On November 18, 2020, the Council of the European Union released its new Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy in the field of external action. This was the result of a long process between the EU institutions and EU member states that included consultation and input from civil society organisations working in democracy support, including EPD. Both practitioners and scholars have long placed hope in a renewed approach, and very much welcome this new plan. What does the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 bring to the table? What are some of the most interesting additions and what do these mean for democracy support?
We consider this Action Plan to be a big step forward in the recognition of the European Union as a bearer of a progressive political vision for development, due to some of the following key provisions:
Recognition of democratic actors
The new Action Plan recognises the foundational role of multiparty politics in the consolidation of democracy, promoting political alternation, coalition-building, deliberation, and consensus-building. While the EU was long reluctant to support parties’ consolidation out of fear of being accused of interference, the current Commission and Member States have made the case for the need to formulate an effective approach to multiparty strengthening. The increased attention to political party support in the Action Plan is an important sign of the EU’s ambition in its external action.
The Plan also commits to encouraging dialogue and the peaceful resolution of political crises and mass protests in compliance with human rights standards, and capacity-building of civil society and political actors to respond to the grievances expressed by spontaneous civic movements. It seeks to strengthen the resilience of democratising states, as long-lasting grievances undermine social cohesion and trust in institutions. At a time when emerging democracies face internal challenges that question the legitimacy of state institutions, The EU can make a difference by building the capacity of both civil society and political actors to address grievances. Given the increase in popular uprisings and protests, this action point is a welcome recognition of the critical role of a strong and well-equipped civil society for turning protests into long-term structural changes of a system.
At the same time, the new Action Plan comes with a greater recognition of the role media plays in consolidating democracies, both during the electoral cycle and beyond. It highlights how free and independent media is necessary to combat disinformation and to keep the government accountable. Additionally, the Action Plan outlines its commitment to increasing Parliaments’ capacity to exercise their oversight, legislative, representative and budgetary functions. This includes peer-to-peer exchanges to ensure that fair democratic procedures are observed and, if necessary, improved in the time between elections. It also aims at supporting their capacity to promote and to protect human rights and fundamental freedom.
Countering closing democratic space
For the past ten years democracy practitioners and scholars have witnessed and written about the phenomenon of ‘shrinking civic space’. A recent paper by EPD explored the different avenues through which governments, both in established and emerging democracies, have taken steps to close democratic space.
Now, the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy notes the dangers of closing civic space in its opening lines “While there have been leaps forward, the pushback against the universality and indivisibility of human rights, the closing of civic space and the backsliding on democracy must be addressed.” Along the same lines, the High Commissioner and Vice President Josep Borell has indicated an increased commitment towards putting democracy back on the international agenda. We hope such ambitious statements will materialise in actions.
While EPD and other organisations working in the sphere of democracy support hoped to see a stronger link being made between civic space and building resilient democracies, as indicated in EPD’s recommendations on countering closing space, we welcome this increased focus. Too long has the impact of closing democratic space been seen as separate to civic space, and we hope that with this renewed attention, the EU can start taking more concrete steps towards combating the damage this has done to our democracies.
Policy Dialogue and Participation
On the face of it, for the first time in such action plans, policy dialogue has a central role in achieving the plan’s objectives. Not only are “political, human rights and sectoral policy dialogues” the first instrument cited in the plan’s overview, but it is also referred to as one of the main instruments of bilateral cooperation. While in the previous Action Plan policy dialogue was only briefly mentioned, we can hope that from now on the EU will concentrate more of its action and funding on facilitating dialogue between local stakeholders for enhanced ownership of policy reforms.
The Action Plan also contains a new focus on inclusive participation in decision-making, which is mainstreamed throughout the document. This includes the support of women and girls, children and youth, indigenous people, and CSO participation in decision-making. This also involves participation in all spheres, including in local governance and in multilateral and regional human rights fora, through fostered engagement of the least heard in political parties, as well as CSOs. In order to achieve that, the Action Plan outlines the importance of promoting a favourable and enabling environment, i.e. through strengthening civic and political space.
Another novelty is the focus on new challenges and opportunities that democracies across the world face from the advent of digitalisation and the rise of new technologies. This Action Plan recognises the need for a greater focus on the human rights implications of digital tech policies and usage, opening the conversation about digital rights in the EU’s external action. This recognises the complexities of the digital sphere and the need for dialogue in order to develop principles, frameworks and instruments that combat the dangers of these technologies – such as disinformation and mass surveillance – with the protection of human rights, such as privacy and freedom of speech. Additionally, it also stresses the importance of a free, open and accessible internet for human rights and democracy, with a commitment to supporting the monitoring of internet shutdowns, online censorship and digital practices that lead to mass arbitrary surveillance.
Climate change and Gender Identity
Two final noteworthy changes in the new Action Plan are the linkages between democracy and climate change, and the recognition of gender identity rights. Firstly, this is the first time that climate change features so prominently in the Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy, and it shows that the Commission is considering its Green New Deal policies in a comprehensive manner, including in its external action.
Though the fight against discriminations, including gender-based discrimination, was already mainstreamed in the previous Action Plan, this is the first time that gender identity as such is recognised as being at stake in EU external action. Through the new Action Plan, the EU commits to stepping up action to combat all forms of discrimination including on grounds of sex, race, ethnic or social origin, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. This marks a milestone towards global recognition of gender identity rights.
Aside from all improvements in the new Action Plan, the absence of emphasis on international democracy support actors or human rights organisations as key interlocutors in the implementation of the Plan, is striking. Ultimately, the Action Plan is a declaration of intention and the democracy support and human rights communities will need to be at the forefront of its implementation alongside EU institutions and Member States. Along the same lines, the Action Plan steers clear from the need to consistently enforce democratic conditionality for budget support so as to avoid unintentionally reinforcing authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, this Action Plan still stands as a statement to the EU’s commitment to putting democracy support higher on the international agenda.
Overall, the EU Human Rights and Democracy Action Plan 2020-2024 represents an important improvement in the EU’s external democracy support. As EU High-Representative Josep Borrell said in a statement for the International Day of Democracy, “The European Union is redoubling its efforts to support those who are working to defend and build democracy, to encourage democratic participation and inclusion regardless of gender or background, to ensure institutional checks and balances, and to hold decision-makers to account.”