Yesterday, the Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) of the European Parliament held an exchange of views on EU policies concerning human rights defenders (HRD). Chairwoman, Mrs Barbara Lochbihler, reminded attendees about the importance of defenders’ work and the need to place them higher on the political agenda, due to the many threats they face.
Karen Bennett, researcher at the Human Rights & Social Justice Research Institute (London) presented the findings from her recent study; “Research study to assess the implementation of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders in Kyrgyzstan, Thailand and Tunisia”. The paper focused on how the revised guidelines from 2008 are affecting HRDs.
She addressed the issue that only about one-third of engaging diplomats had a good knowledge of the guidelines, while others lacked involvement. On the other side, many defenders didn’t have enough knowledge of the guidelines. Bennett explained that a possible reason for this was the lack of communication and effective consultations between HRDs and EU delegates.
Lack of preventive action
Moreover, the approach of EU delegates was perceived to be focused more on “reactive” aspects of protection, and less on preventive action. Their scope of action doesn’t always reach rural areas, which are the places where isolated defenders are the most at risk. Bennett also highlighted that a specific focus should be placed on gender-specific actions.
Mr Patrice Lenormand (DG DEVCO) announced a budget of 1.229$ billion for the EIDHR programme, which represents a 10% nominal increase compared to last year. Mr Lenormand commended recent progress, where a greater presence of EU services can directly benefit HRDs, such as the release of political prisoners or more transparent and accountable trials. Lenormand also highlighted the need to develop relationships between the different parties involved in defenders’ protection and to reach out to “forgotten people” outside urban areas. “We want to be everywhere”, he said, aspiring to a global reach by EU delegations, able to react at a moment’s notice.
The case of Shelter City – Den Haag
Radboud Reijn, programme officer at Justitia et Pax, explained the concept of the Den Haag “Shelter City”. It provides temporary relocation (3 months, or if possible, 6 maximum) for HRDs under serious threat. There, they can engage in capacity-building, IT training or awareness-raising in schools.
During this year, four defenders have found shelter in Den Haag. Justitia et Pax expects to welcome 10 people in the coming years.
Shelter cities don’t only involve relocation but also a medical/psychological follow-up, facilitation by the Dutch government to obtain visas, networking for protection with political stakeholders such as MPs or MEP, and a reintegration process involving third actors, such as embassies in the defenders’ country. The embassies are therefore ready to get engaged in case of danger.
Mr Reijn recommended increased coordination between EU delegations and member states for the implementation of the guidelines, while also asking for their help in obtaining longer visas (more than 6 months) for the defenders relocated in shelter cities.
Vincent Forest, the Head of Front Line’s EU Office in Brussels, stressed that state-sponsored defamation campaigns, restrictive legislation and cyber insecurity were three of the main challenges defenders currently face.
PI’s point of view
Protection International (PI) agrees with the main conclusions of the assessment and the opinions of the invited experts. PI highlights that some Member States have demonstrated to be more active than others in implementing this policy, leaving the bulk of the promotion of human rights and protection of defenders to the EU delegations.
PI would like to see all Member States fully embracing the commitments made by the EU when adopting the EU Strategic Framework for Democracy and Human Rights in June 2012, particularly the adoption of specific action plans for the protection of defenders in the Human Rights Country Strategies, as well as increased involvement by Member State embassy diplomats and engagement of consistent budgets.
By encouraging some targeted actions to be taken by EU missions (i.e. EU delegations and Member State embassies), PI believes that the EU guidelines on the protection of HRDs are a very powerful tool that allows EU diplomats to become one of the first lines of defence for defenders at risk worldwide.