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How right are Europe's human rights policies?

One of the European Union's main tenets is the promotion of democracy and human rights, but citing Libya as an example, Amnesty International says the bloc's deeds don't always live up to its words.

A boat load of migrants from Africa

En route to a better place?

For the past two years the EU and Libya have been working on the terms of a bilateral framework agreement aimed at greater cooperation on a range of issues including security, social and economic development and the battle against illegal migration.

It sounds fairly 21st century on paper, but Amnesty International says in working more closely with a country known for its dark-age human rights record, the European Union would essentially be turning a blind eye to some of the abject horrors of day-to-day life in Libya. And as such contravening one of the very principles it upholds.

In a recent report entitled 'Libya of Tomorrow: What Hope for Human Rights,' Amnesty lays a slate of violations at Tripoli's door - women flogged for adultery, amputations as a consequence of theft, and the death penalty for free speech - and calls, unreservedly on the EU not to ignore the country's dire track record at the expense of national interests.

A group of migrants sitting on the ground

From Libya to Italy and back again

National interests which include the ever controversial issue of migration. Highlighting the plight of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers trying to reach European shores, the Amnesty report says that rather than finding the sanctuary they seek and to which their nationality often entitles them, they are frequently arrested and put into detention.

Caught at sea

One European county - Italy - currently plays a hand in making that happen. In 2008 Rome and Tripoli signed a Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation which saw Italy offer compensation for its occupation of Libya from 1911 to 1943, and Libya agree in return to tighten control of its territorial waters and accept onto its soil individuals intercepted at sea by Italian vessels.

That practice has since stopped but Libya still takes possession of migrants its own authorities catch trying to cross the water, and Amnesty says Italy provided Tripoli with six patrol boats to make the job easier.

A year into the treaty, more than 1,000 people, often from Eritrea and Somalia, had been returned to Libya to what Amnesty researcher Diana Elfahawy described to Deutsche Welle as "indefinite detention."

"Some people have been held in one center for three years and others have been through several locations during their time in Libya," she said. "In some cases they bribe their way out, but there is a chance they will be thrown back in."

UNHCR logo beside the green Libyan flag

Libya has thrown the UNHCR out once already

Relatively few make it to the UNHCR, which in a country with no asylum procedure offers the only hope of status determination. But even for those who receive refugee status, resettlement is still not a given. But it is, says Elfahawy, a must.

"There is no solution for refugees in Libya, no possibility for them to become integrated because the Libyan authorities don't grant them residence, don't grant them the authority to work and even if they do have the UNHCR documents, they are constantly at risk of arrest," the researcher said.

Obligation violation

It is against this backdrop that Amnesty has voiced its concerns about the pending EU-Libya framework agreement. The fear is that it will go the same way as the agreement Italy struck for itself.

"They [EU member states] are under obligation to provide refuge, but what we hear is that they are trying to subcontract this obligation to Libya," Elfahawy said, adding that "Libya is not in a position to fulfill it."

Clara O'Donnell, Research Fellow with the Center for European Research says there is a conflict between the EU's security agenda - which includes restricting the flow of migrants limiting the risk of counter-terrorism - and its stance on human rights.

A long beach seen from the air

The draw of European shores

"Over the past 10 years the internal security agenda has been given more importance than the human rights one," she said. "We have seen several occasions where the EU has been willing to work with governments in North Africa because they were cooperating on counter-terrorism measures and reaccepting a lot of migrants."

An uphill struggle for Europe

For its part, the European Union says the pending framework agreement is the key to helping Libya establish the kind of structured system necessary to ensure the protection and promotion of human rights.

A statement issued from the offices of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, said the agreement would equip the EU to increase political dialog and cooperation on human rights.

"Currently, when the EU deems it necessary, and on an ad-hoc basis, it reminds Libya of the human rights provisions to which it is bound as a consequence of the conventions and treaties it has ratified," the statement said.

A tall fence cutting through a land mass

How Europe protects its borders

One such is the Addis Ababa Convention which governs refugee problems in Africa and binds Libya to identify refugees on the basis of the same criteria as the Geneva Convention. But that is not what happens. And for all the talk of the good that can be done by implementing a framework agreement, O'Donnell is doubtful that the EU has the clout to initiate change in Tripoli.

"It is very difficult for the EU to achieve reform in this region because as a whole it does not have many incentives for North African countries," she told Deutsche Welle. "Many argue that Europe could offer more aid or visa liberalization or more subsidies on agricultural products, but even those carrots are not likely to make a big difference."

Ultimately, she says, Libyan authorities have to perceive a shift in human rights policy to be in their own interests. And as long as there are countries knocking at their door willing to do business, that is unlikely to change.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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