Human Rights in the 21st Century

“No human rights, no freedom”

Author: Laia Comerma is a predoctoral research fellow and PhD candidate in international relations, focused on EU-China economic relations at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI), in collaboration with the King’s College of London. She is currently a board member of the European Liberal Youth (LYMEC), as she is a firm believer in liberal values, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and is passionate about European reform and integration, foreign policy, gender equality, and the protection of diversity and minority rights.

The respect for fundamental human rights is one of the primary values of Liberalism, together with equal rights and equality in law, among other. It is a universal principle that is embedded in every policy, every action, every manifesto. Without the respect for human rights for each and every individual in front of the law and any political authority, no freedom, justice, prosperity or social cohesion can be sustained. This is why LYMEC has been active in their defence within the EU borders and demanded their respect around the world, and has discussed and defended their position within the EU institutions, even demanding their reform when necessary, and as an intrinsic part of all the policy fields, from justice to security and defence, economy and taxation, employment, or energy policies and climate action.

Human rights are one of the fundamental values of the European Union as a global actor and thus a principle factor in its foreign policy and external action. From LYMEC, we consider them a priority, first, when designing neighbourhood policies but also a pre-condition for any EU-membership negotiation. We have also demanded, in the context of the United Nations, that human rights are enforced in East Timor, by Turkey in Cyprus or against its Kurdish minority and human rights defenders and journalists, or in the Arctic for indigenous people. Also in Belarus, most recently, but also historically in Transnistria, Kosovo, or in the occupied Palestinian territories. Most recently, we have expressed our support for the Afghan resistance in their struggle for a peaceful, secular, democratic Afghanistan, as we had previously done with regards to Iran; and have asked the EU to intervene to end human rights violations in Darfur, and to put forth a coordinated policy to welcome Iraqi refugees, as a demonstration of our commitment to human rights.

With regards to China, we consider their respect vis-à-vis the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjian, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, in Taiwan as a sovereign democratic state, and internally by respecting freedom of speech, political opposition, minority rights, and the end to the use of torture and the death penalty, as a crucial factor when deciding whether to lift the arms embargo introduced in 1989 after the Tiananmen massacre. In Russia, we have urged the EU to take the necessary steps to influence Russia to respect human rights, at home against its political opposition, and abroad in Chechnya or Ukraine.

We have asked to condition EU aid to the respect of human rights by EU partner countries and, in those countries that are still ruled by authoritarian regimes, to redirect the aid to NGOs and the civil society instead. We have called for a human rights-centered approach to dealing with irregular migration, ensuring that no dual purpose technology or training is provided to countries that are at risk of utilizing such technology and training to perpetrate human rights abuses. Moreover, we have also called for a human rights-based approach to vaccines export, as a soft power tool to ensure global herd immunity to Covid-19 through international cooperation, prioritizing the elderly, essential workers and other population at higher risk.

As mentioned, the EU is not simply an economic union, but foremost a value union based on the principles of human rights and the rule of law. Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union states clearly that the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. In the context of institutional reform, we want European decision-making to be more resilient, more accountable and less prone to stagnation by its individual member states; and thus insist on ensuring that the rule of law, equality and human rights are respected in our Union of values and in the global field. This is why we consider military cooperation a necessity.

We want the powers of the EU in the field of human rights to be increased and its ability to enforce them to be bolstered. We call for the human rights perspective to be an imperative part of future free-trade agreements, and to a peaceful and democratic resolution to issues of self-determination, including the rights of national minorities and regional entities. For this, the European Court of Justice must have the resources necessary to speed up cases concerning the violation of human rights. Lastly, we believe that the Council of Europe should remain the main institution for the protection of democracy, rule of law, human rights, intercultural dialogue, and sustainable development, and for this the EU should take all the necessary legal steps to adhere to the European Convention of Human Rights, which could be opened to non-European EU neighbours, such as Southern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian Countries.

In an increasingly globalized world, the strength, democracy and transparency of the major multilateral institutions have to improve to successfully address the major challenges of our time such as climate change, sustainable development, global free trade, and the promotion of democracy and human rights. Finally, we consider human rights to be at the core of EU policies to fight organized crime, violations by communist regimes, minority rights including ROMA and LGBTIQ+ (especially when those happen at home, as is the case in Hungary or Poland at the moment), voting rights, women’s rights, the rights of journalists and activists, reproductive rights, gender identity violations, the right to a safe abortion, migrants and refugees, against racism and xenophobia, or intergenerational justice.

Human rights are the foundation of liberalism. People own their own lives, and the exercise of those rights is a condition for their pursuit of happiness. The desire for freedom, tolerance and equality is universal, and thus we need the EU to promote policies, at home and abroad, that have the protection and promotion of human rights at the forefront. Only this way we will protect the health and safety of our democracies, which are, more than ever before, at threat. Terrorism, nationalism, populism, climate emergencies and authoritarianism are on the rise. We need the EU to stand for our rights and our freedoms, if we are to live in a democratic, just, peaceful and sustainable world tomorrow, and be able to deal with the climate, migration and terrorist emergencies to come.