Ever since the 1957 Treaty of Rome – and even more so since 2000 and the Charter of Fundamental Rights – human rights have been a frontline issue for the EU in its relations with other countries and regions. From the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht onwards, the violation of human rights by a non-EU country can lead to the suspension of commercial relations and a reduction in assistance programmes. Fine words. But what does the Union actually do in concrete terms to guarantee the respect of human rights?
Keeping up with the latest on the human rights scene
Attention is turned most often to the case of asylum seekers and immigrants. The EU is keen to combat racism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination against minorities, in particular via the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). The primary mission of the Centre is to provide member states with objective factual information on these issues, with the ultimate aim of encouraging action or at least defining actions that could eventually combat the violation of human rights. Based on the gathered data, the EUMC studies the extent and evolution of the problems by analysing causes, consequences and effects. The Centre endeavours to make known examples of good practice in the integration of immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities. Endowed with funds of some 100 million euros for the period 2001-2006, the EUMC also finances the comprehensive monitoring of the situation across the EU and carries out analyses of actions member state by member state.
An agency that goes beyond fact collection
However, the EUMC’s scope is somewhat limited. Indeed, this is why a new agency which deals more generally with fundamental rights is going to be set up. Last November, President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, delegated a group with the responsibility of guaranteeing the consistency of the Commission’s initiatives in the area of fundamental rights, the fight against discrimination, equal opportunities and the integration of minorities into society.
According to Vice President of the European Commission, Franco Frattini (also European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security), the new EU human rights agency should be operative from January 2007. In promoting the agency’s creation, the Commission has made sure to keep in mind the results of a consultation launched in October 2004 aiming to understand the opinion of civil society, the European Parliament and EU member states. Almost 90% of respondents declared themselves in favour of strong measures against cases of discrimination, also voicing disappointment regarding the reluctant uptake by certain member states of guidelines that are already in place.
But according to representatives of NGOs, an agency for fundamental human rights would only be effective if the Commission nominates a Commissioner to deal exclusively with human rights issues. They say the agency must also be ensured political independence and should not be limited simply to the provision of information. The real challenge will be translating words into actions and – in cases of human rights violation – being in a position to intervene with appropriate sanctions.