How much does the EU care about human rights? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 22.03.2018
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How much does the EU care about human rights?

Human rights groups have criticized the European Union for failing to uphold its values while tackling the migrant crisis. Where are its red lines? Conflict Zone meets European Parliament Vice President Ioan Pascu.

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Ioan Pașcu on Conflict Zone

Populist success at the polls across Europe. Brexit. Disunity. The European Union continues to face serious problems on many issues, including its handling of the migrant crisis that began in 2015.

But despite its humanitarian rhetoric, the EU has come under fire for its interventions, most recently in Libya.

In December, Amnesty International published a damning report, criticizing EU member states for "actively supporting a sophisticated system of abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants by the Libyan Coast Guard, detention authorities and smugglers in order to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean."

Is the European Union failing to live up to its founding values of "human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity" that each of its members are bound by?

Red lines

This week on Conflict Zone, DW’s Tim Sebastian met European Parliament Vice President Ioan Pascu in Strasbourg and began by asking him why the EU spent so much time talking about human rights but did less to uphold them.

"It's a question of values of a club," Pascu told DW's Sebastian. "They were posted at the entrance door, whoever wanted to become a member of the club would have to abide by them."

Responding to the suggestion that member states were failing to abide by these rules, Pascu said: “I would agree with you that the attractiveness of the European Union has been affected by the crisis, by the conflicts around, and today there is not so much enthusiasm as there used to be in the late 90s, beginning of the 2000s.”

But Pascu dismissed that there was anything new in Greece's decision in June 2017 to block EU criticism of China's human rights record. China has a 51% stake in Greece's largest port. 

Philippinen - Präsident Rodrigo Duterte (picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS/R. Umali)

The EU said its deal with the Philippines would "allow better collaboration ... in political, economic and development issues". Human Rights Watch has said that under President Rodrigo Duterte human rights in the Philippines is in crisis

Pascu disagreed too that the EU was failing to offer help beyond its own borders: "We see countries which up until now did not pay too much attention to the EU, being interested in relations with the EU, take India for instance, take Mexico for instance."

But wasn't this only driven by trade interests?

"Who is going to come only for values? Who is going to come only for that?" said Pascu, a former defense minister of Romania.

'Not a great democrat'

On criticism of a recent agreement with the Philippines, Pascu questioned waiting for another leader: "Because they elected Duterte as president and Duterte is not a great democrat we should say, 'no deals with you until you elect somebody else'?"

Human Rights Watch has saidPresident Rodrigo Duterte has "plunged the Philippines into its worst human rights crisis since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos."

"We do have to take into account much more than that. What if we don’t have such a treaty with Philippines tomorrow when they elect somebody else than Duterte?" said Pascu.

On the EU's statements championing human rights, Pascu said: "It does not mean that the world revolves around only about one action or one leader, and then we have to give up everything else because that leader is not a democrat."

So does it have limits in its dealings with other countries?

"We do have red lines … In February this parliament was very critical to the human rights records of Egypt."

The European Parliament issued a statement in February condemning Egypt’s use of the death penalty.

In January, the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, said "the EU is a fair-weather friend to human rights: emphasizing them when there’s little risk, de-emphasizing them when interests come into play - often when it is in the interest of individual member states not to raise issues, primarily for commercial reasons […]."

Pascu, a European Parliament vice president since 2014, questioned this view as too generalized: "Not everything in the European Union is bad. Not everything in the European Union, equally, is not to be criticized. So that's the way we move forward."

Spanien Katalonien Unabhängigkeits-
Referendum Poilzei schreitet ein (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Fernandez)

"This argument has been made by all the separatists [in Catalonia], that it was police brutality," Ioan Pascu told Conflict Zone. Human Rights Watch said that Spanish police had used excessive force during Catalonia's independence referendum

'Violence can be provoked'

But if there are many matters of division within the Union, one moment of recent unity has arguably been its silence over Spain and Madrid's response to Catalonia's failed independence bid. 

Human Rights Watch said the Spanish police had used excessive force as they tried to stop the referendum in Catalonia.

Pascu told DW’s Tim Sebastian: "I side with the [Spanish] government because the government has the responsibility to make their constitution respected by their citizens. If that happens in another country the same situation will happen. Why do you think that these separatists have not been supported in Europe?"

However, Pascu insisted that support for Spain was not about the country's importance to the EU: "It's the symbolism of it. If you let these things happen and go around, then you never have the member states existing in the European Union."

And if there was more violence in Spain over an independence vote?

"Sometimes violence can be provoked. Sometimes it can," said Pascu.

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