EU Special Representative for Human Rights - Necessary or duplication?

Two days ago saw the EU appoint its first ever dedicated Special Representative  for Human Rights in the person of Stavros Lambrinidis.

Undoubtedly he will be working closely with Baroness Ashton and the EEAS (European External Action Service) amongst others within the European Commission.  Needless to say, prima facie it seems a good thing and the EU certainly has a large number of internal human rights issues to address, from the persecution and  deportation of the Roma populations en mass, female gender mutilation, human trafficking, the banning (or not) of religious garments, freedom of speech and expression relating to the more extreme but just about legal political parties of far right and left, media issues and Internet social networking, privacy, the ability (or not) for prisoners to vote etc etc.  The list is extremely long - and that is just internally of the EU.

Step outside the EU geography and into Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Saudi, Palestine and Israel, Sudan, DRC, China, the USA (Gitmo, the death penality etc), Brazil, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and almost any other nation you care to mention, and there will be human rights abuses.

Something made even more complicated by the current uneasy fit between Right to Protect (R2P) and the UN Charter guaranteeing absolute sovereignty over internal issues, not to mention the entire concept of sovereign interests verses values and the necessary trade-offs between values and interests in any policy decision.

Only two days ago, the Belorussian President was denied a Visa to visit the London Olympics by the UK, quite rightly on human rights grounds, and yet no denials for the leadership of Bahrain or Saudi.  Needless to say, UK interests in Belarus are nothing compared to those in Saudi or Bahrain and thus values trump interests only in the case of Belarus.

However, returning to the role of Mr Lambrinidis, despite the skimming of the surface of the human rights issues faced by the EU I have highlighted above, is his appointment necessary, aside from the EU Commission creating a well paid job for a Greek citizen, doing their bit for Greek unemployment and sending the message that Greece is still very much in the EU?

All members of the EU plus numerous nations I have mentioned are all also part of the Council of Europe/PACE which already has a representative for human rights.  In fact it has an entire department, figurehead and acts as the diplomatic muscle behind any unfulfilled decisions reached by the European Court of Human Rights.

In short the PACE Human Rights representative has more influence over more nations within the PACE club (which includes every EU nation and more) than Mr Lambrinidis will have.  You cannot fail to see that there is an obvious and unnecessary overlap between the PACE Human Rights representative and that of the new EU Human Rights representative as far as the EU Member States are concerned, at least looking inwardly if not projecting out to the rest of the world.

Now, as the EEAS and Baroness Ashton are so very fond of reminding us at every opportunity, human rights is the “silver thread” running through all EU foreign policy.

But who sets EU foreign policy?  Certainly not the European Commission or the EEAS.  EU foreign policy is set by the European Council which is comprised of the representatives of all 27 national governments, each representing their own sovereign position, interests and needs.  As such, any actions, statements and agreements quite often will be the lowest common denominator where agreement can be reached.  If there is no agreement then there are no actions or statements.

Thus the EEAS and EU foreign policy works only within the parameters that the sovereign states, via the European Council, allow.  Therefore it is highly unlikely to seriously compromise any serious interests of any specific EU Member State in third nations external of the EU geographical area.

Just how much room is left for values when there are 27 interests to consider on the interests verses values axis?  Is there a way to speak or act as the EU without causing serious friction with one or more Member State when there is disagreement or sovereign interests are at stake?

Personally I think there is.  In cases where all Member States are in agreement it is possible to be specific against country or government X - naturally.  Where there is not complete agreement, it is possible for the EU to support “regions” or geographical areas covering more than a single nation.  Blanket coverage and blanket support with instruments and platforms available to all human rights entities within those geographical areas but targeting nobody specifically.  One look at EU spending on human rights would seem to suggest that this is indeed the way forward if specifics cannot be articulated due to Member objections.

The question remains though, just where Mr Lambrinidis sits in the grand Human Rights, scheme of things.  Certainly not as high or influential as UN Human Rights representatives.  Probably less influential than the PACE Human Rights representative as that too is a club with more members (including all the members of Mr  Lambrinidis ‘ club), but is he higher than sovereign human rights representatives when EU foreign policy is dictated by the European Council comprised of sovereign nations?

Let’s see what happens if he tries to take on France over Roma deportation or the banning of the Burqa, the UK over denying prisoners the right to vote, those parts of the European communities that arrange (and force) marriage.  Those parts of the European communities that mutilate female genitalia or circumcise young boys as part of religious practice?  Will he find his place to be subservient to Member States and their perspective on human rights relating to what they will and will not accept on their sovereign soil?

Who will acquiesce to his will outside the EU?  If states won’t listen to the UN when they are members of the UN, why will they listen to an EU Human Rights Representative when not a member of the EU?

If what the UN, PACE and sovereign human rights representatives do are stripped from his portfolio to avoid unnecessary duplication (not to mention probable friction), aside from the occasional condemning statement to sit alongside all the other condemning statements normally issued in flurries as abuses come to light, he is left with a few civil society regional platforms already set up by Stefan Fule to tinker with, and doing the seedy negotiations with human rights abusers within the scope of the EU’s “More (money) for More (democracy/human rights)” policy.

A necessary appointment?