EU Guidelines on Human Rights as a Foreign Policy Instrument: An Assessment

Written by | Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Jan Wouters and Marta Hermez (Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies)

The issue of human rights is absolutely crucial for the EU. Not only are these rights one of the Union’s fundamental values, they are also the guiding principle of its foreign policy. The general principles of the EU policy in the area of human rights consist of eleven thematic areas. These areas were adopted by the Council and include, apart from the standard points, such as the protection of women’s and children’s rights, also the promotion of freedom of expression on the Internet and beyond, as well as protection of the rights of sexual minorities.

At the national level, the Union seeks to encourage third countries to introduce changes based on these thematic areas. To that end, the primary goal is to criminalize violations of human rights and to eliminate discriminatory laws and policies. The creation of a legal framework that will ensure protection of the victims that became subject to human rights breaches is yet another important step. Such a system would allow victims to provide testimony without fear of what consequences this might bring.

The extent to which human rights are important for the EU is also demonstrated by special clauses, which are an inseparable part of various trade deals or cooperation agreements. The latter may be restricted or completely suspended due to any violation of the particular human rights clause. The EU also seeks to disseminate human rights through the cooperation with various international organizations that focus on this issue. The UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE are among such forums. The EU, however, not only seeks to support such organizations but it also cooperates with them, shapes their agenda and uses their mechanisms to promote human rights.

The EU generally aims to promote the issue of human rights in all its external actions, from business through energy to environmental policy. These human rights principles are therefore a valuable political tool, which leads to the strengthening of the EU diplomacy. Still, these are not legally binding rules. The Union is therefore criticized for the fact that there has not been a formal and complex debate within the EU itself that would determine how and when it should resort to negative measures for non-compliance with these rules related to its human rights global agenda. For the EU, efforts to develop the full potential of this political instrument (even while a similar agenda is simultaneously pursued by individual Member States) will be an important future challenge.

 (The study can be downloaded here:

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