Promoting human rights and democracy worldwide: multilateralism is the key for the EU

The values that guide the EU’s external action are based on the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights. These values are not only a requirement for EU membership, but also an important clause for any dialogue that the EU pursues with third countries, including in trade agreements.

Due to its supranational nature, the EU is ideally placed to be a leading global actor driving multilateralism and promoting international dialogue on human rights and democracy. Yet, time and time again, when faced with geopolitical developments, the EU is urged by multiple stakeholders to do more, faster, and better in the promotion of its values and interests.

This article considers how the current geopolitical challenges that affect the balance of powers between the EU Member States have a direct impact on businesses, civil society and other key actors, as well as on which tools the EU has at its disposal to defend and promote human rights, democracy and rule of law when dealing with political crises outside its borders.

Defining the current geopolitical crises – EU stance

The challenges and opportunities brought by new technologies, the environmental debate and many other societal topics of high salience are deeply interconnected with human rights, and the failure of world leaders to see them as interconnected profoundly affects society’s wellbeing. The EU is actively engaging with international actors such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe and other regional actors to promote human rights and democracy, but, a key point to address is the rekindling of the engagement with the United States, which has recently been shifting to a more unilateral approach in its foreign policy.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is witnessing the deepening of the USA-China political crisis, with clashes on a variety of issues from trade to technological matters. The world has also seen a “more assertive China” and a more “unilateral” USA in its foreign policy approach. Indeed, the pandemic has underlined a shift in the geopolitical landscape; so, adapting and creating the necessary tools for a renewed international multilateralism based on human rights, democracy and rule of law is of key importance.

The Head of the EU External Action Service, High Representative Vice-President Josep Borrell, recently suggested that regardless of the direction in which the Washington-Beijing axis is heading, the “EU must follow its own path and act in accordance with its own values and interests”.

The EU has also made clear that is expecting more openness from China on issues such as market access and investments, along with a clear commitment to respect human rights, something that sadly, at which China does not excel. Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, the suppression of Uyghur minorities, the ongoing abuses of freedom of religion in Tibet, and the use of ‘disinformation’ as a tool to spread the government’s narrative are all clear infringements of international norms to which China officially adheres.

The EU is also now dealing with an oppressive regime in its home continent, with the recent uprisings against President Lukashenko – ‘Europe’s last dictator’, who has led an authoritarian regime in Belarus for the past 26 years. Following the outcome of the presidential elections on 9th August, Belarus is overwhelmed by a series of pro-democracy demonstrations against its government – blamed for falsifying the election results.

Lukashenko’s political opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, claimed that she received at least 60% of the popular vote, although ‘official results’ credit Lukashenko with 80% of the vote. After years of political oppression, Belarusian people are fearlessly protesting for change despite continued police brutality, massive arrests, and intimidation. Deeply intertwined with Russia, Lukashenko has the support of President Vladimir Putin who stated that he ‘stands ready to send police’ to Belarus if needed. Putin’s regime focused on exercising control over former Soviet countries, has been seen last in 2014 when Russia offered support to former Ukrainian President Yanukovych to remain in power and stifle the massive protests in the country, or as they argued, “restore the rule of law”, pushing relations between Russia and the West to a new low. The challenge that the EU now has is to find a way to help Belarusians succeed in their democratic battle without providing a pretext for Russian intervention as it happened in other post-soviet countries in the past.

While these clashes of power seem far away from local politics, businesses, civil society or any other actors, they have a direct impact on the balance of power between the Member States, hence impacting directly their stance in the Council on issues such as digital surveillance and 5G/Huawei, foreign investments, trade, human rights matters and rule of law. For example, countries like Hungary with a more “anti-Western” approach, show resistance to human rights matters in the Council given their ongoing national disputes about the rule of law. At the same time, Hungary’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe makes it an appealing actor for powers like China to exert its influence through investment projects, such as the recent Chinese loan to build the Budapest-Belgrade railway.

The EU’s toolbox for promoting human rights and democracy worldwide

The EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy: the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024  proposal published on 25th March 2020 comes with a series of priorities that commit the EU and its Member States to continue promoting human rights and democracy consistently and coherently with all third countries and in all areas of EU external action, including trade. The Action Plan offers guidance to over 140 EU Delegations and Offices as well as Member States’ embassies for targeted initiatives and actions at country level all over the world.

The Action Plan, which is now with the Council for discussions, is for the first time accompanied by a proposal which, if supported by the European Council, the institution will use in the future the qualified majority voting (QMV) when adopting decisions implementing the Plan and not requiring unanimity as now is the case. If approved, this would enhance the EU’s capacity to go ahead with implementing decisions in a much faster and efficient way.

EU Human Rights Dialogues with third countries: Human Rights dialogues have been initiated by the EU with more than 40 non-EU countries with the main objective of promoting dialogue, cooperating on human rights issues and pushing for the implementation of international human rights instruments.

These dialogues are taking place not only with Government officials but also with civil society organisations and human rights defenders with the main objective of facilitating dialogue on matters that need to be addressed.

In the pipeline – EU Global Human Rights Sanctions regime: The EU has previously targeted individuals with sanctions for severe human rights abuses – e.g. China in 1989, Belarus in 2004, Iran in 2011, Venezuela in 2017, and most recently, on 14th August 2020, the EU agreed for a new round of sanctions in Belarus given the post-election crackdown – but there is a growing need for an institutionalised process, such as that adopted through US 2016 Global Magnitsky Act and related measures.

In December 2019, the Council discussed how to improve the EU toolbox on human rights, announcing the launch of preparatory work on a sanctions regime to address serious human rights violations. This was preceded by the European Parliament’s resolution from March 2019, urging the Council to speed up the process and work on this legislation. The recent developments in Belarus have also motivated the Council to move forward with this legislation, with a first draft now being discussed.

An institutionalised EU human rights sanctions regime is crucial, as this would consolidate EU Member States’ voices into one, sending a stronger message to authoritarian regimes by targeting key individuals and freezing their assets and economic resources.

With the current shift in the balance of powers, the EU must act in an assertive way both inside and outside its borders. Using the tools that it has at its disposal, promoting multilateralism, and finding ways to coordinate with the USA on issuing sanctions worldwide will be key to ensuring that human rights and the rule of law are progressing everywhere around the globe. At the same time, businesses, and other key stakeholders, must be aware of the impact that these international developments as well as tools adopted by the EU (e.g. sanctions) can have on their activities, so a strategic engagement approach is needed.

The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at