Seminar and Workshop on Advanced Issues in Law and Policy of the European Union, nafta and the wto

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4 Why Does the EU Need a New Human Rights Policy?

The call for a new human rights policy derives both from an assessment of the current internal situation and from the particular historical context in which the Union finds itself. It must be emphasized, however, that the need for such a policy is far greater now than it was, even in the recent past. We discuss elsewhere in this article31 the judgment of the European Court of Justice of 12 May 1998, which has highlighted the disarray of important aspects of existing policies. Other current developments within the Union, in Europe as a whole, and in the world at large, also make it imperative for action to be taken now. This is demonstrated by a variety of factors, including those noted below.

A The Internal Human Rights Situation

The approach adopted in this article is not driven primarily by a sense that there are systematic violations of human rights occurring within the Union which remain entirely unaddressed. But, by the same token, there clearly are many human rights challenges which persist and to which greater attention must be given. This is clear from a wide range of sources, including various reports by the European Parliament, by the European Commission, and by non-governmental groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.32 We do not intend to replicate that information or to dwell on the details of the violations that persist. Suffice it to note that they include a resurgence in racist and xenophobic behaviour, a failure to fully live up to equality norms or to eliminate various types of discrimination, major shortcomings in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, unsatisfactory treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees, and so on.33

Although (for reasons of Community competences vis-à-vis those of the Member States) it is not for the institutions of the Union to take it upon themselves to seek to resolve these problems, it can equally well not stand passively by and chant the mantra of exclusive individual Member State competence while taking no steps to contribute to an improvement of the situation. In short, the Union must have a human rights policy, albeit one that takes appropriate account of the various principles upon which it has been established.

B The EU’s Role in the World

The European Union is a key player in world affairs. It has close to 7 per cent of the world’s population and almost as many people as the USA and Japan combined. It accounts for 27 per cent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product, almost one-fifth of its trade flows and well over half of the total official development assistance flows to developing countries. While it is true that these figures are only the aggregate of 15 different sets of national statistics, the Union’s determination to be more than the sum of its parts is reflected in a wide range of treaty commitments, policies and programmes. Along with the power and influence that these statistics represent comes responsibility. The Union cannot be a credible defender of human rights in multilateral fora and in other countries (as it has long sought to be) while insisting that it has no general competence of its own in relation to those same human rights.

Thus, for example, the EU strongly supports UN measures to persuade governments to establish national human rights institutions, but it does not have such an institution itself and nor has it encouraged its own Member States to establish them. To take another current example, the Union adopted, in May 1998, a ‘Common Position on Human Rights, Democratic Principles, the Rule of Law and Good Governance in Africa’, which proclaimed its objective of working ‘in partnership with African countries to promote respect for human rights’ and the other stated objectives.34 There is, however, no equivalent policy which commits the EU to work actively within Europe in relation to human rights. The need to end this double standard can perhaps best be expressed in biblical language by noting that, if it is to be consistent and have credibility, the EU must do unto itself as it would have others do unto themselves.

In short, as Europe finds itself increasingly playing a major role in world politics, the commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law will acquire not simply a greater urgency but will require a much more coherent and consistent policy towards other countries.

C Monetary Union

The Union is poised to realize Economic and Monetary Union. Hesitatingly, but steadily, the matching of Europe’s external political presence with its internal economic might is occurring. Already from 1 January 1999 EMU will bring a single currency to some 290 million people. Its economic and political significance to the entire Union cannot be overestimated. But it is no secret that, even among the enthusiasts, expectations have been mingled with anxiety and even fear.35 In part this is fear of the unknown and anxiety over the need to re-imagine oneself as part of a new economic polity. Inevitably the increased economic freedoms of an economic and monetary union make each individual feel smaller and fear the impact on his or her daily activities, especially since EMU is associated with a monetary discipline which poses a particular challenge to the tradition of human solidarity that has characterized the European approach to social and economic policy. It would be appropriate, precisely at this moment of EMU-propelled monetary rigour, to find equally visible and tangible ways to affirm the European humanist tradition.

There is something terribly wrong with a polity which acts vigorously to realize its economic ambitions, as it clearly should, but which, at the same time, conspicuously neglects its parallel ethical and legal obligations to ensure that those policies result in the fullest possible enjoyment of human rights.

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