EU and its policy on human rights in South Asia


European integration is an example of the consolidation of ethnic diversity under one roof. This consolidation was not done on the cast of extinction or humiliation of one group and promotion of other, but a guarantee of respectful and dignified life of individuals as well as existence of different groups. On the other hand, the South Asian region has numerous tales of human rights violations by governments, inter and intra group clashes based on caste, religion, ethnicity, region, proxy wars, intrusion, terrorism, military occupations, etc. These elements have denuded the dignity of human beings.

In this regard the EU has started substantive programs for the defense and protection of human rights in South Asia. It has provided the guidelines for governments and different institutions for the protection of human rights. Consequently, the EU can play an effective role in encouraging civil society, NGOs and other people concerned in defending and raising awareness about human rights.

Europe and South Asia

The relations developed by the European Union with South Asia are multilayered. At the regional level, the EU has consistently affirmed an interest in strengthening links with SAARC but without much expectations. An official overview affirms that “the EU can help consolidate the ongoing integration process (of SAARC) through its economic influence in the region, its own historical experience of dealing with diversity, and its interest in crisis prevention.”

The same analysis recognizes as well that “the internal problems of SAARC largely prevented any effective implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding” signed with the SAARC Secretariat in 1996, at the initiative of the EU. The other way to look at South Asia appears to be : an area where “strong nationalist feelings still create stumbling blocks in the process of regional integration,” to quote the Head of the EU Delegation in India, Ambassador Callouët.

This has two major implications. First it legitimizes a country-specific approach: the EU develops mostly bilateral relations with South Asian states. Second, it calls for a sustained and close analysis of the security scenario in South Asia, “one of the most volatile regions of the world.” In this context, the EU is active at two levels: i) country-specific when needed, particularly in cases of crisis prevention or crisis management (in Nepal or in Sri Lanka, for instance); and ii) transnational, when tensions overlap borders, be it the India-Pakistan relationship, Kashmir, or the Bhutan-Nepal debate over refugees.

EU and human rights

Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights are the values on which the European Union is founded. Embedded in the Treaty on European Union, they have been reinforced by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Countries seeking to join the EU must respect human rights, and so must countries which have concluded trade and other agreements with it. It actively promotes and protects human rights both within its borders and in its relations with other countries. It does this by working in full and active partnership with EU Member States, partner countries, international organizations, regional entities and civil society.

The EU also supports efforts to combat racism, xenophobia and other types of discrimination based on religion, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation, and are particularly concerned about human rights in the area of asylum and migration (European Union and South Asia: An Appraisal, Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad, International Seminar on Major Powers in South Asia 11-13 August 2003). The EU has a long tradition of welcoming people from other countries – those who come to work and those fleeing their homes because of war or persecution.

EU and human rights in South Asia

The European Council adopted the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders in June 2004. The document was considered an important tool that could pave the way for better protection for human rights defenders, especially in Asia. However, these guidelines are not widely known and are underutilized by human rights defenders in the region. There is an urgent need to publicize the guidelines to governments, human rights defenders and to citizens at large.

One of the primary factors impeding the implementation of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders is the lack of specific instructions by EU member states to their missions in other countries. EU member states need to issue these instructions as local implementation strategies for the guidelines. These implementation strategies must be formulated and developed with human rights defenders who will be the beneficiaries of these strategies. These local implementation strategies must also include steps to build and strengthen institutions to protect defenders, as well as combat the culture of impunity that is the core reason why human rights defenders always find themselves under constant threat and danger (International Seminar on Major Powers in South Asia 11-13 August 2003).

A manifesto has been presented to the European Union asking that it take action to prevent human rights abuses against minorities in South Asia. The British Pakistani Christian Association (BCPA) was among the groups at the European Parliament in Brussels to present the manifesto. The document states that religious, ethnic and sexual minorities are among the most vulnerable groups in South Asia. They face the threat of land grab, assault, forced conversion and murder. Attacks on places of worship, businesses and homes are frequent, and life is made difficult in some places as a result of discriminatory laws.

Global Human Rights Defense (GHRD) presented a joint manifesto on minority rights in South Asia with specific recommendations to the European authorities. This was created during a three-day regional symposium in Mumbai, India, in November this year. It concluded that religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities remain amongst the most vulnerable groups in South Asia, as they are subject to discrimination and human rights violations, including discriminatory laws, land grabbing, attacks against places of worship, businesses and homes, physical and sexual assaults, forced conversions, killings and threats, which largely go unreported by national and international authorities.

It also concluded that it remains too difficult for civil society and local human rights organizations in South Asia to access EU institutions and calls for actions to bridge the gap between human rights defenders on the ground and EU institutions.

