In the midst of the ongoing refugee crisis, the European Union necessarily puts a strong focus on its own backyard when it comes to guaranteeing the protection of human and fundamental rights. In order to further sensibilise the European institutions for the need of human rights protection in their respective home countries and also to learn first-hand what mechanisms have been established in Europe to safeguard these rights, a group of legal experts from various Latin American NGOs and Think Tanks came to Brussels to meet with EU representatives. The delegation comprised a wide scope of countries, with participants from Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Mexico and Honduras.
In a meeting with Human Rights Policy Officer for Latin America Julita Bas of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the participants were introduced to EU instruments to protect human rights, focusing first and foremost on the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). Bas explained that the EU has extended its focus on human rights since 2012, based on the understanding that they have to be present everywhere and require a “consistent and coherent” approach. In that context, political dialogues with third countries are of fundamental importance, in Bas’ opinion. At the moment there are five
ongoing dialogues with Latin American countries. Focusing specifically on Europe, the topic of human rights protection and democracy is closely linked to safeguarding fundamental rights. Louisa Klingvall, responsible for the mainstreaming process in the fundamental rights unit of the Directorate General for Justice and Consumers, described how fundamental rights have been important for the work of the European Court of Justice and its case law since the 1960s. Growing in importance in the 1990s, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Charta was agreed upon in 2000 and it is now as legally binding as the EU Treaties. The Charta implies that the fundamental rights of the Union, including third level rights, such as data security, always have to be respected. An “impact assessment” has been created, ensuring that new legislation does not breach or affect these rights.
Apart from learning about the EU’s instruments for human and fundamental rights protection, the delegation was also able to voice their concerns to EU representatives when it comes to their home countries. That included debates about limited freedom of speech and the constrictions of civil society in Ecuador or the issue of drug-trafficking in Mexico. These topics were discussed in a meeting with Francisco Acosta Soto, Deputy Head of Division Regional Affairs, Directorate America of the EEAS, Claudio Salinas, Head of Sector, Geographical coordination and supervision for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Directorate General for Development Cooperation of the European Commission and Diana Wolski, Geo-Coordinator of the same Division. According to Acosta Soto, many issues, such as the restricted possibilities to act for civil society or the relative lack of independent justice systems, are of concern for more than one country in Latin America. On a more positive note, though not hiding the fact that a lot of work still needs to be done, he considers the region as a whole to be on a good path, for example when it comes to improving electoral systems.
Similarly, the participants were able to address these issues at a working dinner at the European Parliament, hosted by Renate Weber, MEP, Substitute in the Subcommittee on Human Rights and Member of the Delegation to the Euro-Latin American Assembly and Beatriz Becerra MEP, Vice-President of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, member of the delegation to the EU-Mexico Joint Parliamentary Committee and the Delegation to the Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly.
Providing the participants with very practical advice and offering concrete options for their own works in leading initiatives and projects, Alba Çako, EU Liaison Manager of the European Dialogue Programme of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, presented an overview of EU funding options.
Additionally, Jimena Reyes, Director for the Americas of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) acquainted the participants with the organisation’s work and explained how the FIDH promotes human rights, thus sharing a very different perspective of what human rights work can entail in Europe.
The underlying emphasis throughout all of the meetings was the importance of common dialogue and cooperation between Latin America and the European Union. The participants were continuously encouraged to strengthen their contacts with the EU delegations in their home countries to deepen mutual dialogue.
After the Brussels part of the programme the group continued to Berlin, where they met with further human rights experts and gained insight into what instruments are available in Germany to promote and protect human rights.