Documents considered by the Committee on 16 September 2015 - European Scrutiny Contents

2 Promoting human rights and democracy in external action

Committee's assessment Legally and politically important
Committee's decisionNot cleared from scrutiny; further information requested; recommended for debate on the floor of the House; drawn to the attention of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Justice Committee, the Women and Equalities Committee and the International Development Committee
Document detailsEU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2015-2019
Legal base
DepartmentForeign and Commonwealth Office
Document Number (36999), —

Summary and Committee's conclusions

2.1 In 2012 the EU presented a package of initiatives with the aim of promoting human rights and democracy in EU external policy. The Human Rights and Democracy package consisted of the Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy,[ 3] the proposed appointment of the EU Special Representative on Human Rights (his mandate having been recently extended)[ 4] and the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2012-14.[ 5] That Action Plan terminated on 31 December 2014.

2.2 The new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2015-2019 (the Action Plan) was adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council by Council Conclusions on 20 July 2015. The Action Plan sets out practical steps that the EU and its Member States will take in the next four years to build upon the existing body of EU external action on human rights and democracy worldwide. It will terminate on 31 December 2019 but its implementation will be reviewed in 2017.

2.3 Responsibility for carrying out the actions listed in the Plan lies largely with the High Representative, assisting by the EEAS, but responsibilities are also allocated to the Commission, Council and Member States, within their respective fields of competence. The EU Special Representative for Human Rights will also contribute to the Plan's implementation.

2.4 The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington) sets out the Government's view of the Action Plan in his Explanatory Memorandum at paragraphs 2.15-2.16 of this Report. He views the document as broadly complementary to the UK foreign policy and describes the action taken by the Government to ensure respect for the division of competences between the EU and Member States in the implementation of the document. We also set out our own summary of the Action Plan at paragraphs 2.13-2.14 of this Report, in the absence of this information being provided by the Minister.

2.5 Connected to the Action Plan, is the Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World 2014[ 6] (the 2014 Annual Report). The public version of this document, approved by the Council, details the EU's work country-by-country and thematically. It focuses on the EU's progress and achievements in implementing the 2012-2014 Action Plan. It reports how, in 2014, the EU held formal human rights dialogues and consultation with 37 partner countries including a new human rights dialogue with Burma. It explains how the EU has promoted a number of key human rights themes, including freedom of expression offline and online, women's rights, work against torture, abolition of the death penalty, LGBTI rights, support to human rights defenders, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, children's rights, and support to democratic reforms and values. Our more detailed summary of the public version of the Report is provided at paragraphs 2.18-2.19 of this chapter.

2.6 The 2014 Annual Report has not been deposited by the Minister for the reasons set out in his letter of 29 July (see paragraph 0.24 of this Report). He did, however, send us a limité version with his letter of 29 June (see paragraphs 2.22-2.23). In that letter, he also informed us of the "approval" of the 2014 Annual Report by the Council and provided a brief overview of the Annual Report together with an equally concise indication of the Government's view.

2.7 We are very disappointed by the skeletal nature of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum in terms of describing the content, scope and key aspects of the Action Plan. This is particularly given the document's evident importance to the Committee and the wider House.

2.8 Mindful of the likely wider interest, we recommend that the Action Plan be debated on the floor of the House. Before that debate takes place, we request that the Minister provide us with a better account of the Action Plan.

2.9 We also request that the Minister informs us, in due course, of the outcome of the review of the Action Plan which will take place in 2017.

2.10 Referring to the Minister's letter of 29 July on the 2014 Annual Report, we disagree with his reasons for refusing to deposit that document and ask him again to do so. This is because:

a)  We do not consider relevant to the issue of deposit the questions of whether the 2014 Annual Report is caught by our Scrutiny Reserve Resolution (SRR), its method of adoption or indeed whether the Minister has deposited the document in the past with our predecessors;

