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David Nichols, Amnesty International : "Human rights is often seen as a distraction from more political issues"

The 12th annual EU-NGO Forum took place on 12 and 13 July in Brussels. Organized by the Belgian Presidency of the EU and the European Commission, the Forum focused on the Lisbon Treaty and what it means for EU Human rights policy. Interviewed by Touteleurope.fr, David Nichols from Amnesty International explains the purpose of this forum and what he sees as the main changes brought about by the Lisbon Treaty for Amnesty's work on human rights both within and beyond the frontiers of the EU.

Touteleurope.fr : What was discussed at European NGO forum ? What was the purpose of this forum?

David Nichols : The forum is an annual forum. It takes place every year in the second half of the year. It brings together NGOs that work on human rights, and not just those from Europe but NGOs from elsewhere in the world. Each year it tackles a different subject. This year the overall theme of the forum was the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on human rights work . It was quite an ambitious theme. It is quite a small forum not that many NGOs present so there is ample time for discussion.

The discussions were divided up into four different workshops - EU human rights instruments in the fight against the death penalty ; the promotion of economic , social and cultural rights ; the EU’s relations with regional human rights mechanisms (Council of Europe, OSCE, the African Union, ASEAN or the OAS) and finally the consistency between the EU’s internal and external human rights policies.

These were very ambitious themes. It is obvious that from such a wide-ranging discussion that it would be difficult to get concrete recommendations from a one and half day meeting. What we are hoping is that this will be the start of a process and that it is an initial reflection to spark off thinking in the Member states that will continue for the rest of the year. This forum is not an end in itself and it is far too early to say whether it was successful or not.

TLE : What are the next steps? What follow-up to the forum is planned?

DN : The Belgian presidency of the EU is organizing a major review of the EU human rights strategy, under the stewardship of the High Representative Baroness Ashton. This will continue for the rest of this year. This forum is the start of this process. There will be a lot more discussions between the institutions, the Member States and NGOs. We are hopeful that they will lead to the formulation of some good outcomes by the end of the year and by the beginning of next year.

TLE : What EU projects is Amnesty working on ? What success have you had in recent times?

ND : In the EU office, we work on both EU internal and external human rights policies. There have been great differences in the success of developments on both of these fronts.

Looking at the internal side, we work a lot on asylum and migration issues and also on anti-discrimination issues, in particular in relation to the Roma populations in Europe. We also work on criminal justice issues within the EU and the human rights implications of counter terror policies.

Externally, we focus on the EU’s bilateral relations with third countries. In particular looking at the protection of human rights defenders and the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. We focus particularly the EU’s relations with “strategic partners” , making sure that the EU raises human rights violations which occur when they meet with these countries and that they don’t just talk about energy and trade etc.. The failure to mention human rights violations at these high level meetings is the main problem that we face regarding foreign policy.

Although the EU’s position on human rights is strong in theory, which is already a great success, in practice, when there are many other concerns that the EU wishes do discuss with partners such as Russia or the countries of central Asia. Energy or cooperation on counter terrorism tend to take precedent over human rights EU representatives are unlikely to discuss the massive human rights violations that occur in these countries. Human rights would be seen as a distraction from other more political issues. There are examples of this worldwide when the EU is discussing trade. In practice, there are many topics which come before human rights and improving the situation in these third countries.

Internally, the EU does not have a human rights policy. The EU can talk about human rights policies externally however when human rights abuses occur within the EU there is no way to address these problems. There are tough human rights criteria for a country which wishes to join the EU. The scrutiny of candidate countries is intense. The EU is examining the situation in Croatia at the moment and there are massive demands being put on Croatia, particularly with regard to the justice and fundamental rights chapter has just been opened.

However, we know that as soon as the country joins the EU this scrutiny ends. This can cause real problems in addressing human rights abuses and as regards consistency of EU policy within its borders.

TLE : What are the implications of the Lisbon Treaty for the EU human rights agenda?

