s obligation to promote human rights and democracy, the need to safeguard a coherent human rights approach to all EU policies, and to advance the human rights agenda in bilateral and multilateral relations. There are also some new elements. The most prominent change is the overall approach of choosing key strategic priorities that respond to the most pressing problems as oppose to the former focus on wide-ranging issues that essentially covered the whole scope of the EU human rights policy. The new Action Plan identified five overarching challenges and proposed corresponding action areas, namely: 1) supporting local ownership of human rights, 2) addressing key thematic issues, 3) ensuring comprehensive approach to human rights in conflicts and crises, 4) fostering coherence and consistency, and 5) deepening the effectiveness and results. Under each heading, it outlined concrete actions, a total number of which, similarly to the previous Action Plan, exceeds ninety. An important new feature is a mid-term review that will take place in 2017 to evaluate progress and make any necessary adjustments.
The main criterion in selecting the action areas was the need for a renewed political commitment and additional efforts. And thus many of them focus on issues that have not figured prominently on the agenda before:
1) support to national human rights institutions, election bodies, parliaments, justice sector, local civil society, and regional mechanisms;
2) freedom of expression and privacy; gender empowerment; business and human rights; economic, social and cultural rights; non-discrimination;
3) conflict prevention; compliance with international humanitarian law, accountability;
4) mainstreaming human rights in policies on migration; trade and investment policy; and development;
5) effectiveness of human rights policy.
At the same time, the new Action Plan did not cover in detail those areas where the EU established comprehensive policy basis and long-standing practices, e.g. human rights defenders, women’s rights, or freedom of religion or belief. However, the principle of addressing issues that required strengthened efforts was not consistently applied as the Action Plan also covered areas with well-developed policies and vast operational experience, such as children’s rights, combatting torture, and abolition of the death penalty.
It is welcomed that the EU adopted a new Action Plan as it confirms its determination to keep human rights high on the foreign policy agenda. The Action Plan recognised the necessity of a more strategic approach to bring change in areas that need it most, but it still proposed numerous, short- and longer-term, micro and macro actions. It also acknowledged the need to empower the EU through various tools to engage on human rights more smartly, however, it did not establish a concrete and clear methodology on how this will be practically achieved. The Action Plan also underlined the importance of a results-oriented approach to the human rights agenda, but the proposed actions did not indicate the desirable results that should be achieved by them. The actual value of the new Action Plan will in any case be tested in the implementation phase.