b)  We do not accept that the Action Plan necessarily supersedes the 2014 Annual Report. The two documents have different purposes. The Annual Report no doubt has informed the development of the new Action Plan. But it is important in its own right, acting as an indispensable record of how the EU has implemented EU Human Rights and Democracy policy over the past year in the field of external action. It therefore acts as a benchmark for assessing whether the Action Plan is targeting the right priorities, with suitable resources and whether future actions planned are likely to be effective and complementary to the Member States' own external action in these fields. We mention, as just one example, the relevance of the Report's observations on countries falling within the EU's Neighbourhood policy considering the important, ongoing review of that policy. We therefore think that the document merits more than a passing reference in the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum on the Action Plan; and

c)  We have highlighted to the Minister that the adoption of the 2014 Annual Report by the Council was announced in a Press Release[ 7] and the Minister has since acknowledged in his previous correspondence the importance of EU Human Rights activity and policy.

2.11 We also draw the Action Plan and this Report chapter to the attention of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Justice Committee, the Women and Equalities Committee and the International Development Committee.

Full details of the document: EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2015-2019: (36999), —.

Background and previous scrutiny

2.12 Our predecessors scrutinised and reported[ 8] on the previous Action Plan for 2012-14, recommending a debate on the floor of the House which was held on 12 July 2012.[ 9]

The Action Plan

2.13 The Action Plan does not aim to cover exhaustively all aspects of the EU's Human Rights and Democracy in external action, but instead focuses on "priorities where additional political momentum and enhanced commitment is needed". It therefore concentrates on the following five strategic objectives, based on five guiding principles. The EU must:

i)  empower and "boost the ownership" of local actors and interlocutors in third countries, including governmental, quasi-governmental, parliamentary and judicial institutions, civil society and regional organisations, by providing them with support;

ii)  focus on the most pressing human rights challenges, to be tackled both internally and externally (those identified are set out in paragraph 2.14 below);

iii)  ensure a comprehensive human rights approach to conflicts and crises, by employing a range actions to support the development of tools and policies at national, regional and international level to prevent and address human rights abuses and by prioritising the most serious violations of concern to the international community;

iv)  achieve better coherence and consistency between its internal and external approaches to human rights, by mainstreaming human rights considerations into external aspects of EU policies, particularly in the areas of trade/investment, migration and asylum, development and counter-terrorism and through the effective implementation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights internally by the Commission; and

v)  improve the effectiveness and assessment of its external human rights activities, by using more effectively the different instruments, policies and tools at its disposal and by better assessing impact and results.

2.14 For each objective, a number of actions is listed, amounting to a total of 32 actions. The most pressing human rights challenges identified for the purposes of objective (ii) are combatting discrimination;[ 10] the respect for freedom of expression and privacy; freedom of religion and belief; combatting torture, ill-treatment and the death penalty; promoting gender equality and women's rights;[ 11] promoting children's rights;[ 12] promoting economic, social and cultural rights; encouraging corporate social responsibility and ensuring that human rights are upheld in migration, trade or counter-terrorism policies.

The Government's view of the Action Plan

2.15 In his Explanatory Memorandum[ 13] of 23 July 2015 on the Action Plan, the Minister explains the document's place within EU external human rights policy and its evolution:

·  The document was adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council on 20 July 2015;

·  This followed a Joint Communication of 29 April 2015 by the European Commission and High Representative, Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2015-2019) "Keeping human rights at the heart of the EU agenda", and subsequent negotiations among Member States in Council preparatory bodies;

·  The Action Plan covers the term of the current Commission;

·  The declaratory EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights, adopted on 25 June 2012, remains the guiding political statement of the EU's external human rights policy, but the Action Plan details practical steps to implement that commitment worldwide; and

·  The document builds on the previous Action Plan 2012-2014 and "should make the EU's external human rights actions more comprehensive and coherent".

2.16 The Minister then comments on how the Action Plan relates to the UK's foreign policy:

    "The promotion and protection of human rights and democracy are an integral part of the UK's foreign policy.

    "It is in the UK's interests that the EU's external action is effective and responsive to today's complex crises and widespread violations and abuses of human rights. The Action Plan is designed to achieve this.

