The European Union as the Centre of the Universe: Universal Human Rights with Double Standards?

by Theresa Weigel

The European Union proclaims to support human rights in its external relations and sees human rights as the “silver thread” in all EU policies. In November 2020, the Council adopted the third EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. At the same time, however, the organization Human Rights Watch has criticized in its World Report 2022 the human rights violations in the European Union, such as the violent pushbacks at the EU external borders or the poor living conditions in the Moria Refugee Camp in Greece. 

As this article is about norms and values, the best way to start it is with a quote from the book that probably shaped the European value system the most. One of the Bible’s most notable lessons comes from the gospel of St. John, where Jesus says to the Pharisees who want to stone a married woman taken in adultery “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. While crimes against humanity in European colonial history mostly originated in relation to European countries, today human rights violations are more likely to be associated with the “uncivilized” global South. At the latest since the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, these have been a very powerful political norm. If a state or an institution violates them, this leads to their international delegitimization. If, on the other hand, a state or institution stands up for human rights, this is seen as an indicator of belonging to a democratic, liberal community. According to Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

A brief history of (universal) human rights 

Human rights and their institutionalization are a modern phenomenon that must be viewed in the context of the European Enlightenment. Nevertheless, the concept on which they are based is older, going back to the classical philosophy of the Greeks and Stoa and to that of Judaism and Christianity. Human rights are, for example, the right to life, bodily integrity, the right to self-determination and personal freedom or the right to freedom of opinion, conscience and religion. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being in the context of World War 2 and the Shoah. Prior to that, absolute state sovereignty anchored in international law had priority over universalistic claims of individuals. Behind the idea of human rights is a universalistic conception of the man with a universalistic moral conception. According to their self-understanding, human rights are pre-positive, inalienable rights that are to be granted to every human being by nature because of his or her humanity. This is independent of concrete circumstances or characteristics, and they cannot be forfeited through one’s own inhumane behaviour. The ground of validity for human rights is a universal human dignity, which belongs to all human beings regardless of their birth. The philosopher of the Enlightenment Emmanuel Kant sees human beings as participating in the dignity and unconditionality of the moral law because of their reason. In the self-purpose formula of the Categorical Imperative, he writes, “So act to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end and never as only a means”. Act in such a way that you use humanity, both in your person and in the person of everyone else, at all times simultaneously as an end, never as a mere means”.

In summary, on an analytical level, there are two ideal-typical justifications for the idea of universal human rights. On the one hand, universalism can be understood as an empirical concretist foundation; human rights are understood as empirically discoverable. At the same time, the normative ideal assumes a concrete utopia or critique of what exists. These two levels are not separable and their commonality consists in a universally valid criterion as a yardstick for critiquing actions.

Cultural relativist and postcolonial perspectives on human rights 

There are as well other perspectives on the universalism of human rights. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a statement on a draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In it, Eurocentrism and the relativity of human rights are emphasized. They called for the abandonment of a universally valid standard of criticism and assumed that society was immanently capable of criticism and change by reflecting on its “underlying cultural values”. Human rights are often referred to dogmatically as a “moral trump card” (Douzinas 2007: 11). In this context, the German legal philosopher Robert Deinhammer criticizes from a cultural relativist perspective precisely this “moralizing rhetoric of human rights” as it often only attempts to mask one’s own hegemonic power interests. Morality, but also reason, are in a cultural relativist perspective always dependent on their cultural context, whereupon there can be no objective overarching morality or reason. In normative terms, it is thus not possible to distinguish universally between true and false or good and evil, since these distinctions can only be made within a cultural frame of reference. Also in the postmodern crisis of representation, the Anthropologist Paul Rabinow rejected the concept of universal reason and intercultural understanding was understood as an expression of Western universal claims and intellectual hegemony. In summary, the strengths of cultural relativism lie primarily in its ability to objectively justify assessments of foreign cultures without using repressive patterns of argumentation that are captured in an implicit hierarchization.