The EU parliament in its resolution adopted on Kashmir, by a clear majority, expressed its sincere condolences, sympathy and solidarity to all those affected by the earthquake that struck South Asia. It stated that members remained seriously concerned about the situation of survivors, especially the people living in high country settlements cut off by landslides, who can only be reached by a fleet of relief helicopters. They are alarmed about reports that people in some of the hardest-hit areas have received little if any aid. Parliament welcomes the agreement between the governments of India and Pakistan on the opening of crossing points on the Line of Control (LoC).

Implementation of the Guidelines

While there have been efforts to analyze and implement the guidelines in the context of certain Asian countries, such as India and China, there is little awareness of the guidelines throughout the Asian region, let alone successful instances of their implementation. The 2008 EU Annual Report on Human Rights indicates that human rights dialogues have been established between the EU and China, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Japan, and Indonesia. During the EU-China dialogue, several individual cases were raised and the EU expressed concern over restrictions of press freedom and the Internet, as well as the treatment of human rights defenders. There have also been several dialogues between the EU and the Government of India, with the Indian authorities stressing their commitment to ending impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity (Human Rights defenders and Democracy building: An Asian perspective International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2009).

However, according to Front Line, a human rights group based in Dublin, these formal mechanisms do not have as much impact on the protection of human rights defenders as small and informal actions. According to a Front Line report, “Simple steps such as regular phone calls, information sharing, inviting human rights defenders to events taking place in the missions, organizing meetings with them, visiting their areas of work or simply showing moral support, can have an important impact on their public image, and also on their own perception of the support they can get.” (Front Line, 2008).

A human rights defender from Sri Lanka, during a regional forum of human rights defenders held in Bangkok on January 2009, said that a visit from a EU diplomat to the home of a human rights defender who is at risk can accord some form of protection. Such a visit conveys to the local authorities that the international community is watching over the human rights defender concerned. In June 2006, two years after the adoption of the guidelines, the Austrian presidency of the EU found significant gaps between the guidelines’ objectives and their implementation. In 2008, a EU working group recommended establishing human rights groups at the EU level in third countries, increasing efforts to raise awareness of the guidelines at the local level, and emphasizing media freedom with third countries.

Recommendations for Local Strategies

The recommendations below suggest how EU member states can implement local strategies in their missions in Asian countries.

Participatory and Consultative Process

The Netherlands is the only EU member state known to have formed local implementation strategies of the guidelines for its missions abroad. The strategies are confidential. This is an issue of concern for human rights defenders in Asia since such strategies should ideally be formulated in consultation with the people for whom they were conceived. If human rights defenders are involved, they would use these strategies since they would see these as practical, familiar and directly addressing their needs (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2009).

Intensification of Promotion Activities

Local implementation strategies must also promote the guidelines to human rights defenders on the ground. This may include translating the guidelines into various Asian languages. Where missions have translated the guidelines into local languages, they are still not disseminated widely enough. In 2004, Peace Brigades International provided a translation of the guidelines into Bahasa Indonesia to the EU, but received no information about whether the translation had been distributed by the mission staff in Indonesia.

Increase Contact with Human Rights Defenders

The local implementation strategies must instruct staff of EU missions to be more proactive in establishing and maintaining contacts with local human rights defenders. A conclusion on the guidelines issued by the Council of the European Union in 2006 revealed that in many cases a limited EU presence or a lack of resources has meant that missions have been unable to appoint a special liaison officer. Human rights defenders in more remote areas have difficulty accessing EU missions in their countries [Felipe Gómez Isa Koen de Feyter (Eds.)  ‘International Protection of Human Rights: Achievements and Challenges, University of Deusto Bilbao, 2006, 73]. In Maldives, for instance, human rights defenders in smaller islands are frequently unable to make contact with EU missions, which are always located in the capital. This is also true for other countries in South Asia. It should be noted that these rural places are where many human rights defenders face the most risk and would need the assistance of EU missions most.

Recognizing the Vital Role of NHRIs

The Asian NGOs Network on National Human Rights Institutions, a network of human rights defenders engaging with NHRIs, has urged Asian NHRIs since 2006 to establish focal persons mandated to address issues of human rights defenders at risk. EU missions should encourage NHRIs to appoint these focal persons; they would be able to help EU missions monitor cases of human rights defenders at risk. In countries where NHRIs have yet to be established, EU missions should urge governments to establish independent, accountable and effective NHRIs, in accordance with the Paris Principles.

Encouraging Regional Mechanisms

EU missions in South Asia should encourage governments of the countries to establish a regional human rights mechanism that is independent and effective. They may help in promoting a mechanism similar to the special unit within the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights which is devoted to the protection of human rights defenders and can refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.