12.09.2007 | Yevhen Zakharov

Are human rights a priority in the European neighbourhood policy?


An invitation arrived from the European Commission to a conference Working together-strengthening the European Neighbourhood. I didn’t want to go, it’s not my field. But colleagues convinced me that it was necessary, that I needed to talk about the importance of human rights, about the need for funding of human rights projects. So I went.

Brussels proved to be a compact, beautiful old city with narrow picturesque streets, and a cheerful beer festival on the central square near the City Hall. There were the sounds and sights of the: Latin Quarter with its wonderful street musicians playing classical music and craftsmen selling their original works, smiling, confident and friendly Flemish people who could have come straight out of a Rembrandt painting. A city you could live in.

However the conference was a real disappointment, but I’ll start from the beginning..

There was a big hall, like an amphitheatre, divided into two parts. At the front there were officials from the European Commission, representatives of OSCE, the Council of Europe, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Ministers of Foreign Affairs of member states of the EU, 15 old and 12 new, other European, Asian and African countries taking part in the neighbourhood policy. The back part seated representatives on nongovernmental organizations and journalists, with several people from each neighbouring country and many EU states.

It all began with a plenary session addressed by the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, and the European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy Benita Ferrera-Waldner, then  Ministers of Foreign Affairs  from a number of EU and neighbouring states. The Azerbaijani Minister spoke of occupation of part of their territory by Armenia, the Palestinian Minister spitting hatred denounced Israel, used up to slots of five minutes, and couldn’t stop. The Ministers of Western European countries spoke of how the neighbourhood policy needed to be differentiated, and that this didn’t mean discrimination. One had the feeling however that most of all they were worried about energy problems, and the possible lack of sources of energy. The Belarusian Minister called for economic integration. I listened and listened and understood less and less of what the sense of this policy was.  How can you unite within one framework such totally different countries? And why invite us to listen to ministers?

It was repeatedly stated that Ukraine and Morocco were the best in implementing their action plans within the framework of the good neighbourhood policy. I don’t know about Morocco, but if Ukraine is one of the best, then what does that say about the others? For example, part 2.1 “Political dialogue on reform” of the EU-Ukraine Action Plan has not been implemented over virtually two and a half years. Nonetheless, Morocco and Ukraine are much closer to the EU than other neighbouring countries. It’s unclear what the European Commission was governed by when it categorized the Balkan states as candidates for EU membership, and Ukraine and Moldova as neighbouring states.  The Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs stressed that dialogue needed to be extended between the EU and Ukraine and Moldova and the neighbourhood policy should be a parallel instrument.  And what about Ukraine? Our government completely ignored the conference. It was addressed at the end by Roman Shpek, Ukraine’s Representative at the EU who said that Ukraine preferred bilateral relations. He referred to President Yushchenko who said that European Neighbourhood Policy should not be viewed as enough for Ukraine, and that another agreement was needed envisaging the prospect of EU membership.

After lunch there were three different workshops “Governance and Stability”, “Connecting neighbours” and “Connecting the EU and neighbours”. I was down for one that turned out to be only about investment projects, and another was full, so with my address on human rights I ended up in the workshop on “Connecting neighbours”. Here the difference between declarations and reality was even more palpable. After a woman from Belarus spoke on the difference in cultural code between East and West, I asked for the floor. . I was last to speak and this is what I said.

I listened to addresses given at the plenary session, speeches by Ministers of Foreign Affairs and kept waiting for when they would begin talking about human rights as the basis on which to build European neighbourhood policy. But I didn’t hear it. People spoke of security, stability, economic integration, energy issues, the change in the climate, but there wasn’t a word about freedom as the values and priority of neighbourhood policy, nor about human rights. One has the impressions that Europeans are most concerned about energy issues.

I would like to remind you that in the 1970s and 80s the Helsinki movement succeeded in making human rights an important aspect of international politics.  This resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in countries of Eastern and Central Europe and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe which later became OSCE.  Alas, these achievements have been lost. The European Union is prepared to talk about economic integration, for example, with Belarus, effectively not paying attention to the fact that almost all nongovernmental organizations have been closed down in that country, and journalists are imprisoned for carrying out their professional duties.

I believe that if the European Union does not make human rights observance a condition for participation in the European neighbourhood policy, and the human rights situation is not properly monitored, this policy is doomed to failure. In my view, our conference should have been clearly and unequivocally stated that human rights and fundamental freedoms are the basis on which this neighbourhood policy is based.

Colleagues from nongovernmental organizations responded with approval while the European Commission officials sat with sour expressions. However at the plenary session, where the work from these workshops was summarized, the idea about observance of human rights as the guarantee of success for the neighbourhood policy was mentioned. I proved to have not been alone, with a few people in the Governance and Stability workshop having said basically the same thing – speaking of the development of civic society as the priority for this policy.

I flew back thinking about how good the comparison is between human rights and the immune system. A healthy society doesn’t even suspect that this immune system is protecting it. Our unhealthy society doesn’t yet know about this and continues thinking about where to obtain the necessary medicine. It would seem, however, that it is beginning to understand that the immune system needs to be strengthened. It would be good if the European Commission realized this!

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