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The Price Of Human Rights – OpEd


By Susanna Mocker

Since the onset of the financial crisis, the price of raising human rights issues with Asian partners has increased for Europe. The promotion of human rights and democracy are supposedly at the heart of EU foreign policy. In article 21(2) Lisbon Treaty the Union committed itself to “consolidate and support democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the principle of international law” in “all fields of international relations”. While the article also outlines other goals, democracy and human rights rank highest after securing the EU’s fundamental interests. Since 2009 these fundamental interests are increasingly equated with much needed economic growth, which the EU partly seeks in the world’s most dynamic economic region: Asia.

Not only have Asian countries been less affected by the financial crisis, for the most part they also defy the notion of democracy “naturally” following economic growth and the establishment of a middle class. The middle classes in China and Vietnam, for example, have economically benefitted  from supporting the regime. Like in Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, economic and political reforms have been decoupled. Recent developments also show that democratic transformations, e.g. in Indonesia, Republic of Korea and the Philippines, are not irreversible. Indonesia reneges on constitutionally granted LGBTI and religious minority rights. The Republic of Korea entertains a cyber investigation team that monitors and manages social media since 2014. The Philippines favored contender for presidency, Duterte, said about the rape and murder of an Australian “she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste”, himself being the mayor.

How can the EU respond to these trends? The EU institutions have several tools to promote human rights.  It seeks to engage politically by organizing Human Rights Dialogues, using conditionality in its Partnership and Cooperation Agreements and voicing concern by issuing statements. Economically, it seeks to condition access to its single market for progress in human rights and democracy. It uses Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), the Generalized Scheme of Preferences or sanctions to support its policy. The EU institutions are rather consistent in delivering mediocre external human rights policy.  In the European Council on Foreign Relations’ annual scorecard, the EU earned a “C” in human rights and democracy ever since 2011 and the forthcoming EU Global Strategy is an opportunity for the EU to address this weakness. There are important shortcomings, such as dropping the human rights clause from the negotiations for an EU-India FTA and the embarrassing lack of conducting a human rights impact assessment before negotiating a FTA with Vietnam. Even if applied correctly, all of these tools are imperfect and take time to unfold beneficial effects. Importantly, all of them hinge on rare resources these days: unity and credibility.

In terms of unity, a worrisome division of labour can be observed. EU institutions and a few member states are left to address sensitive issues with foreign leaders, while other member states freeride, claiming they cannot make a difference. Czech President Zeman was the only European leader to attend the Chinese military parade last September and has allegedly not mentiond the deteriorating human rights situation during President Xi’s recent visit to Prague. Similarly, Polish President Duda is accused of not raising human rights during his trip to Beijing in November. Hungarian Prime Minister Orban has also refrained from raising any human rights issues with foreign vistors. While Eastern European states emphasise their independent foreign policy post 1989 and 2004, it is incorrect to say that Western Europe makes an effort at defending human rights and Eastern Europe does not.

Only a handful of European countries regularly put human rights on the agenda. Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have a good record in raising human rights issues in encounters with Asian partners. The fact that these states stand out is not only their own merit, but also due to the worse record of other big EU member states. Prime Minister Cameron’s lack of pushing human rights on the agenda during Xi’s visit has been widely reported as a kowtow. Similarly, France banned some demonstrations during Xi’s visit. Germany, on the other hand, has been praised by civil society for its consistency in mentioning difficult issues with Asian partners. This includes China, with whom it has an annual human rights dialogue. President Gauck did not shy from raising human rights issues during his recent visit to China. EU member states need to be reminded that mentioning human rights in public serves a more comprehensive goal than mentioning them in the backroom, by providing much needed hope to human rights defenders, as Liao Yiwu argues in his must-read article.

Why is Germany willing to pay the price for mentioning human rights? On the one hand, as Europe’s economic powerhouse its pockets are deep enough to pay the price of not closing a deal and it can take confidence in the attractiveness of its products for Asian markets. On the other hand, because of its history and the widely shared belief in German society that its government has a moral obligation to stand up for human rights worldwide.

If there is a lack of unity about human rights in the EU there is also a lack of credibility as the political spectrum has swung to the right fuelled by the refugee crisis. An EU that denies basic human rights at the coast of Greece and soon possibly at the Italian-Austrian border is not positioned well to preach human rights to Asia. An EU that ignores the lack freedom of press in Turkey to strike a deal on refugees is not well placed to freedom of press in Asia. How can the EU urge Asian states to adopt human rights declarations when the UK Home Secretary suggests Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights because “it doesn’t add to our economy”? How can the EU criticize Indonesia on religious freedom while the extremist “Alternative für Deutschland” calls for its abolition in Germany?

The answer is that the EU should still do so, but use the opportunity to emphasis its own imperfections instead of preaching, which is not well received in former colonies in particular. This serves the obvious goal of article 21 – foreign policy formulation – but also the less obvious one: reasserting one’s own identity in hours of need.

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EU-Asia Centre

The EU-Asia Centre aims to fill a void and establish itself as the leading, Brussels-based research policy think tank on EU-Asia relations, covering developments in Asia and relations between the EU and Asia.

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