EU Action Plan on Democracy and Human Rights

In “A Stronger Europe in the World”

PDF version

On 29 January, 2020 the European Commission's new work programme was published. Under the fourth priority - 'A stronger Europe in the world', the Commission announced its intention to adopt an Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, focusing ‘on the EU’s leading role in setting standards on human rights and upholding International Humanitarian Law'. On 25 March 2020, the Commission together with the High Representative published the new Action plan for 2020-2024. The plan was endorsed by the Council of Foreign Affairs in November 2020, but the proposal to move to majority voting when deciding on its implementation still has to be adopted by the European Council.


According to the Treaties, EU action in the world should be guided by the values which have inspired its creation, including human rights and democracy. The EU shall respect these principles in all its external policies and also establish specific policies and measures to promote respect for human rights and democratic principles in the world through cooperation with third countries and international organisations. In order to increase the effectiveness and consistency of all its external policies with respect to human rights and democracy, in June 2012, the EU adopted a Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy together with an Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy to cover the period 2012-2015. To contribute to the implementation of the Strategic Framework and the accompanying Action Plan, an EU Special Representative on Human Rights was also established. A subsequent Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2016-2019 was adopted in 2015. Both plans defined a number of concrete priorities to be implemented in various policy areas from dialogues with third countries, to development cooperation and trade or humanitarian aid policies.

The new Action Plan 2020-2024

During 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the Commission held various consultation with numerous stakeholders, including with other EU institutions, with the Member States, as well as civil with society and human rights organisations, and with international organisations. On 25 March 2020, the new Plan was published as a joint proposal from the Commission and the High Representative. The proposal was accompanied – and this is an important novelty in relation with the previous plans – by a proposal for a recommendation of the Council to be submitted to the European Council on adopting a decision that will endorse the strategic objectives of the Union to be pursued through the EU Action Plan. This underscores the strategic importance of the Pan and of the actions proposed, and should reinforce the readiness of the EU and the Member States to provide all the necessary means for realising the plan. In line with article 22 in the EU Treaty, the European Council decision will enable the EU Council to use qualified majority when adopting decisions implementing the Plan. This reflects the ambition of the new Commission, endorsed by the European Council, to strengthen the EU's strategic capacity to promote its values and interests in the world. On 16 September 2020, in her speech on the State of the Union, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, made a call on the Member States to move to majority voting on human rights issues. This would enable the EU to denounce human rights abuses whenever and wherever they occur.

On 17 November 2020, the EU Council adopted Conclusions endorsing the Action Plan. In these Conclusions, the Council reaffirms the European Union's strong commitment to further advancing universal values for all, and underlines that human rights, democracy and the rule of law should remain at the heart of the EU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Conclusions 'take note' of the Joint proposal for a Council recommendation to the European Council, without mentioning any further action. In an oral statement delivered after the Plan's adoption by the Council, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP) admitted that it was not yet possible to reach consensus on the passage to majority voting with regard to the plan implementation. Spurred by the outcome of the Conference on the future of Europe, where citizens requested the EU to move to majority voting in the foreign policy, on 20 September 2022, the EU General Affairs Council considered the extension of qualified majority voting in the Council by using passerelle clauses. Most of ministers were 'open' to use this possibility in certain fields, on a case-by-case basis, but no decision was taken. The general debate on the activation of the passerelle clause in EU external policies continues. The Conference on the Future of Europe has made recommendations to support such a move.

The Plan aims to enhance the Union’s leadership on human rights and democracy worldwide, to set out ambitions, define the priorities for action, to maximise the Union’s role on the global stage, and to foster a united EU by promoting more efficient and coherent action between the EU and its Member States. The plan has five strategic lines of action:
•    Protecting and empowering individuals;
•    Building resilient, inclusive and democratic societies;
•    Promoting a global system for human rights and democracy;
•    New technologies: harnessing opportunities and addressing challenges; and
•    Delivering by working together.

The new plan continues to focus on long standing EU priorities such as responding to the shrinking space for civil society and crackdown against human rights defenders, combating discrimination, fighting death penalty etc. At the same times, it looks into the challenges and opportunities provided by new technologies, Artificial Intelligence in particular. It will reinforce EU action on economic, social and cultural rights.

While the Parliament is not involved in the adoption of the Plan, the follow up of its relevant resolutions and debates is mentioned as one of the instruments for its implementation, monitoring and evaluation.


Further reading:

Author: Ionel Zamfir, Members' Research Service,

As of 20/11/2022.