|If any cause has received Parliament's steady support over the years, it is human rights - both inside and outside the EU. And the tireless efforts of MEPs have paid off, as human rights are now at the heart of EU foreign policy.
In its latest report on the human rights situation in the world in 2002, the European Parliament delivers a blunt message: human rights dialogues must not be turned into mere talking-shops or be confined to exchanges of views on cultural and historical differences. And MEPs have repeatedly put pressure on the Council of Ministers and the European Commission to lay down stricter conditions on human rights when engaging in political dialogue, granting aid or concluding agreements with non-EU countries.
A policy backed up with the necessary resources
MEPs campaigned for decades to make human rights and democracy a core feature of EU foreign policy. Their efforts came to fruition with the inclusion of new articles in the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties. Parliament was also behind the creation of a budget line enabling the EU to fund projects in non-EU countries in areas as varied as civic education, the development of independent media, prevention of violence against women and police training.
Human rights clauses in all cooperation agreements
It is also thanks to pressure from Parliament that the EU automatically includes human rights clauses in the agreements it concludes with third countries. The agreements are implemented only so long as the human rights clauses are respected; in other words, an agreement can be suspended if the third country concerned violates human rights. This policy became more widely used in the 1990s and has been applied automatically since 1995. Thirty or so agreements concluded prior to 1995, together with about twenty implemented since then, contain these provisions.
However, paying lip-service to principles is not enough - they must be enforced as well. For MEPs proper compliance with this clause depends first and foremost on the political will of the Member States, whose divergent interests sometimes obstruct effective action by the EU as a whole. Parliament believes this problem could be reduced if the clause were backed up with a well-defined enforcement mechanism designed to maintain the pressure on non-EU countries. Moreover, Parliament is unhappy at not being more closely involved in decisions leading to consultations or the suspension of bilateral agreements in cases of human rights violations.
And yet Parliament does have one important weapon at its disposal, in the form of the assent it must grant before these bilateral agreements can come into force. Although it has not actually gone so far as to withhold its assent, Parliament has been known to delay matters as a means of exerting pressure on a third country. It did so in 1993 over an agreement with Syria, and all the indications are that the resultant pressure helped allow a large number of Syrian Jews to emigrate. Delays of this kind can provide time to organise hearings, to which the political authorities of the third country are invited and at which they are urged to explain and improve their human rights policies. Sometimes, whilst granting its assent, Parliament has at the same time issued a resolution containing a list of demands for action. In this legislative term it has taken that step when approving the association agreements with Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria; in the case of Algeria, a Parliament delegation travelled to the country to assess the situation at first hand. And an agreement with Pakistan has been frozen because of the worsening human rights situation in that country.
At each of its monthly plenary sessions in Strasbourg the European Parliament debates and adopts resolutions on human rights abuses around the world. MEPs are extremely active in monitoring freedom of expression and press freedom and insisting on genuinely democratic elections and fair trials. They have pointed the finger at many authoritarian governments for using violence and intimidation against opposition forces, and the sharp reactions of these governments indicate that Parliament's vigilance is an effective way of wielding moral force. Pressure from MEPs has led the authorities in a number of countries to review their attitudes towards human rights activists or political opponents, examples being the cases of Ryad al-Turk in Syria, Saad Eddine Ibrahim in Egypt and Hamma Hammami in Tunisia.
Each year Parliament also reviews the human rights situation around the world. The EP's annual report, involving a debate in plenary followed by the adoption of a resolution, pinpoints problem areas and recommends measures to ensure the EU is acting effectively and consistently on this front. The most recent report, which deals with the human rights situation in 2002 and was debated in September 2003, focuses on religious intolerance as a threat to world peace. The 2001 report highlighted trafficking in human beings and terrorism, whilst the 2000 report concentrated on freedom of expression and the media.
A practical commitment
In addition to holding monthly debates and issuing annual reports, Parliament has often called for EU missions to be sent to non-EU countries to observe elections. It has itself taken part in a number of such missions, some of which have been led by its Members. However, MEPs believe that one-off activities of this kind are not enough and that follow-up work is required.
In recent years Parliament has backed sanctions (such as arms embargoes or the suspension of Community aid) against countries guilty of persistent human rights violations. Examples include Zimbabwe, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Indonesia and Moldova. In 2002, in an effort to to ensure consistency, Parliament barred two delegates from Zimbabwe, who were subject to a visa ban, from attending an ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly meeting on its premises, as a result of which the meeting was cancelled.