"The EU allows human rights to be trampled underfoot"

EU parliamentarian Dietmar Koester criticises the Union's failure to speak up when faced with human rights abuses committed by its Middle Eastern allies, while pointing out that its own isolationist migration policies contravene fundamental European values. Interview by Ismail Azzam

By Ismail Azzam

Why does Europe remain silent when it comes to human rights violations in the Arab world? With NGOs and the European Parliament vociferous in their condemnation, why don't European leaders denounce the ongoing detention of political activists in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and UAE, as they did recently with Russia regarding the Navalny case?

Dietmar Koester: The European Parliament condemns any kind of human rights violations, regardless of the state in which they occur. This includes Arab countries, such as Egypt. In its resolution of 18 December 2020 on the deteriorating situation of human rights in Egypt, the case of the activists of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, EIPR, was mentioned specifically. As seen in the releases of some of the detainees mentioned in the resolution, pressure from the international community can lead to some, albeit incremental, improvements.

The EU must continue to monitor the situation and react accordingly. It must continue to strengthen civil society, human rights activists and NGOs. It is not the European Union's place to become complicit in authoritarian regimes' oppressive policies by exporting weapons to them, or enabling them by other means. Enforcing and ensuring that human rights are upheld is a fundamental part of protecting and advancing democratic humanitarian values. Where necessary the EU and the EU Parliament must exert pressure on the countries in question, using targeted sanctions, arms embargos or appropriate resolutions to ensure human rights are not violated, while working with and supporting home-grown democratic forces and civil society.


Human rights and the rule of law were violated in the case of Alexei Navalny and, of course, the release of all political prisoners is paramount. Navalny should not, however, become an icon. Instead his case needs to act as a prime example, drawing attention to Russian and global human rights violations. Europe needs to voice its general support for civil rights and freedom activists in Russia. Although, to be fair, the public perception is that the EU tends to focus on Russia when it comes to human rights violations, while neglecting those in other parts of the world. In the defence of fundamental rights, EU foreign policy is plagued by inconsistency.

In the fight to curb international terrorism and halt illegal immigration, it would seem Europe has no choice but to give those regimes "carte blanche" to continue their oppressive policies. Do you agree?

Koester: First of all, I would like to make it clear that the fight against terrorism has nothing to do with people being forced to leave their homes, whatever the reason. In this respect, the question links two things that do not belong together. The misinformed and undifferentiated linking of migration with security – which is the narrative of the far right – is not only factually inappropriate, it can also have far-reaching socio-political consequences. Under the pretext of applying security policy instruments, migrants then become subject to implicit general suspicion.

One fundamental humanitarian problem of current asylum and migration policy is that we are funding states and tasking them with stopping people from migrating, preventing them from continuing their journey to Europe. Systematic human rights violations are taking place on an ever-increasing scale at the EU's external borders, and no-one seems particularly bothered. Apparently international human rights are not equally applicable to all people.


Such violations are being carried out by both EU organisations such as Frontex, and member states themselves. In the process the EU is forfeiting any right to be regarded as an advocate of human rights by the international community.

The European Parliament has little control over this. Numerous MEPs, including myself, have repeatedly demanded accountability and transparency from Frontex about the agency's actions in working groups, committees, official questions and letters. I welcome the fact that Frontex is now finally being forced to speak out publicly.

Unfortunately, the "new European" approach to asylum and migration policy – the "New Pact" – makes no pretence towards human rights. The focus of the proposals is on deterrence and re-admission, which effectively means the deportation of migrants back to their home countries or third countries outside of the EU. The externalisation of migration has been perfected. Since there are no safe and legal routes, flight and migration have both become illegal.

This situation can and will only change if we stop regarding migration as something to be prevented at all costs. This approach is simply not going to work. We have to discuss the reasons and root causes. Much of the injustice in the world is caused by our global system of Western capitalism. Moreover, the military interventions and wars caused by Western states inevitably lead to misery and hardship. It is therefore imperative that we de-criminalise migration; we must also work at stopping the wars and preventing unjust trade. Let’s start with this narrative and see what happens.


Do you think Europe's role as an advocate of democracy and human rights abroad has significantly diminished – or was this role always an illusion?

Koester: Ever since its founding, the EU has insisted on its fundamental values and supported their implementation. These values include the protection of human dignity, freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The EU is the largest peace project in post-Second World War history – its goal is to support the implementation of these values worldwide.

Over the years, however, the EU has developed a power agenda relating to its own interests. And if this agenda is at odds with human rights, then values of humanity are seen to count for nothing. The Union's current refugee policy and events at its external borders cast the EU in a very bad light. It is allowing human rights to be trampled underfoot.

We are witnessing a race to see where migrants are treated worst. Urgent action is needed to restore the EU's credibility. Member states, the European Commission and Frontex must re-align their policies with the Union's fundamental values. What's more, we must expect partner countries of the EU to do the same. If this does not happen, the EU will forfeit its last shred of credibility.

Interview conducted by Ismail Azzam

© Qantara.de 2021

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