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EU looks to confirm aid as a lever on human rights issues

Development Policy

EU looks to confirm aid as a lever on human rights issues

The EU suspended its aid programme with Burundi after president Nkurunziza's decision to run for an unconstitutional third mandate.

[Dave Proffer/Flickr]

For over 20 years, the EU has used development assistance as a lever to advance the cause of human rights. But with the current cooperation framework soon to expire, the future of aid conditionality looks uncertain. EurActiv France reports.

The use of European aid as a lever of influence on human rights issues in the Global South was put under the microscope as part of a public consultation on the future of the Cotonou Agreement. The conclusion of the European stakeholders was unanimous: European aid must remain conditional upon respect for human rights and the rule of law in recipient countries.

Adopted in 2000, the Cotonou Agreement governs the EU’s political, economic and development relations with the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP group). Human rights, the rule of law and the principles of democracy form one of the main pillars of this agreement, which both sides commit to upholding.

Cotonou up for review

When negotiations on the future of the Cotonou Agreement officially open in October 2018, the question of the conditionality of European development assistance is sure to be among the more controversial areas of the discussion. The agreement expires in 2020.

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In its response to the public consultation on the post-2020 development cooperation framework, the Commission addressed a number of criticisms raised by NGOs, national parliaments, businesses and think-tanks.

“Respondents have been generally critical on the extent to which the Cotonou mechanisms have contributed to improving human rights, democracy, rule of law and good governance,” the Commissions stated.

One common criticism expressed in the consultation was that the political dialogue between the EU and the ACP countries was seen as “too EU-driven, technical and formalistic”.

But according to the Commission, it was also widely acknowledged that political dialogue should be strengthened and preserved, as “it has helped raise the profile of certain human rights and controversial issues in the development agenda”.

EU divided over ‘conditionality’ of aid

Belgium has suspended part of its aid programme to Rwanda in response to the country’s poor human rights record. The conditionality of aid is a subject of disagreement among European countries. EurActiv France reports

The political dialogue enabled by Cotonou on the subjects of human rights and democracy were also welcomed by certain contributors, like the French General Secretariat for European Affairs (SGAE). “It is a particularly valuable tool in countries with limited bilateral exchanges with EU member states, and with which Europe has limited opportunities for dialogue (notably Surinam),” the French contribution stated.

Dialogue with Burundi

Since the Cotonou Agreement came into force, the EU has leaned heavily on its political dialogue capacity. Where this has failed to bring the desired results, Europe has invoked article 96, under which countries can be sanctioned and even suspended from the cooperation programme.

The EU has used this article to apply political pressure in response to coups d’état and human rights violations in Fiji (2000 and 2007), Zimbabwe (2002), the Central African Republic (2003), Guinea-Bissau (2004 and 2011), Togo (2004) and Madagascar (2010).

In mid-March, the European Union also announced the official suspension of development assistance for Burundi, which was plunged into crisis when its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced his intention to run for an unconstitutional third mandate in April 2015.

“Projects funded by the EU and aimed at guaranteeing the population’s access to basic services, without channelling the money through the Burundi government’s bank accounts, are being prepared,” the European Commissioner for Development said.

With an aid package worth some €430 million for the period 2015-2020, the EU is Burundi’s biggest donor.

Respect for human rights

If the EU’s cooperation with developing countries is today conditional on the respect of human rights, this has not always been the case.

The concrete connection between aid and the principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law was first made in 1995, in an amendment to the Lomé Convention.

“This initially met with strong resistance from the ACP group, based on the principles of non-interference and neutrality that had characterised international cooperation until then,” a report by the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) stated.

In practice, the EU is the only actor to use the political dimension of the partnership. The ACP group has “only rarely used the political dialogue clause of the CPA on its own initiative”, the German Development Institute (DIE) stated.

Future clashes over LGBTI rights

Certain subjects still cause deep divisions between the ACP group – notably its African members – and the European Union. Sexual and minority rights are a particularly incendiary area which have been glossed over in the current Cotonou Agreement.

The proliferation of laws against LGBTI people in certain African countries, and the EU’s own strong anti-discrimination position promise a tense series of negotiations over the post-Cotonou aid framework.

Europe reconsiders Uganda aid following anti-gay law

Many EU countries have raised their voices against maintaining development aid for Uganda after the government tightened its repressive legislation against homosexuality despite warnings from the international community, EurActiv France reports.

“Some member states believe [this question] could spell the end for the agreement, or at least pose a significant threat to the success of the post-Cotonou debate,” the DIE stated.


In 2000, the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) signed a 20 year partnership agreement known as the "Cotonou Agreement", with a clause enabling revisions every five years clause.

The three pillars of this partnership are political dialogue, development aid and trade cooperation.

One of these objectives was to guarantee respect for human rights, good governance and the rule of law in the various partner countries.


  • October 2018: official beginning of negotiations for the post-Cotonou framework
  • 2020: Cotonou Agreement expires

Further Reading