    "Human rights themes that are prominent in the UK's foreign policy are prioritised in the Action Plan, including freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, torture, discrimination, the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, democracy support and election observation, and threats to civil society and Human Rights Defenders. The FCO seeks to ensure that the EU's work on these issues is an effective multiplier for the UK's work. The EU's work in this area in 2014 was set out in the EU Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World 2014, on which I wrote to the Committees on 29 June 2015. However, that document is superseded by the Action Plan, in the sense that the Action Plan is a forward looking policy document that will shape the EU's work over the next four years and was subject to a full negotiation between the EU Member States."

2.17 The Minister explains what action he and his officials took to ensure that the document did not affect the division of competences between the EU and Member States:

    "My officials consulted the Departments concerned during the negotiations to ensure that the final document broadly reflected UK priorities and did not cross our red lines. In particular, the Action Plan contains text in its introduction which provides that '[d]ecisions on specific steps to implement this Action Plan will be taken in accordance with the Treaties. The Action Plan does not affect the division of competence between the EU and its Member States, and will be interpreted in line with Declaration 13 to the Treaties'. Notwithstanding this, I have assessed each action on competence grounds and am content that the plan respects the division of competences between the EU and its Member States. Furthermore, this external Action Plan does not affect the freedom of the EU Member States to determine their own internal human rights framework and policy.

    "While the UK was pleased to indicate its support for the Action Plan at the Foreign Affairs Council on 20 July, we made a made a national Minutes Statement to underline that the Action Plan covers relevant human rights aspects of the European Union's external action, and does not affect the division of competence between the EU and its Member States. The UK Minutes Statement also stated that the United Kingdom will promote and protect universal human rights around the world in ways which are most effective in their local context. While the UK supports the appropriate promotion of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights internationally, it has not for example ratified the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and has no plans to do so."

The 2014 Annual Report — the public version

2.18 The Annual Report illustrates the significant depth and breadth of EU human rights activity in external action. It also highlights some particular areas of concern. There is particularly robust criticism of human rights abuses and democratic governance issues in Russia (and Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine), Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Qatar. The USA attracts some attention for the continued use of the death penalty in some states, the use of drones, the NSA surveillance programme and Guantanomo Bay. The report also identifies ongoing issues in some candidate and potential candidate countries, not least Turkey. A common challenge for some of these countries is the independent and fair administration of justice and non-discriminatory treatment of minorities, especially the Roma.

2.19 There are also observations which will be relevant to the important and ongoing review of the European Neighbourhood Policy,[ 14] most notably in the cases of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Syria, Libya, Tunisia (with respect to women's rights in particular) and Ukraine.

2.20 However, there is also some positive progress reported, particularly in the case of the development of democratic institutions, in Morocco and Taiwan and marked by the first human rights dialogues with Myanmar/Burma.

2.21 Thematic issues with a particular focus overlap with those targeted in the Action Plan such as human rights action taken in the areas of development, women's issues,[ 15] LGBTI persons,[ 16] freedom of religious belief,[ 17] migration and asylum[ 18] and trade.[ 19]

The Minister's letters of 29 June and 29 July 2015

2.22 In relation to the 2014 Annual Report, the Minister wrote to us on 29 June. He said:

    "I am writing to inform the Committee that the EU Foreign Affairs Council approved the 'EU Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World in 2014' at the Council's meeting on 22 June. I know that the Committee considers human rights to be an important subject and that you will therefore wish to be aware of this report, which details EU activity to promote and protect human rights around the world."

2.23 The Minister provides a brief overview of the document (as summarised in paragraph 2.5 of this chapter). He further comments that the "report demonstrates how the EU can amplify and reinforce the UK's work on human rights overseas". He explains that although the report was authored by the EU, Member States commented on it in draft. He offers to provide us with any additional information about the report or the EU's work on human rights more broadly. He then informs us that the Foreign Affairs Council will be ask to approve the next Action Plan for 2015-19 by Council Conclusions and he will write to us about that document once the negotiations had been completed.

2.24 In his letter of 29 July 2015 the Minister explains why he has not deposited the document and does not intend to:

    "I do not propose to deposit the EU Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy, as I do not consider this to be subject to scrutiny. The EU Annual Report was adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council as an 'outcome of proceedings' rather than as a Council Decision or Conclusion. In the department's view, this form of adoption does not invoke the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution and we do not believe that this document falls under any other depositable category of scrutiny. We have not deposited previous EU Annual Reports on Human Rights for similar reasons.