In addition, a postcolonial perspective on the universality of human rights offers insightful perspectives. The postcolonial theory focuses on revealing epistemic and discursive violence of Eurocentric norms. Many neoliberal structural adjustment programs initiated by the same funders who advocate for human rights result in human rights violations. Even development programs like those of the EU, which tend to be critical of structural adjustment, can stabilize neo-colonial structures because they advocate liberal-universal human rights. The protection of human rights increases the institutional power of international organizations like the EU because they can intervene strategically under the guise of the responsibility to protect. EU human rights policies are supposed to improve the living conditions of all people. However, a feminist-postcolonial reading of current human rights policy casts doubt on the achievement of this goal. The EU’s hegemonic human rights discourse also serves as a justification to intervene in the Global South while making economic and geopolitical interests. The wealth of the Global North- and also of the EU- is considered detached from the conditions of colonialism. Much more, in a Eurocentric epistemology, progress and rationality are understood as successes of the European Enlightenment for wealth.

The postcolonial intellectual Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak fundamentally questions the division of the world into two groups of people. Namely, the group of people who are entitled to universal human rights and the group of people who do not have these rights institutionalized. This division puts the second group in a victim role, where they are unable to help themselves or govern independently. They are in being able to judge the superiority of the countries of the Global North over the human rights violations in the Global South.

The European Union as the guardian of the good 

Let us now look again at the EU. The EU is committed to promoting human rights around the world. In the Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027, the existing financial instruments for external action have been merged with the policy-driven Neighborhood Policy, Development Cooperation, and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) With this policy-oriented instrument, the EU aims to effectively protect and promote its values and interests worldwide. Former German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “In times of global crisis, the European Union is demonstrating its ability to act globally and strengthen Europe’s role as an anchor of stability in the world.” The European Union likes to see itself as the guardian of the good. Especially in academic circles, the discussion about the EU’s transformation from a civilian power to a normative power has flared up since the turn of the century. But can it live up to this claim at all?

But first, mind your own business? Current Challenges 

In its World Report 2022, the human rights organization Human Rights Watch draws attention to human rights violations by the EU. Above all, it denounces the huge discrepancy between the EU’s human rights rhetoric and its actual practice. Arguably, the EU’s greatest human rights violations take place in relation to migration and asylum. The EU’s support for human rights-violating governments to keep migrants and asylum seekers out of the EU is just one example. Alongside this, the militarization and humanitarian emergency at the Belarusian-Polish border and pushbacks at the EU’s external borders show the EU’s double standards. Even in 2021, there was little progress in EU countries for human rights-respecting migration policy. Calls for accountability for the EU’s border guard Frontex remain unheard, despite evidence of omissions and abuses. Other EU-wide problems include discrimination and intolerance against minorities, LGBT+ people, and people with disabilities. The Commission’s action plan against racism was the first time that structural racism was recognized at a high level. With the Covid-19 pandemic, inequality and poverty increased in the EU, even as the EU provided funds to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Child poverty also increased and Roma in particular, the largest ethnic minority in the EU, was disproportionately exposed to the risk of poverty. Some EU member states, Poland and Hungary being prime examples, showed significantly less respect for the rule of law. This particularly affected the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media, and the rights of LGBT people, women, and civil society groups. The EU institutions have since responded to this development with the rule of law mechanism. In EU foreign policy, the EU continues to play an important role in UN initiatives related to human rights. Action against serious human rights violations in countries such as Egypt, Israel, or the Gulf States often prevents the EU’s unanimity rule.

Should the EU now cast the first stone?

Looking at the European Parliament’s Report 2021 on Human Rights and Democracy in the World and the EU’s policy on the matter, the EU seems to be well aware of its internal human rights violations. The EU also demands human rights and their promotion from itself. If one reads a fact sheet on the European Union of the parliament about human rights, it is written mainly about the promotion of human rights in foreign policy.

The EU as a community of values is of course based on normative premises. But these should not be fundamentalist, but much more of the nature of normative commitments. With a kaleidoscopic perspective on the universalism of human rights and the inclusion of cultural relativist and feminist-postcolonial perspectives, the EU could gain more sensitivity. The ideal of the European Enlightenment and the universalism of human rights remain indispensable. And should nevertheless be constantly subjected to critical scrutiny. So that the EU does not only throw the stone of righteousness at others but also confidently at itself.