Commission charts end to execution and torture in human rights plans  

The EU is starting to 'think neighbourhood' before global. But what does this mean for countries in the Middle East and North Africa, asks Michael Benhamou. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The European Commission is calling on member states to work together on the world stage to put an end to capital punishment and torture.

The details are included in the executive’s communication on the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020-2024, for which the Commission is seeking the backing of EU governments.

The Commission would like to “work towards the worldwide abolition of the death penalty,” and  in countries where the death penalty still exists, “insist on the respect of minimum standards and work towards a moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition.”

In terms of global instances of torture, the EU should “strive to eradicate torture globally through prevention, prohibition, accountability and redress for victims,” the document states.

China’s capital punishment record

Currently, more than 60% of the global population reside in countries where capital punishment is legal, including China, the US, and India.

Despite access to official figures being tightly guarded by the Chinese authorities, Beijing is believed to administer more executions than any other nation on earth, according to Amnesty International.

During the EU-China summit last year, the bloc raised concerns with their Chinese counterparts about the detainment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and an EU delegation reiterated these concerns during the 42nd United Nations Human Rights Council last September.

However, should member states decide to adopt the Commission’s approach on its Human Rights Action Plan, any political pressure imposed directly on China is unlikely to come anytime soon, after the EU-China summit, due to take place at the end of March in Beijing, was postponed. The meeting would have been the first coming together of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and European Commission and European Council presidents, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, since they took up their new posts.

A second EU-China summit is still slated to take place in Leipzig in September, under the Presidency of the German Council, with China’s President Xi Jinping meeting all 27 EU leaders.

Human Rights Action Plan

More broadly, the Commission on Wednesday laid out a series of priority areas for its future work in the human rights arena over the next five years.

These include ensuring civil and political rights are respected, helping to build democratic societies worldwide, promoting a global system for human rights and democracy, addressing the challenges of new technologies, and pooling resources of all EU institutions to ensure that the action plan is abided by.

A statement from the EU’s Foreign Affairs Chief, Josep Borrell on Tuesday drew the coronavirus outbreak into the wider discussion on human rights.

Earlier this week,  EURACTIV reported that Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova and Romania notified the Council of Europe (CoE) of their intention to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, under Article 15 of the treaty, which allows for nations to withdraw from the agreement in public emergency situations.

“Crisis situations, as the one we are living with the Coronavirus’ pandemic, pose particular challenges to the effective exercise and protection of human rights, and put the functioning of our democracies to the test,” Borrell said.

“This is an opportunity for Europe to stand up for its values and interests. We need the courage and ambition to tackle challenges together.”

Technology and human rights

Elsewhere in the EU’s action plan, the role of technology and its proximity to human rights abuses was highlighted, with the Commission stating that certain applications can support “abusive, unlawful restrictions on movement and speech.”

“Social media platforms are used to channel targeted disinformation and hate speech that often violate privacy and undermine democracy and human rights,” the communication continued.

In this context, recently the European Court of Auditors launched a probe into the bloc’s attempts to stifle fake news that can ’cause public harm.’

The investigation will focus on the robustness of the 2018 Action plan on disinformation, in addition to whether the EU’s code of practice against disinformation has brought ‘tangible improvements’ to the state of fake news across the bloc.

The code is a self-regulatory voluntary framework signed by platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter, which obliges them to take measures to control the surge of disinformation online.

Having been put in place ahead of the 2019 European elections, the code received criticism from certain EU Commissioners, with the former Security Commissioner Julian King describing the initial compliance reports produced by the platforms as “patchy, opaque and self-selecting.”

In the digital arena, the human rights action plan also brings into question the use of certain Artificial Intelligence applications, saying that they can carry a “risk of increased monitoring, control and repression.”

“In some countries, mass surveillance of citizens is a reality. Data and algorithms can be used to discriminate, knowingly or unknowingly, against individuals and groups, reinforcing societal prejudices.”

However, concerns have also been raised about the EU’s funding of questionable AI applications on the bloc, as part of the EU’s long-term research and development funding mechanism, Horizon 2020.

These include projects such as the iBorderCTRL technology – which detects ‘lying’ through the reading of micro-expressions, and the SEWA initiative – a technology will the capacity to read nuances in human facial, vocal and verbal behaviour.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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