The European Union is committed to supporting democracy and human rights in its external relations, in accordance with its founding principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. The EU seeks to mainstream human rights concerns into all its policies and programmes and has different human rights policy instruments for specific actions — including financing specific projects through its financing instruments.

Legal basis

  • Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU): EU values. The EU’s founding values are ‘human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities’;
  • Article 3 of the TEU: EU objectives. In ‘its relations with the wider world’, the EU contributes to the ‘eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights, in particular the rights of the child, as well as to the strict observance and the development of international law, including respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter’;
  • Article 6 of the TEU: the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 6(1)) only explicitly refers to the implementation of Union law, the EU’s institutions and bodies and its Member States must also respect the Charter in the EU’s external relations. Countries joining the EU must also comply with the Charter. Article 6(2) requires the EU to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights (for more information, please refer to fact sheet 4.1.2 on the Charter of Fundamental Rights);
  • Article 21 of the TEU: principles inspiring the Union’s external action. These principles are democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter of 1945 and international law. In Article 21, the EU endorses the principle of the ‘indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms’, committing itself to considering economic and social rights to be as important as civil and political rights;
  • Article 205 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU): general provisions on the Union’s external action. This article determines that the EU’s international actions are to be guided by the principles laid down in Article 21 of the TEU.

EU human rights policy

In 2012, the Council adopted a Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, accompanied by an action plan to implement the framework. The framework defines the principles, objectives and priorities for improving the effectiveness and consistency of EU policy over the next 10 years. These principles include mainstreaming human rights into all EU policies (as a ‘silver thread’), including when internal and external policies overlap, and adopting a more tailored approach. The action plan set out specific steps for the period up to 31 December 2014. A renewed action plan for the 2015-2019 period, based on the assessment of the first plan and on the political guidance of the Vice-President of the Commission / High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (VP/HR), was adopted in July 2015. The new action plan for the period 2020-2024 is currently being developed.

While not legally binding, the EU guidelines on human rights adopted by the Council of the EU provide practical instructions for EU representations around the world on:

  • Action against the death penalty
  • Dialogues on human rights
  • The rights of the child
  • Action against torture and other cruel treatment
  • Protecting children in armed conflicts
  • Protecting human rights defenders
  • Complying with international humanitarian law
  • Combating violence against women and girls
  • Promoting freedom of religion and belief
  • Protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people
  • Promoting freedom of expression both online and offline
  • Non-discrimination in external action

The EU regularly includes human rights in political dialogues held with third countries or regional organisations. It also holds dialogues and consultations specifically dedicated to human rights with more than 40 countries. In addition, nearly all of the 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states have dialogues with the EU under Article 8 of the Cotonou Agreement, which states that political dialogue should include ‘the regular assessment of the developments concerning the respect for human rights’.

Diplomatic démarches (which are confidential) and declarations (which are public) addressing human rights policies and concrete rights violations in third countries are also significant means of exercising diplomatic pressure in international relations.

Bilateral trade agreements and the various association and cooperation agreements between the EU and third countries or regional organisations include a human rights clause defining respect for human rights as an ‘essential element’. Different measures — such as reducing or suspending cooperation — can be used to address cases of non-compliance. A strong conditionality mechanism has been established for the enlargement countries. A ‘more-for-more’ approach (more integration and money in exchange for more reforms) has been integrated into the renewed European neighbourhood policy. Incentives for reforms are provided in the preferential trade schemes granted by the EU to developing countries (GSP+).

The EU’s human rights and democracy country strategies are based on a bottom-up approach, the aim of which is to integrate EU human rights guidelines and priorities into a single, coherent policy document adapted to a specific country, with concrete goals established over a period of three years. EU election observation missions also aim to improve human rights by discouraging intimidation and violence during elections and strengthening democratic institutions.

The EU promotes human rights through its participation in multilateral forums such as the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, the UN Human Rights Council, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe. The Union also actively promotes international justice, for example through the International Criminal Court.

With a budget of EUR 1.3 billion allocated between 2014 and 2020, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) mainly supports and protects civil society actors that promote human rights and democracy. An important feature of this instrument is that the consent of the relevant government is not necessary. Other financing instruments dealing with human rights include the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI), the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) and the European Development Fund (EDF). In addition, the EU has committed to progressively integrating a rights-based approach into all its development programmes, based on a toolbox developed by the Commission in 2014. The European Endowment for Democracy is a private law foundation supported by the EU and its Member States. The 2014-2020 budget of EUR 2.3 billion for the Union’s common foreign and security policy (CFSP) covers certain activities relevant to human rights, particularly civilian crisis management. An annual report on human rights, prepared by the VP/HR and adopted by the Council, provides an overview of the human rights situation in the world, as well as of the EU’s actions during the year.


The European Council defines the EU’s strategic interests and the general guidelines of the CFSP.

The Foreign Affairs Council, which meets every month, generally deals with human rights issues related to the CFSP or the EU’s trade or development policies. The Council’s Human Rights Working Group (COHOM), which carries out preparatory work for high-level discussions and decisions on human rights issues, is composed of human rights experts from the Member States and representatives from the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Commission.

