We really need to talk: the EU-Africa summit and human rights

By Nicolas Beger, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office

In every true partnership, there is always some point where there is no other option than straight talk. This week’s EU-Africa summit is one of those moments.

Whilst the issue of human rights is not the focus of the agenda, human rights underpin all of the items to be discussed —trade, governance, peace and security. As such, the Summit represents a key moment for both Europe and Africa alike to re-commit to human rights within and beyond their borders.

Today, both African states and the EU have more than adequate human rights instruments and commitments in place. What often remains inadequate is the implementation of these instruments, which would have far-reaching impacts on people’s lives and be crucial for the credibility of the continents’ partnership.

At this Summit, governments on both continents must explicitly discuss how they will realise human rights obligations at home, abroad and at the inter-continental level. This week’s discussions are a crucial opportunity to ensure human rights shape two key areas of increasing cooperation: migration, and conflict and crisis response.

On migration, we are increasingly seeing a move by EU member states to ‘outsource’ migration control to countries outside EU borders including African countries, without regard to the push and pull factors determining peoples’ movement. Amnesty International has documented deplorable treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, and injury and death of people on the move between the two continents—many of them sub-Saharan Africans. Greek coastguards continue to carry out life endangering border operations to push people back to Turkey. Both the Libyan coastguard and Egyptian navy are reported to have caused death and drowning by shooting at migrants and refugees travelling by sea to Europe. It is legitimate for states to manage their borders. However, border management must respects states’ international human rights obligations, and people’s lives and rights. Human rights of migrants must therefore be the primary consideration in the negotiation of any migration agreement between African countries, the EU and its member states – including readmission agreements, cooperation with coastguards, and mobility partnerships.

Similarly, EU-Africa cooperation in crisis response is another area where there is an urgent need for coherent action on human rights. The EU-Africa summit must confront the question of how human rights can be protected and promoted wherever the two continents collaborate in today’s key crisis responses, including Mali, Somalia and most recently Central African Republic (CAR), where protection of civilians must be paramount. Decision-makers on both continents have agreed to move forward together with these interventions as urgent responses to serious human rights concerns. In the same spirit, the EU-Africa Summit must ensure that human rights remain explicitly at the centre of African, European and joint responses to conflict and crisis, both now and in future.

Last but hardly least, any discussions on human rights and migration and conflict response cannot be made in isolation and must uphold the indivisibility and universality of human rights, irrespective of where people live. While discussions around international justice and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) rights are welcome between African and European partners, it is crucial that these exchanges respect the universality of human rights and do not take recourse to any rhetoric outside the international human rights framework.

Today, there is no choice but plain talk about rights, and about the human impact of the choices to be made at the EU-Africa summit. People on both continents should expect no less if this is, indeed, a partnership of equals.

Note: This blog was originally published in New Europe on 30 March 2014