This article is part of our special report Towards sustainable development goals.
SPECIAL REPORT / The EU says it is very committed to promoting civil liberties and self-determination through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are expected to be adopted globally, in September.
But recent criticisms of national human right bodies leaves many doubtful that much is going to change.
Lotte Knudsen, Director for Human Development and Migration at the European Commission, who chaired a panel on SDGs and human rights at the European Development Days conference on 3 June, said that the EU was dedicated to furthering human rights and democracy.
This is part of the EU’s foundation, as spelled out in the Treaty, which reaffirms that the Union’s external action is grounded in democracy and the rule of law, she explained.
The EU’s development policy framework, enshrined in the Agenda for Change, is based on two pillars, human rights, democracy and other aspects of good governance on the one hand, and inclusive and sustainable growth on the other, Knudsen said.
She added that 15 member states were in the ‘A’ category of National human right institutions (NHRIs), meaning that they fully comply with the so-called Paris Principles, the accreditation being made by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC).
The ICC is a global network of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) – administrative bodies set up to promote, protect and monitor human rights in a given country.
Knudsen reitareted that the Commission has recently proposed a new Action plan on human rights and democracy covering the period 2015-2019 which is now being discussed in the Council. The proposal lists as its first priority the capacity to support the NHRIs, with the aim at strengthening them.
The Commission official also said that in the EU budget, an instrument called The European instrument for democracy and human rights, was designed to support national human right institutions in the period ahead.
Knudsen said that in this context, it was timely to launch a debate on the role of NHRIs, who she said are, in their independent capacity, a key partner for the EU, and have a major stake in the implementation and monitoring of the future SDGs. The EU was equally determined to bring forward the issue of gender equality, she added.
However, Knudsen was put on the spot by the audience. Irabiha Abdel Wedoud of Mauritania’s National Human Rights Commission said that her institution’s attempts to enter in contact with the European Commission’s services had been consistently rejected for several years now.
Wedoud added that colleagues from other African countries with whom she had spoken reported having the same bad experience.
“We face a total rejection on the part of the European Commission Delegation to work with us,” she said, explaining that the reason was that either it was because her organisation wasn’t playing its role decisively vis-à-vis the authorities, or it was seen as aggressive. In this sense, she spoke of “incomprehension of the role of NRHIs” on the part of Commission services.
Indeed, this is not the first report of the executive’s services avoiding human rights issues, which they consider the business of the host country. The EU’s former Ambassador to Morocco, Eneko Landaburu, said that the Commission stayed away from such subjects in order to avoid irritating foreign governments.
Other representatives of countries where human rights are violated were doubtful about the potential of the SDGs to bring any change. One of them also criticised his country’s NHRI for not being independent, and carefully avoiding issues such as foreign foundations being banned.