Power and Responsibility: Putting Human Rights at the Centre of EU Foreign Policy


To what extent do human rights principles underpin the European Union’s policies towards the rest of the world? The EU’s power to promote the core values enshrined in its treaties is weakened by the frequent misalignment between the rhetoric of EU leaders and the actions on the ground. Can these gaps be bridged to place respect for human rights, equality, and social justice at the heart of foreign policy? Hannah Neumann explains how change will not happen overnight, but how progress can be made through painstaking efforts, compromise, and dialogue.

fotografie Hannah Neumannové v Evropském parlamentu

The interview was originally published in Green European Journal (Vol 22).

Green European Journal: What does the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan tell us about the link between foreign policy and human rights? Is it an indication of the West abdicating its responsibilities to strive to protect human rights around the world more generally?

Hannah Neumann: Those of us who work on foreign policy have not given up on the idea that it can be a means to improve human rights and people’s living conditions; this is one of our core interests in foreign policy that is also laid down in the EU treaties. In my opinion, Afghanistan has shown that the approach taken does not work. The decision to intervene in Afghanistan was made 20 years ago, but in more recent cases, such as Mali, the same basic objective is being pursued: supporting a government and an army in a country, regardless of how they are perceived, and focusing on counter-terrorism. The focus is on security in the sense of police and military security, rather than on food, human, and other kinds of security.

This method has failed and we need to re-evaluate and reconsider before we go on another similar “adventure”. With the military-centred approach in Afghanistan, we were dependent on the US. The EU would not have withdrawn at that speed and with such an uncompromising attitude had the US not decided to leave the country so quickly, which I still think was a mistake. But it’s also important to remember that Afghanistan was a NATO mission, not an EU one.

Is the US’s view of its role in the world changing, or at least in the way it couches its foreign policy actions in moral terms?

The moment when the shift became clear was when Donald Trump started to negotiate with the Taliban without including the Afghan government or civil society. That was unprecedented in the sense that, up until then, we understood pluralism within countries and respected governments and national sovereignty, as well as human rights. The Taliban is just one group amongst many in Afghanistan, but the talks involved neither women nor any non-Taliban actors. There may be more moderate and more fundamentalist Taliban, but in the end, they are all fighters; they believe in a religious state and reject democracy.

This decision by Trump was a major shift. President Biden did not negotiate the agreement with the Taliban, but nor did he walk away from it. The population of the US was war-weary after 20 years of military presence in Afghanistan. Moreover, the US is now very focused on China. The trend we might now see, when it comes to US foreign policy – and I hope the EU will not follow down this road – is to frame geopolitical power dynamics as “us” against China or Russia.

How does the EU fit into this changing picture?

If we want to improve people’s lives around the world – which I believe is still the aim of foreign policy, rather than being the most powerful kid on the block – the small and concrete steps matter most. For example: how can we make sure, even with the Taliban in power, that humanitarian aid reaches everyone in Afghanistan? We should provide financial support, but we should insist that these projects also support women and not just men. If we are going to spend money on education, it should benefit everyone, and if girls are the most vulnerable, then more money should be spent on girls’ education.

If we are to apply these principles, we need to be able to take sovereign decisions as one European Union and have the capacity to implement them. We need to join forces with other nations, but if they are reluctant, we need the capacity to act on our own. It’s not so much about having more money, ships, or soldiers; it’s about joint EU decision-making.

A joint EU foreign policy would have so much more impact. Why do we need to have 27 embassies in so many countries? Why don’t we have a joint EU delegation where member states share responsibilities in different areas? How can one EU country impose an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia while another exports arms there? How can we have one foreign policy on that basis? As long as countries can still block and undermine each other and are unwilling to meaningfully pool their resources, we’re not going to move an inch.

How can one EU country impose an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia while another exports arms there?

When it comes to the EU’s tools for supporting human rights abroad, the EU is working on legislation on supply chain accountability, to prevent companies from Europe and elsewhere from directly or indirectly violating fundamental rights. Could this provide strong leverage?

The EU has many kinds of leverage. One is the due diligence legislation. The idea is that companies have a responsibility for human rights violations along their supply chains, such as exploitative practices or inadequate working conditions. They can no longer claim that they were unaware of such violations taking place. Instead, they need to make sure that they and their suppliers comply with high social and – hopefully, this will be included – environmental standards. There has been some progress with discussions at the EU level, but no conclusions have been reached so far. Often, even when progressive forces succeed in pushing similar proposals onto the agenda, these directives can get stuck in the institutional machinery for years. Even with an EU commissioner and a European Parliament in favour, it does not mean this legislation will ever see the light of day.