    "The Action Plan supersedes the Annual Report, in the sense that it is a forward-looking policy document that will shape EU external work on human rights over the next four years, whereas the Annual Report details work done in the last year of the previous Action Plan. In light of this, I submitted a letter to your Committee on 29 June updating you on this report. I hope that this will be helpful in scrutinising the Action Plan."

Previous Committee Reports

None, but see (33578), 18635/11: Fifth Report HC 86-v (2013-13), chapter 1 (20 June 2012) and Second Report HC 86-ii (2012-13), chapter 11 (16 May 2012).

3   Council Document of 25 June 2012, 11855/12. Back

4   Council Document of 12 February 2015, 5716/15 Back

5   See footnote 3 Back

6   Council Document of 22 June 2015, 10152/15 Back

7 Back

8   (33578), 18635/11: Fifth Report HC 86-v (2013-13), chapter 1 (20 June 2012) and Second Report HC 86-ii (2012-13), chapter 11 (16 May 2012). Back

9   HC Deb, 12 July 2012, cols. 542-565. Back

10   Including developing an EU toolkit on Anti-Discrimination, combatting racism and xenophobia, promoting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and working towards the elimination of discrimination against LGBTI persons. Back

11   Including combatting Female Genital Mutilation, Child Early and Forced Marriage, gender based and sexual violence and implementing a successor of the EU Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment in Development Co-operation. Back

12   Including recognising the human rights dimension in areas such as social policy, health, education, access to food and water, standard of living and developing guidance on economic, social and cultural rights so that all relevant EU and Member State staff are fully aware of international treaties on those rights such as the ILO Conventions. Back

13 (29859).pdf. Back

14   See the consultation launched by the Commission in March 2015. Back

15   Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World 2014, pp. 67-69. The report provides a summary of action taken on the rights of women and gender based violence: "Women's political participation and economic empowerment, initiatives against gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices, gender in development co-operation and the implementation of UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security were among the areas prioritised by the EU in its relations with third countries". Also: "Gender was mainstreamed in all the EU programmes and included in public messages, political and human rights dialogues with governments and dialogues with civil society. Support to female human rights defenders and women's organisations was also a priority". Back

16   See p.76. The report states; "The implementation of the 2013 "Guidelines to promote and protect the enjoyment of all human rights by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons was the basis of EU action in 2014". Also: "During the year, the EU engaged in dialogue with several countries on the introduction of legislation discriminating against LGBTI persons, notably in Africa and Central Asia and issued statements calling for countries such as Nigeria, Uganda and The Gambia to repeal legislation that infringes internationally agreed non-discrimination provisions". Back

17   See p.78. The report notes that the issue of violence against religious groups was a matter of particular focus and attacks had been condemned through statements and diplomatic action. It cites in particular the shocking "atrocities and abuses of basis human rights" against people belonging to targeted religious minorities and the most vulnerable groups in Iraq and Syria. Back

18   See p.50. The report states that: "...human rights are a cross cutting element of the EU Migration policy and this will be reflected in the upcoming EU Agenda on Migration, of the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM), the overarching framework of the EU external migration policy and a key element of the EU return and readmission policy". It adds "The protection of migrants' rights is also a cross cutting element of the work of the Task Force Mediterranean". Also "in May 2014, the Commission issued a Staff Working Document on the implementation of the Communication on the Task Force Mediterranean which identified a series of actions undertaken by the EU and its Member States to protect the rights of migrants and refugees in countries of transit and origin".. Back

19   See p.42. The report states: "EU free trade agreements are linked through passerelle clauses to the corresponding political framework agreements, which include human rights clauses. If there is no association or framework agreement in force, a separate human rights clause is inserted in free trade agreements. The principal value of a human rights clause is to demonstrate the shared commitment of the parties to human rights while it also constitutes the legal basis for appropriate measures, including the suspension of agreements, in the event of grave human rights violations". Back

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Prepared 1 October 2015