Human rights advocacy in a world of interests: why the EU fell short at India’s Raisina Dialogue

India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was recently asked how he saw the country’s role in defending free societies globally – a diplomatic way of confronting India on its failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

His answer was, if not reassuring to human rights proponents, certainly honest: “Countries evolve a combination of values, interests […] and all of us would like to find the right balance”.

This has always been the tension at the heart of foreign policy. And the European Union (EU) is no exception. Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty (which forms the constitutional basis for the bloc) reads: “In its relations with the wider world, the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests”.

In our interactions with the EU, human rights organisations repeatedly appeal to the Union’s stated values. Whilst, in general, the EU is a benevolent global actor on human rights, there are instances where an appeal to values alone is not sufficient to galvanise action.

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There is no time to lose in the appointment of a new EU Special Envoy for FoRB

On 10 September Christos Stylianides was sworn in as Greece’s Minister of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection. Unfortunately, his appointment leaves vacant once again the vital role of the European Union (EU)’s Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the EU.

Mr Stylianides held the position for just four months, and he was appointed over a year and a half after his predecessor’s mandate had ended. While it would be unfair to criticise Mr Stylianides himself for moving into his new role, it is essential that the EU does not leave the Special Envoy position vacant for as long as it did prior to his appointment.

Alongside the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of FoRB, the Special Envoy mandate is a key tool in the EU’s diplomatic arsenal. Prior to Mr Stylianides’ brief tenure , it was held for several years by the Slovakian politician Dr Ján Figeľ, who was acknowledged as playing a key role in securing the release of Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi, who spent years on death row on unfounded charges of blasphemy.

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A new tool in the toolbox: The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime

On 7 December, the EU officially approved the creation of its newest human rights mechanism, the European Union (EU) Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

It will enable the European bloc to impose EU-wide travel bans on, freeze the assets of and prohibit the availability of funds and economic resources to individuals and entities who have committed or been associated with serious human rights abuses. It will target both state and non-state actors, regardless of where they are in the world and where they committed their crimes.

The mechanism is informally known as the EU-styled Magnitsky Act, after the US model that preceded it. The US Magnitsky Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2012 and was originally designed to target Russian officials who were responsible for the death of the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

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EU FoRB Day – A call for the renewal of the mandate of the Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief outside of the European Union

Seven years ago, the EU Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) were adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council. Today, the FoRB community celebrates this informally as ‘EU FoRB Day’ and civil society take this opportunity to call for the renewal of the mandate of the Special Envoy.

This past April came and went with no decision by the Commission on the future of the mandate of the Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the EU, which ended on 30 November 2019.

In January 2019, one of the last resolutions by the last EU Parliament was to lend its support to the renewal. The COVID-19 crisis notwithstanding, the Commission’s hesitation despite letters by MEPs and civil society calling for the renewal of the mandate, sends a signal to Europeans and the international community about its reticence to continue to promote this fundamental right.

Freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It protects the right of individuals to practise the religion or belief of their choice, or none at all – a freedom which is under threat in many parts of the world.

Against this backdrop, the Special Envoy role matters a great deal.

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Advancing freedom of religion or belief in the new European parliament: Three suggestions for new MEPs

Last week, citizens of EU member states cast their votes in the European parliamentary elections, the outcome of which will define European politics for the next five years.

The outcomes included a rise in new pan-European parties and those at the fringes of the political spectrum. Although the two largest political families, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), and centre-left Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), remain the largest groupings in the parliament overall, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will need to find ways to collaborate and coalitions will be more important than ever.

As these elections usher in many new MEPs eager to get to grips with all that there is to learn about the EU political landscape, CSW has three key recommendations to make to those seeking to uphold and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in their new role.

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