An import ban on goods that come from forced labour would be another important step. Also, the new EU human rights sanctions mechanism allows for individual sanctions, that is – sanctions against persons or entities rather than entire nations. It can be an effective tool for targeted sanctions. But it has only been in place for a year, so we are yet to see the real impact.

Trade agreements are an important lever because of the EU’s economic power; granting privileged market access provides a lot of influence. For example, we have the GSP+ scheme, which grants trade privileges for countries improving their human rights records. Unfortunately, the commissioner in charge refuses to even reconsider, for example in the case of a country like the Philippines which has a terrible track record on human rights. So we are not using the levers that Europe already has at its disposal.

One area where the EU could improve is in providing support for human rights defenders, especially when it comes to countries where they are deliberately targeted. Due to current visa regulations, human rights defenders often cannot come to the EU even for short-term visits for conferences or networking. This is incomprehensible – providing a Schengen visa costs the EU nothing and would be an important gesture of support, and sometimes also security.

Companies have a responsibility for human rights violations along their supply chains, such as exploitative practices or inadequate working conditions. They can no longer claim that they were unaware of such violations taking place.

Despite the global nature of the crises we face today, there is still a tendency to retreat into national responses. What do you see as the dominant trend in today’s globalised world, and how would you characterise the Green position more generally?

I think we as Greens still believe in global multilateralism, whether it comes to issues of climate or world peace. There is broad agreement among the Greens that the EU needs to have the capacity and capabilities to defend multilateral values and human rights.

But the Greens are not alone on this. Even France now understands that, in the EU, there are only small countries or countries that do not yet know how small they are. Having a global impact is only possible when we work together. Nevertheless, this is often forgotten when it comes to political decisions, and sometimes we even seem to be going backwards.

In areas where the EU has authority, especially trade, we are untouchable. When the EU takes a united position, for example on data protection, others will fall in line. For example, Facebook now applies the EU data protection rules all over the world, because having two sets of standards made no sense and they could not afford to give up the European market.

If we were to have a similarly united EU foreign policy based on human rights and multilateralism, we would be a stronger global actor. If the EU had a clear stance, then other powers would have to position themselves in relation to it. Until that happens, other countries will take advantage of our divisions. Rather than negotiating with the EU, they go to France and then to Germany…

In the EU, there are only small countries or countries that do not yet know how small they are. Having a global impact is only possible when we work together.

Some EU countries adopt a market-driven approach to foreign relations and appear willing to overlook rights violations for economic reasons, as we have seen in Germany’s attitude towards China. How much does this undermine the EU’s capacity to defend human rights and democratic freedoms around the world?

With regards to China, there was a lot of hope in Germany that if we just scaled up trade, the country would move in the right direction in terms of social and human rights. This hope has been dashed; even some Conservatives in Germany would admit that. Lately, the EU’s attitude towards China has changed drastically. Following the rightful criticism by some members of the European Parliament – including myself – of Chinese human rights violations against the Uyghur population, and the subsequent introduction of EU sanctions against some of the Chinese individuals responsible, China retaliated with severe sanctions against us. Ambassadors, think-tank researchers, and the entire European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights were put under sanctions. Since then, the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment has been put on hold, which, in my opinion, is an important move that may hopefully have an effect on similar deals in the future.

In a nutshell, these are exactly the debates we are having now, not only within the EU but also in Germany and elsewhere: how fundamental are climate, human rights, and social issues to our markets and economic relations? Is respect for human rights a condition from the outset, or just discussed via backchannel diplomacy? And I would say we are moving slowly in the right direction.

What about the human rights abuses taking place within the EU? Several member states have been criticised for failing to uphold minority rights.

Of course, we have our problems, which other countries’ governments will not fail to mention when we start raising human rights issues. As an example, nearly 2000 EU citizens who fought for ISIS in Syria are still there; we have not yet taken them back. This reluctance may seem understandable given that these people may have committed serious crimes. On the other hand, they are our citizens, they are held in terrible conditions, and they need to undergo fair trials and subsequent punishment according to international standards.

Another issue is how we treat refugees. Societies with a strong sense of Gastfreundschaft [hospitality], which treat every stranger with respect, would not treat refugees in the same way we treat them at our borders. Yet then we come and start lecturing these societies about human rights. We talk about the rights of migrant workers in Qatar while at the same time, people are dying at EU borders.