DN: The Lisbon Treaty has had consequences on both the internal and external policy agenda of the EU. The charter of fundamental rights is now a binding instrument. This means that all EU policies, all both internal and external, have to be in conformity with the charter of Fundamental rights. Another important innovation is that now that the EU has legal personality it can ratify the European Convention on Human Rights which means that all of the actions of the EU and the EU institutions can be held accountable before the European Court of Human Rights.

On the external affairs side, a the major innovation has been the creation of the posts of High representative for foreign affairs and security policy, the President of the European Council and the creation of the European external action service. The President of the European Council and the High Representative should give much greater visibility to human rights issues. It is clear that protecting human rights is one of the major objectives of EU Foreign policy and this has been confirmed by the Lisbon Treaty. The European External Action Service is intended to bring about more coherence in the EU’s external policy so in theory this should mean that there will be more coherence between the trade, energy and development dossiers and human rights and foreign policy. We should no longer see one commissioner perhaps going to a country to discuss energy while not mentioning the Human rights situation.

It is very early days still. We will see over the next couple of years what real impact these changes will have. The European External Action Service is not yet up and running and won’t be until later this year. The High Representative is mostly concerned with establishing the service at the moment. She hasn’t really taken on all the aspects of her job yet.

Regarding the other posts created by the Lisbon Treaty, it is not totally clear what role the President of the European Council will play in foreign policy. Nor is it clear how the conformity of EU policies with the Charter of Fundamental rights will be ensured. The Commission will produce a paper in September which will explain how they plan to implement this new measure. The Commission will probably produce an annual monitoring report on how EU policies conform to the Charter in the following years.

TLE : When did amnesty international create this office in Brussels? How effective is your lobbying action in Brussels? Which institution do you lobby the most?

DN : Amnesty created the office in Brussels back in 1985. It was an innovation proposed by the national sections in the EU Member States. Member organizations realized that they increasingly found when lobbying their national governments that a lot of the discussions that they needed to influence in fact took place in Brussels.

They found that they were lacking in influence and in information because they didn’t have anyone in Brussels to follow the discussions or to lobby directly those officials working in the institutions. Our office is therefore primarily a lobbying and media office.

We work with all the institutions, that is with the Council, the Commission and the Parliament. In many ways there is greater access to the Parliament. However in foreign affairs domain, the power lies with the Council so this is our main target for lobbying on foreign policy work. Lobbying in Brussels is very different to the lobby work in Member States. This varies of course according to the Member States as we can have completely different levels of access depending on the country. There are some Member States which have a tradition of working with lobby groups and NGOs and those that don’t. We can see that here also, not just via our national lobbying teams but also through our experience with officials in Brussels. Generally speaking Amnesty has good access as EU policy is clear on foreign policy. It is not always well implemented but it is clear ! They need us for information too. In many ways we are a partner for many of the institutions. However, it is still very much based on the individuals concerned and whether they are trusting of civil society or not and whether they understand the role of civil society and what it can do to achieve their objectives.

TLE : The EU will become a member of the European Convention of Human rights. What will this change for the EU? Will this lead to conflict between the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and the ECHR?

DN : It is very very important that the EU is going to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights and therefore become subject to the European Court of Human Rights. This is a major innovation. For the moment the actions of the European institutions are not answerable to a higher power. In the member States there is a supreme court that is the highest power but if an individual still feels that his rights have been violated or denied, they have the option of going to the European Court as does the national supreme court if they do not feel they are able to judge on an issue.

The highest court for the EU institutions at the moment is the European Court of Justice. However with the Lisbon changes, the actions of the European institutions will be subject to external control by the European Court of Human Rights.

Whether it will lead to conflict…? I don’t think so. There are a lot of commonalites between the two documents. The EU Charter of fundamental rights is mostly to be used to ensure that before the EU takes actions they are in line with the charter commitments. It will not necessarily be used for holding the institutions to account afterwards, which will be the role of the European Convention on human rights when the EU actually ratifies this Convention. The ratification may take a number of years. The EU has a lot of negotiations to complete on the implementation of this aspect of the Lisbon Treaty.

Find out more :

Human Rights NGO Forum

Amnesty International

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