The EU’s External Relations Policy and Human Rights

October 25, 2009

Human rights are an important element in the external relations of the EU. They have become more significant after the Treaty of Maastricht which contains specific provisions dealing with human rights in the EU’s external relations. Over the years, the EU has pursued numerous actions and policies meant to protect and promote human rights in third countries. Moreover, it has made the human rights situation in a specific country a determinant factor in the nature of its relations with that country. We will here focus on the EU’s external relations policy concerning economic, social and cultural rights.

Allan Rosas distinguishes between three elements in the external human rights policies of the EU: the normative, political and assistance and support elements.[1] The normative element refers to the inclusion of human rights clauses in agreements with third countries relating to assistance and trade. The political element surfaces when the EU takes measures to stop human rights violations, such as sanctions against third countries. The third elements of assistance and support consists of the EU’s efforts to directly promote human rights in third countries and provide assistance, including financial, to civil society, nongovernmental organizations, and public institutions.

In the Regulation adopted by the Council of the European Union in April 1999, it is stipulated in Article 3 (b) that one of the aims of the EU’s foreign policy is the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights in third countries. The Human Rights Regulations adopted in April 1999 are meant to provide the legal basis for the technical and financial assistance activities of the EU and the appropriate procedures of this assistance. The document also stresses the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights and acknowledges that economic and social development is conducive for the protection of civil and political rights.[2] However, although the EU’s commitment to the universality, interdependence and indivisibility of human rights has been established, the practical side of this commitment shows much less attention directed to economic, social and cultural rights than civil and political rights in the Union’s external relations.

Economic, social and cultural rights are progressively being accorded more attention, but the fact remains that this attention is still very low. This is evident in a number of the EU’s policies. Very little attention is paid to the implementation of the specific economic, social and cultural rights by acceding countries, although the Commission has referred to the applicant countries’ implementation of the ESC and ICESCR in Agenda 2000.[3] The funding for projects relating to economic, social and cultural rights constitutes a small part of the overall budget for human rights in third countries. Moreover, “investment in social development has been accorded a low priority in most EU aid, even though increased is now being given to health and education.”[4]

There is a need to balance the funding allocated to civil and political rights and that allocated to economic social and cultural rights. This is evident in the fact that these rights are crucial for the priority target groups identified by the EU, namely women, children and minorities. Also, the Commission’s own emphasis on the necessity for the respect of these rights in order to ensure democracy and the implementation of civil and political rights is thus not practically supported. In many Eastern European, Asian and South American countries, the economic crises which they continue to endure present a major obstacle to the enforcement of civil and political rights, the rule of law and a stable democracy.[5]

In its Annual Report on Human Rights of 2002, the EU clearly states its commitment to the equal implementation of all human rights and acknowledges the impact of their unequal realization, especially in terms of its effect on the vulnerable sectors of society. Moreover, in the report, the EU expresses support for the idea of an Optional Protocol enabling individual complaints to the ICSECR.

One of the most important aspects of the EU’s external human rights policy is the human rights clause inserted into bilateral trade agreements with third countries. This clause makes reference to the UDHR and stipulates that respect for human rights is an integral part of the agreement. The clause acknowledges both parties’ dedication to the respect for human rights and provides for the possibility of suspension of the agreement in case one of the parties violates it. Although the human rights clause appeared in agreements in the early 1990s, it has been systematically inserted in all trade and cooperation agreements since 1995.[6] More than 20 agreements of this kind have been signed and there are more than 30 agreements signed before 1995 which contain a human rights clause usually different from the model adopted in 1995. Since the human rights clause specifically refers to the UDHR, it therefore also expresses the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. This is a very important aspect of the EU’s external human rights policy. Simple financial and technical aid would not ensure adequately that human rights are protected in the recipient country. With the possibility of suspension of trade agreements the EU adds the ‘stick’ component to the ‘carrot’ approach.

Besides the human rights clause in trade agreements, the EU has also made the respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law a condition for receiving financial assistance. Thus the development policy of the EU has been closely linked to human rights and democracy. It was only recently that that a general development policy connected to human rights was developed, as before human rights considerations were placed ad hoc in the development policies.[7] The development policy and its relation to economic, social and cultural rights is slightly ambiguous due to the fact that it is unclear whether the development policy of the EU utilizes the entitlements approach or the basic needs approach.[8] It seems that most development projects which aim at reducing poverty and famine adopt a basic needs approach. However, especially in relation to the candidate countries, the EU is slowly adopting an entitlements approach to these rights by examining whether there are violations of specific economic, social and cultural rights. The EU has also moved closer to a rights based approach in its focus on health and education. Yet it is the case that “these projects still receive only a small portion of the overall budget, and they neglect the ‘rights’ component which entails an entitlement to demand the satisfaction of these rights.”[9]

On the European continent itself, the EU has made the respect for human rights, democracy and rule of law a condition for membership. The introduction of the Copenhagen criteria for membership, which are political, is proof of the transformation of the EU from an economic organization to a more integrated European polity. Moreover, what is significant for our present purposes is that in examining the extent to which the candidate countries comply with these criteria, the European Commission has also focused on economic, social and cultural rights. Yet, the reports of the Commission still retain a clear overemphasis on civil and political rights, judging by the amount of space dedicated to economic, social and cultural rights.[10]

In my opinion, the external human rights policy of the EU clearly reflects its internal policy. Although there has been significant progress in the rising level of awareness of economic, social and cultural rights, these rights are still clearly subordinated to civil and political rights. The EU’s external social policy will depend first and foremost on how much Europe develops its own social self. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights might also serve the function of sending a clearer message to candidate countries of exactly what rights the European family upholds. The importance of the novelties in the Charter rises with consideration of the European Union’s eastward expansion. The Charter, besides bringing forth to the citizens of the EU the importance of fundamental rights, also extends this visibility to applicant countries. This can be seen as a noteworthy step forward in the spreading of awareness of the various rights by listing them in one concise Charter, which may be used as a guiding text by potential members.


[1] Allan Rosas, ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the External Relations of the European Union’, in Eide et al. (eds.), Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 481.
[2] Council Regulation (EC) No. 976/1999 of 29 April 1999.
[3] Philip Alston, ‘An ‘Ever Closer Union’ in Need of a Human Rights Policy: The European Union and Human Rights’, in Philip Alston (ed.), The EU and Human Rights, 32.
[4] Ibid., 33.
[5] Ibid., 37.
[6] Allan Rosas, ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the External Relations of the European Union’, 486.
[7] Bruno Simma, et al., ‘Human Rights Considerations in the Development Co-operation Activities of the EC’, in Philip Alston (ed.), The EU and Human Rights, 575.
[8] Ibid., 604.
[9] Ibid., 608.
[10] Allan Rosas, ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the External Relations of the European Union’, 488-489.

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