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  • Friday, June 2 2017
  • Daniel Jiménez
  • Analysis
  • Human rights
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The fundamental freedoms of thought, expression, association and assembly are the foundation for all other Human Rights. They allow individuals to exercise all other rights, and provide the ground for democracy and political development. The freedom of association allows vocalizing common concerns and raising issues for the improvement of the social and political structures. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to protect them so as to ensure individual and collective rights.


International Law provides several norms that protect the right of association and peaceful assembly.[1] Within the European framework, several instruments protect the Human Rights of speech and assembly. Articles 11 and 12 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights affirm the right to peacefully assembly and the freedom of association.[2] The Charter’s principles are operationalized by the 2012 EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy. The document affirms the EU will incorporate Human Rights clauses in its trade and cooperation agreement, in order to protect fundamental rights in all external relations. In some instances, the EU has imposed sanctions for Human Rights breaches.[3]


Human Rights are then pivotal in all aspects of internal and external policies, and set a standard for EU policy-making. The Document affirms, “Human Rights are universally applicable legal norms. Democracy is a universal aspiration.[4]” The protection of freedoms and rights is a core element of the European Union, and it reflects in its commitment to the universal promotion and protection such rights. Article 21 of the Treaty on the European Union is a cornerstone for the EU’s external action, which is guided by the principles of democracy, rule of law and the indivisibility of human rights.[5] Therefore, its commitment to Human Rights protection has a universal scope and with no exception. The 2012 Strategic Framework also spurs for “country human rights strategies,[6]” for the implementation of Human Rights standards in bilateral political dialogue with its external partners.


The Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR), which take place within the UN Human Rights Council, is also an opportunity for the European Union to take further steps in raising Human Rights issues with its external partners. Human Rights must then be at the centre of the EU’s relations with all countries, in order to ensure freedoms of expression, opinion, assembly and association are safeguarded.


In the Middle East, which is directly affected by the struggle for power of certain terrorist organizations, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), several countries are currently developing strategies to counteract the terrorist wave within their borders.


Generally speaking, there is no common definition of terrorism. The EU Parliament has issued a document in November 2015, which assesses terrorism as a “moving target.[7]” Some EU legislation address the phenomenon, establishing some general criteria to identify what can be classified as a terroristic activity.[8] In spite of that, there is no international consensus about the definition of what constitutes terrorist operations. This flaw in International Law has allowed certain countries to implement special legislation for the purpose of the “war on terror” and ensuring security.


However, a concerning shift to increasingly authoritarian methods and systems can be noted in certain cases, where security policies clash with Human Rights issues. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad often employs unlawful methods against his own people, associating terrorism with the revolutionary rebels.


In April 2016, an historical referendum allowed to restructure Turkey’s democracy into a presidential rule. The result of the referendum (which has been contested[9]) shows that more and more countries in the Middle East are following a trend of increasing control of the executive power, providing new institutional architectures that are deprived of “checks and balances.” Turkey is the most recent example of it. Reportedly, it is the country with most journalists in jail, and the new constitutional changes do not suggest a reverse, with regards to the treatment of civil society organizations and the mass media, is in the works.[10] Since July 2016, a temporary suspension of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was decreed. Turkey resembles more and more Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, which reinstated the state of emergency in the country after two Coptic churches were bombed on April 9th.


Egypt is not new to these special repressive measures. Recently, new legislation has restricted the possibility to protest, and has introduced new impositions on NGOs operating in the country, which can only engage in activities that “conform to national development plans” and do not cause harm to “national security.[11]” Egypt’s 2014 constitution also contains a norm against “all types and forms of terrorism,” which can be applied at all times. These vague provisions allow the government to apply the law to any case discretionally. Authorities can now oversee external funding, while organizations will have to pay in order to be given the possibility to operate in the country.[12] Human Rights and development agencies will be deeply affected by such measures.


Both Turkey and Egypt justify these authoritarian measures with the urgency of the protection of public morals. In reality, the newly-architected political systems allow them to tackle their political opponents. In the case of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood; in Turkey, the Gulen Movement and every other political opponent (in their referendum campaign, the government equated “No” voters with terrorist groups [13]). As noted, “Middle Eastern regimes are now moving towards hybrid forms of governance marked by a concentration of power in a formally democratic setup.[14]” Their “war on terror” narrative only masks their political agenda of closing off public space.


These new policies have also proved inefficient and have not contained terrorism or ensured greater security. The IS is still a threat and its military success in the Northern Sinai proves that al-Sisi is not living up to his promises of stability for the country.[15] Moreover, the regimes are responsible for several Human Rights violations, that have been documented over the past years. For instance, Egypt has unlawfully tried more than seven thousands civilians in military tribunals, in breach of due process guarantees. Mass trials have violated the principle of individual guilt  (in one case, a three-year-old was mistakenly sentenced to death[16]). Reportedly, torture was used to extort confessions.[17] These actions violate Egypt’s obligations under the 1981 African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which was ratified in 1984.


Most Middle East countries, including Turkey, Syria and Egypt, are members of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). According to Article 19 of the OIC Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, citizens have the right to resort to justice. Violations of these norms amount to a breach of Human Rights Law.


These events raise the question of whether Human Rights and security concerns can simultaneously coexist and, most importantly, whether the current emergency measures that were adopted are suitable to secure the safety of citizens. If the answer is negative, it will be necessary to question these methods and their nature. Middle East countries need to uphold their commitments by ending all violations of the ICCPR and the UNDHR.


In any case, the European Union must remain committed to the protection of Human Rights. If it wants to live up to the standards it set for himself in foreign policy, it must put forward a perspective to strongly condemn any abuse and pragmatically respond to atrocities, in its dialogue with countries in the Middle East. On one front, the perspective of new relations with Turkey – which remains appealed by the possibility to join the European Union,[18] is a possibility to raise concerns and negotiate for the end of cruelty. On the other hand, EU diplomacy ought to secure its allies’ agency in foreign affairs, in a common effort to put forward Human Rights issues wherever and whenever it appears a violation is perpetrated.


The ambition to become a global Human Rights champion requires the European Union to set an example of best practice in the protection of individual freedoms and rights. Some decisions, such as the indiscriminate attack at Raqqa in Syria – in retaliation for the carnage in Paris of November 2015,[19] or the repression with tear gas of the demonstrations on the eve of the COP21 climate summit,[20] seem inconsistent with Human Rights concerns and the aspiration for the European Union to become a worldwide defender of individual freedoms. The decision of Médecins Sans Frontières to refuse funding from EU Member States and institutions, after their controversial deal with Turkey on migrants,[21] should be an alarm bell for European policy-makers. It should make them question what type of example they want the Union to be in today’s complex international scene.


Written by Roberto Scrivano


[1] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 22; UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 20.

[2] Charter Of Fundamental Rights Of The European Union, Article 12.

[3] Council of the European Union, EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, page 3.

[4] Id.

[5] Treaty on the European Union (TEU), Article 21.

[6] Id. 3.

[7] EU Parliament, Understanding Definitions of Terrorism, November 2015.

[8] EU Council Common Position 2001/931/CFSP, Art 1(2,3); EU Council Framework Decision 2002/475/JHA; EP Resolution 11 Feb 2015.






[14] Id.