As of September 1, the European Union has a permanent Special Representative for Human Rights. The Greek Stavros Lambrinidis is to ensure that human rights become a key part of EU foreign policy.
By appointing Stavros Lambrinidis as the European Union's Special Representative for Human Rights, Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, wants to send the message that the issue of human rights is to be at the heart of EU foreign policy.
Human rights are "the red thread running through everything we are doing in EU foreign policy," said Ashton in July as she appointed Lambrinidis. This was about "improving the effectiveness and visibility of our human rights work."
The appointment was agreed by the EU foreign ministers, and Lambrinidis' duties include strengthening democracy and the rule of law, and taking charge of the worldwide campaign against the death penalty. Lambrinidis, a former Greek foreign minister, previously represented the socialist Pasok party in the European Parliament, where he campaigned to improve data protection. According to Ashton, Lambrinidis is "a natural choice, because he combines great political experience, enthusiasm and expert knowledge of human rights."
Walking the line
Ashton also said that Lambrinidis has received a "broad and flexible mandate," so that he can "adapt to different circumstances around the world." But his brief is limited to human rights outside the EU, not within it.
Lambrinidis, for his part, sees himself as having a dual role - on the one hand, as he said when he was appointed "to integrate human rights into all areas of EU foreign policy, whether it's trade, development, or fighting terrorism." But he also wants to ensure that "all players inside and outside the EU work together more closely and with more coordination."
The latter could be a particular challenge, because individual EU governments often have very different human rights policies, and not all the EU institutions toe the same line - the European Parliament, for example, often rates a particular human rights problem very differently from the European Council. The parliament once defied the express warnings of individual states by awarding a Chinese dissident the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Human Rights Watch verdict
Barbara Lochbihler, Green Party MEP and chairwoman of the human rights subcommittee, is satisfied with the choice of a human rights commissioner. She describes Lambrinidis as being "very familiar with EU structures, and he has experience in foreign policy and human rights." Other parliamentarians have also praised the new appointee - though that is hardly surprising, considering that he is "one of them."
But there is criticism from outside the European institutions - not for Lambrinidis himself, but for the efficacy of the new office, and the EU's human rights policy in general. Lotte Leicht, director of the Brussels bureau of Human Rights Watch, says, "We will see whether the EU member states and the European institutions practise what they preach."
Leicht criticizes the EU's record on human rights
Human Rights Watch pointed out that the EU maintains good relations with autocratic regimes all round the world. It says the EU has been "complacent in its dealing with governments in the Middle East and North Africa that have violated human rights."
For Leicht, the EU has often been too reserved in its human rights rhetoric. "Quiet diplomacy is all well and good, if it brings results," she said. "But in cases of continued human rights abuses, the EU should speak up, so that both the regimes and their populations hear the message."
Instead, she argues, the EU has too often tried to avoid possible diplomatic reprisals from autocratic regimes. Human rights organizations are insisting that Lambrinidis must be more than just window dressing for the EU.
More and more special representatives
Counting Lambrinidis, the EU now has no fewer than ten special representatives. They are effectively emissaries for the EU with special foreign affairs remits. They work closely with the European foreign policy department and are directly accountable to Ashton.
Unlike EU ambassadors, they are not responsible for individual countries, but for regions or conflict zones. There are special representatives for the African Union, for Afghanistan, for the southern Mediterranean region, for the Middle East peace process. Lambrinidis is unique in that he is not dealing with a particular region or conflict, but with a whole issue. His mandate is to end on June 30, 2014.