The EU Foreign Affairs Council approved on June 25th a new EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, presented by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Lady Catherine Ashton.  The strategy and action plan aspire to put the core principles on which the EU is based central in all aspects of the EU internal and external policies.  The Strategic Framework is a welcome step to a more integrated and focused approach towards support for human rights and democracy in all aspects of EU foreign policy.  The Action Plan is a useful tool to monitor the implementation of this new approach.

(http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/131173.pdf)

The EU has incorporated in almost all of its agreements with countries outside the EU or with regional bodies, clauses that require the enforcement of human rights, democratic governance, rule of law and anti-corruption policies.  In this regard, the EU has the unique instruments in place, to make adherence to these core principles and support for their implementation, a key aspect in the relations with third countries.  The EU promises to ‘vigorously’ raise human rights issues in all appropriate forms of bilateral political dialogues, including ‘at the highest level’.   This is a strong commitment, on paper.

So far, the core EU principles are often set aside in the pursuance of trade and security interests.   An optimal mix between the various foreign policy objectives remains the challenge for Lady Ashton and her EU foreign policy service.

It is positive that human rights and democracy will be integrated in all foreign policy dimensions and instruments of the EU and coordinated with the member states.  The Action Plan elaborates concrete measures and time-lines for their implementation.  It also recognizes the importance of ‘comprehensive locally-led political reform agendas, with democracy and human rights at its centre’.  The measures proposed will make a more coherent and consistent approach possible in future.  The EU undertakes to implement the strategic framework in close cooperation with civil society and with the multilateral organization such as the UN, Council of Europe and OSCE and with the regional institutions.

The downside of the new Strategic Framework is a weak conceptual understanding of the link between human rights and democracy.   Democracy is not only a ‘universal aspiration’ as the document states, but the organization of the state and of the relationship between state and citizen ensuring and enforcing human rights.  Also, EU foreign policy recognizes that ‘a secure world is a world governed by democratic states’.   From the human rights and from the security perspectives, one would expect greater emphasis on the importance of EU support to democratic governance.

Support for the development of democracy and for democratic transitions receives little attention and elaboration in the Strategic Framework.   Yet, the need for a comprehensive approach to democracy support is much needed as the developments in the Arab world, and for example in Burma, remind us about on a daily basis.  The EU has far more to offer in this regard than the Strategic Framework recognizes or undertakes.  It is a missed opportunity.

In this context it is, for example, noteworthy that the Strategic Framework does not mention the EU initiative to establish a European Endowment for Democracy (EED), a new instrument intended to provide flexible and fast support to democratic movements and activists.   The initiative was taken in response to the revolutions in the Arab world early 2010.  A working group of EU officials and EU Member States is currently preparing the establishment of this new European non-governmental organization, which was expected to become operational this year.  The lack of reference to the EED initiative has now raised questions about the political commitment of the EU towards this initiative.

It is unfortunate that the Strategic Framework refers to human rights and democracy ‘promotion’.   The word is generally associated with marketing techniques.  The use is not consistent with the acknowledgement that human rights and democracy are universal norms and aspirations.  People everywhere prefer to live in democracies and want their rights recognized.   In my experience people don’t need to be convinced about the value of human rights and democracy but people need to be assisted in the process of building democracies that deliver development and enforce human rights.

Counterparts around the world often consider ‘promoting’ these aspirations as offensive and misplaced arrogance.   The concern about the quality of democracy within some EU Member States only feeds this sentiment.  Therefore, it is more helpful to frame the language in terms of providing support.  Support to people whose rights are denied and to those struggling to establish their own democratic dispensation and institutions.   They are engaged in complex processes that require respect and humility next to expertise about the politics of democratic transitions.  It would enhance the EU’s credibility in pursuing the foreign policy objectives on human rights and democracy if the reference to ‘promotion’ is replaced by ‘support for’ or ‘assistance to’.