Is it time for the EU to improve its human rights record?

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The European Union has made progress in ensuring its sanctions allow for legal challenges and don’t harm human rights, but more work remains to be done, a UN rights expert has concluded after his first official visit to Brussels.

“If sanctions are ever to be used, they should only address direct security threats or internationally recognized human rights violations,” Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy said.

The expert said he had held “open and extensive” discussions with officials during his four-day visit, which was undertaken to assess the impact of EU sanctions on human rights, including the right to life and the right to development.

Mr. Jazairy praised EU institutions for making progress in ensuring that sanctions did not have a negative impact on human rights, and for allowing the targeted parties to seek judicial review. He also welcomed the consistent position of the EU not to claim and indeed to oppose extraterritorial enforcement of domestic legislation concerning unilateral sanctions.

“These steps, though they need to be further reinforced, are important commitments by the EU and its members to ensure that the States or individuals targeted by sanctions have the possibility of effective remedies,” said Mr. Jazairy.

“EU sanctions offer a measure of due process for those being targeted, and even though this is still insufficient, it compares favourably to the legal remedies available in other blocs and States that impose sanctions.”

The Special Rapporteur highlighted a sanctions “stalemate” in the international community, with most countries agreeing that sanctions had to be adopted by the UN Security Council in order to be compatible with international law, while States that frequently use sanctions believe there are exceptions to this principle.

He said common ground could be found, suggesting a declaration on minimum standards of behaviour. It would be aimed at further mitigating the impact on human rights until the international community could agree on giving up on the “very blunt policy tool” of unilateral sanctions. Mr. Jazairy said it was hoped that beyond that point, sanctions would only be enacted through the UN Security Council as provided for under the UN Charter.

The UN expert urged the EU to clarify the practical implications of its legal requirements and to make clear that humanitarian exemptions from sanctions should be mandatory. He said these exemptions should become effective and be communicated to financial institutions and other stakeholders at the time of the enforcement of sanctions, so as to avoid a protection gap between the start of sanctions and decisions on humanitarian exceptions.

Mr. Jazairy also called on EU institutions to reiterate their endorsement of the principle identified by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that “when an external party takes upon itself even partial responsibility for the situation within a country… it also unavoidably assumes a responsibility to do all within its powers to protect the economic, social and cultural rights of the affected population”. He stressed that this would be in line with the EU’s commitment to uphold human rights and international law.

During his visit, the Special Rapporteur met representatives of the European Commission, European Parliament and European External Action Service. He will submit a report on his findings to the Human Rights Council in September 2018.