The Foreign Affairs Council is chaired by the VP/HR who contributes to the development of the Union’s CFSP and ensures that decisions are implemented. The VP/HR also represents the EU on CFSP matters and oversees the EEAS and the EU delegations in third countries. The EEAS has a directorate for human rights, global and multilateral issues, and every EU delegation has a human rights ‘focal point’. The EU delegations have a key role in developing and implementing the human rights and democracy country strategies, preparing human rights dialogues, engaging with human rights defenders and civil society, and identifying priorities for EU financial assistance.

The Commission negotiates international agreements, oversees the enlargement process and neighbourhood policy, and manages development programmes and financing instruments (in close cooperation with the EEAS).

The role of the EU Special Representative for Human Rights is to enhance the effectiveness and visibility of EU human rights policy. The Special Representative has a broad, flexible mandate and works closely with the EEAS. The position is currently held by Eamon Gilmore, who took up his duties on 1 March 2019.

Parliament contributes to the development of the EU’s policies and monitors the work of the other EU institutions.

Under Articles 207 and 218 of the TFEU, most international agreements need Parliament’s consent to enter into force. For example, in 2011, Parliament blocked the textile protocol to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the EU and Uzbekistan, mainly on the grounds of child labour issues. It only gave its consent in 2016 following significant improvements regarding the use of child and forced labour.

Article 36 of the TEU obliges the VP/HR to consult Parliament on the main aspects and basic choices of the CFSP, and to inform it on the evolution of those policies. Parliament may ask questions or make recommendations to the Council or the VP/HR.

Parliament’s resolutions aim to raise awareness of human rights abuses, support human rights defenders and shape the EU’s human rights policy through concrete policy proposals. Resolutions may be a part of the legislative process, an outcome of parliamentary committees’ own-initiative reports, or the result of the urgency debates that usually take place on the Thursday morning of each Strasbourg plenary session to highlight flagrant violations of human rights across the world (Rule 144 of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure).

Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI), attached to the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), is responsible for issues concerning democracy, the rule of law, human rights — including the rights of minorities — in third countries and the principles of international law, and for ensuring coherence between all the Union’s external policies and its human rights policy. It organises hearings on a wide range of human rights issues, attended by stakeholders, to provide input on resolutions and other parliamentary initiatives. The subcommittee also handles the day-to-day management of human rights dossiers, while its delegations regularly visit relevant countries. Human rights issues in the EU’s external relations are also dealt with by the following committees: AFET, the Committee on International Trade (INTA), the Committee on Development (DEVE) and the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM). Human rights are equally an essential element of the work of Parliament’s standing delegations, which interact with non-EU parliaments bilaterally and in the context of parliamentary assemblies.

Thanks to its budgetary powers (under Article 14 of the TEU and Article 310(1) of the TFEU), Parliament has a say in the allocation of funds to the EIDHR and other financing instruments used for the promotion of human rights. Furthermore, Parliament is co-legislator for the external financing instruments. Most of the instruments currently in place expire on 31 December 2020. In 2018, the Commission presented its proposal for the external financing instruments for the period 2021-2027, which would merge the EIDHR, ENI, DCI, IcSP and EDF into one regulation. Parliament adopted its first reading position on the proposal on 27 March 2019, strengthening the references to human rights objectives and safeguards and demanding a bigger financial envelope for the human rights and democracy thematic programme.

Every year, the European Parliament awards the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to human rights activists around the world. Previous laureates include Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai and Raif Badawi. In 2018, the prize was awarded to Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for ‘plotting terrorist acts’ against Russia’s ‘de facto’ authorities in Crimea. He was on hunger strike between May and October 2018 and became a symbol for other Ukrainian citizens who have been illegally arrested by the Russian occupation forces in the Crimean peninsula. After his release from prison in September 2019, he received the prize in person at an award ceremony held in the European Parliament on 26 November 2019. The Sakharov Prize 2019 laureate is Ilham Tohti, a renowned Uyghur human rights defender, economics professor and advocate of the rights of China’s Uyghur minority. In September 2014, Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for his activism following a two-day show trial.

Parliament has also created the Sakharov Prize Network to support Sakharov laureates, develop contacts between them and encourage joint activities. Launched by the Sakharov Prize Network in 2013, the Sakharov fellowship programme for human rights defenders from third countries aims to expand the fellows’ knowledge of the European Parliament’s human rights engagement, helping them develop their capacities and improve their work, while also raising awareness of the Sakharov Prize and its values.

The chief observer of the EU’s election observation missions is usually an MEP. European Parliament election observation delegations are integrated into EU or international missions and use their facilities and infrastructure (for more information, please refer to fact sheet 5.4.2 on promoting democracy and observing elections).

The President of the European Parliament actively supports human rights through statements and letters and by discussing human rights issues when meeting important actors.

Parliament’s own-initiative annual report includes reflections on the EU’s human rights policy and the EU annual report, reviews Parliament’s own activities, and sets priorities for the future.


Marika Lerch