Defending Human Rights? Euroculture Students on the Track of Human Rights In and Outside EU

Sabine Volk
Yke Wijnker
Edited by Catherine Burkinshaw

In October 2015, Groningen’s first year Euroculture students went on a three-day study excursion to Brussels. Together with our teacher and organizer of the trip, Albert Meijer, we visited EU institutions, namely the European Commission and Parliament, the EU’s Executive Agency for Education, Audiovisual and Culture (EACEA), as well as two independent associations, namely the European Movement, and the European Network Against Racism (ENAR).


Seventeen first year Euroculture students visiting the heart of the EU: a lot of fun and Belgian beer. But it also entails enriching discussions with EU officials and lobbyists – this year regarding human rights in and outside EU.   

Studying Europe from an interdisciplinary perspective is amazing: its cultural, societal, and political integration not only appeals to various interests, but is capable of inspiring new interests within students, leading to almost insatiable curiosity. However, one day most of us will have to leave the academic ivory tower and decide on a concrete working field. For this reason, Euroculture Groningen organizes for each first year student group a trip to the perhaps most attractive destination for European studies scholars: Brussels, the permanent seat of several EU institutions, EU related agencies and innumerable lobbying associations. In other words: the heart of the European Union. For three days, seventeen first year Euroculture students explored this vibrant city, wondering which of them would someday end up in the offices of EU officials and lobbyists.

In view of the topic of the upcoming Intensive Program, “Ideals and Ambiguities of Human Rights in Europe, Past and Present,” this year’s trip to Brussels focused on human rights. For the inside perspective, we met the European Network Against Racism. To explore EU human rights policies outside its territory, we conferred with the European External Action Service (EEAS). For everybody participating in the 2016 IP or just interested in human rights issues, we want to share our experience with you.

ENAR: Human Rights Inside EU

As we all know, cooperation between European states after the second World War was partly motivated by the will never to put European citizens through the atrocities of war ever again. Efforts were made to create a peaceful environment and make this last. Naturally, human rights and being able to respect these form an important part of the, hopefully, everlasting peace in the European Union. However, reality has shown that neither are human rights respected everywhere in the EU, nor will this happen automatically.

This brings us to the organizations which are putting a lot of effort into the promotion of human rights in one way or another. The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) is one of those, focusing completely on advocacy for racial equality within the borders of the Union, meanwhile facilitating cooperation among civil society anti-racist actors. Founded in 1998, they claim to still be the only pan-European anti-racist network which combines these two activities. It is their mission to allow all European citizens to participate and be included in society to the fullest and in order to do so try to combat racism and discrimination based on whatever prejudiced reason.

Interesting to note are the methods ENAR uses to reach their goal. They do not take the approach which you expect from an anti-racist organization, trying to change the mind of people through ad campaigns on the streets or organizing conferences. No, the ENAR tackles racism within EU legislation, they break down the structural barriers and policies which could possibly limit migrants and minorities’ opportunities in European society. To back up their lobby efforts in Brussels, they call for as much data collection as possible, as effectively as possible. They believe this is the missing link in ensuring equality.

Whether ENAR has been successful so far is hard to tell, partly because, as they argue themselves, there is not enough data available to measure racism in the EU. However, they have experienced some victories since the establishment of the network. For example, in 2008 the EU adopted the first legal instrument to combat racist crime and violence across the member states, and in 2011 the EU finally adopted a European framework for national strategies for the social inclusion of Roma. These are all great improvements at European level, but one should critically consider how significant a role ENAR played in these developments since there are other NGOs active in this field and the EU has long been an advocate of human rights.

European External Action Service: Human Rights Policies Outside EU

Since the 1970s, human rights have been accorded a central role within the European Community. The world-wide promotion of these foundational values is mentioned in the very first articles of the Treaties. To advocate human rights outside its own territory, the EU has developed a variety of tools ranging from public advocacy, diplomatic tools such as bilateral cooperation, assistance and agreements, but also financial incentives and sanctions.

The latest action plan for keeping human rights at the heart of the EU agenda was concluded in the Council of Ministers on July 20, 2015. In this context, an EU Special Representative (EURS) for human rights was appointed: Stavros Lambrinidis, who is responsible for enhancing the effectiveness and visibility of EU human rights policies. The action plan covers the period until 2019 and aims to carry out more focused action, the systematic and coordinated use of instruments, and gives special emphasis on co-operation with local institutions. Herein, priorities are aimed at abolishing the death penalty and torture, improving the rights of children, women and LGBTI, and advocating for freedom of religion and expression.

One of the main institutions for promoting and protecting human rights outside the EU was created by the Treaty of Lisbon, namely the European External Action Service (EEAS). The EEAS serves as the EU’s foreign ministry and diplomatic corps under the authority of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policies. Its main instruments for promoting human rights in countries outside the EU consist of development and financial co-operation, election observation and general democracy support, as well as bilateral dialogues and consultations with representatives of these countries.

To what extent is EU human rights policy successful? An answer is not easy to find. Many measures also reveal a double standard: “Regimes, even authoritarian regimes, generally seek for recognition as lawful governments. By talking to them as EU representatives, we give them this recognition while being able to promote human rights in those countries,” asserted the EEAS representative in this context. We asked them, Did you think about that critically? We did. However, we might have to acknowledge dialogue and exchange are still the best way to achieve the world-wide implementation of human rights – even though it might include the flattering of unjust rulers.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of The Euroculturer.

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