The EU must use its human rights sanctions regime to supports rights defenders across the globe, writes, Heidi Hautula.
Brussels (Brussels Morning) The EU’s new global human rights sanctions regime has been welcomed universally. And so it should. The international community, civil society and in particular, human rights advocates and victims have welcomed the new regime, long-requested by the European Parliament. That is because the need for effective EU policy in human rights field is real.
As the EU Member States were putting the final touches on the new EU sanctions framework, Aleksey Navalny was fighting for his life in a Charite university hospital in Berlin. He had been evacuated to the German capital by air from Omsk after he became violently ill after the Russian security service tried to poison as he travelled to Siberia on 20 August 2020.
In Belarus, the Lukashenka regime continues its violent oppression and abuse of those who have taken to the streets and spoken against the conduct and outcome of the presidential elections of 9 August 2020. The elections were universally deemed unfree and unfair. Maria Kalesnikava remains in prison after masked men kidnapped her on 7 September 2020 in Minsk. Her pre-trial detention was extended on 6 January 2021 until 8 March. If convicted, she faces a sentence of up to five years. On 2 February, she was one of 220 political prisoners in Belarus, according to Viasna Human Rights Centre.
During the past week, Myanmar’s military seized power and imprisoned the country’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders. On 1 February the army announced that command had been handed over to commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The whereabouts of Ms Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are not known.
To this list it would be all too easy to add raft of human rights advocates who endure unlawful imprisonments and threats to their lives because they fight against multinational corporations ravaging their lands in Latin America, such as Arnold Joaquín Morazán Erazo, killed in Honduras on 13 October 2020; the legal representatives of women who stand accused of exercising their fundamental freedoms, such Nasrin Soutoudeh who is yet again detained in Iran; the dissidents who criticise the autocrats, such as Jamal Khashoggi, widely believed to have been murdered on the orders of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman and many others.
The new human rights sanctions regime will enable the EU to tackle all the above tragedies with speed and impact.
The regime, namely, the decision and regulation adopted by the EU Council on 7 December 2020, will enable the EU, for the first time, to target individuals, entities and bodies – including state and non-state actors – who are responsible for providing financial, technical, or material support for or are otherwise involved in, or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses, such as torture, slavery, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, trafficking and slavery worldwide, no matter where they may occur.
The restrictive measures will include travel bans applying to individuals and freezing of assets. It will similarly be prohibited for entities inside the EU to make funds available to the listed individuals or entities, directly or indirectly.
It may, nevertheless, be the case that the expectations of swift and firm action will prove to be too high. For far too long the EU foreign policy has punched below its weight due to the unanimity requirement, where one member state can prevent the entire block from taking action. The lowest common denominator has become the benchmark of EU activity and the role of the EU high representative has too often been reduced to a mere talking head, making statements void of political action. Where one can hold the rest at bay, such paralysis is inevitable.
The reason why the EU took long to sanction the Belarusian regime was none other than the unanimity requirement. At the dawn of the new regime, this reality remains.
At stake is not only the credibility of the EU and the effectiveness of its policies. Human rights advocates and victims across the world trust and rely on the EU. In countless situations, the truth is grim. If we do not fight for these rights defenders, nobody will.
Without qualified majority voting for the global human rights sanctions, the abusers and oppressors will continue to taunt their people, knowing they may well get away with it still.