Last year, President Juncker declared that Europe should not “harp on” about Turkey’s attacks on press freedom and human rights as its support was required to tackle the refugee crisis. Turning a blind eye to the “world champion in imprisoned media personnel“ is not the only thing Europe has done in recent months. After the EU-Turkey deal, our representatives attended a moral (and legal) lecture on the rights of refugees. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that Turkey “may not be considered fully safe for all returns in the near future” and that Ankara, before and after the agreement, has been responsible for numerous “forcible returns” to Syria and Afghanistan, blatantly violating the 1951 UN Refugee Convention’s fundamental principle of non-refoulement.
The recent EU-Turkey accord is the latest in a long series of political improvisations, a grim consequence of the Union’s ineptitude in drawing up a durable and sustainable overall vision of its (common) future: refugees have become “bargaining chips”, victims of cowardly political skirmishing. These shortcomings make of EU foreign policy, which should imply shared political goals and interests, a constant improvisation, our self-proclaimed “unity” struggles to come to light, and this uncertainty leaves us with a weak and inadequate political coordination, made up of day –to-day single choices. Finally, this demurral frustrates the Union’s ability to act together and affirm its identity in the international arena, de facto undermining its future.
This political vacuum is a consequence of the EU’s original sin: an economic, and quasi-political, entity which strains to find a way through its multi-faceted national realities. A clear example of this divergence can be found in the Libyan civil war where, according to some analysts, France’s tacit support of the Haftar government (despite EU official support for a UN-brokered mediation with the al-Sarraj government), represents an “obstacle towards a national unity government”, contributing to perpetuating violent instability close to Europe’s own borders. However, the human rights lighthouse has not only been (almost) turned off, but is instead shining obscurely on the path leading to other routes: complicity in the most brutal human rights violations.
In January, 47 people were beheaded in a single day; this atrocity was not carried out in Islamic State-held territories, as one might think at first glance, but in Saudi Arabia. After the event, the Monarchy stated that many of those executed were terrorists, but has “distractedly” forgotten to report what kind of acts are considered “terrorism” under its laws. According to Amnesty, the Kingdom:
“Labels as ‘terrorist crimes’ activities such as calling for, participating in, publicizing, or inciting protests, demonstrations, gatherings, or group petitions […] attending conferences, lectures, or gatherings inside or outside [the country] that target the security and stability of the country and incite strife in society”.
Horrific forms of execution are a reality, including the public display of dead bodies after crucifixion (a Daesh notorious trade-mark as well). Reprieve, a human-rights body, reports that the majority of those currently facing the death penalty have been convicted of non-lethal crimes, such as political protests: shamefully, Saudi Arabia is a long-standing European and US ally. In 2015, to seal this ‘unholy alliance,’ the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain transferred to the Kingdom the required military equipment, from combat aircraft to ammunition, to conduct its war in Yemen, that ‘forgotten war’, in which Saudi Arabia is responsible for dozens of international humanitarian law violations, having targeted deliberately MSF and Oxfam facilities as well as the defenceless civilian population. From 2006 to 2015, Arabie Saoudite has been France’s premier arms importer (the second and third were Qatar and Egypt).
While France in the last decade has massively been selling weapons to the Saudis, since 2009 the UK has provided training to their Ministry of Interior through a “trusted professional partnership”: the program’s aim is to help the Saudis develop skills in finger-printing and crime scene investigation. In the near future, the two countries are eager to expand this cooperation, focusing on cybersecurity, CCTV systems and mobile phone analysis, potentially contributing to target activists. Once again, Europe is disregarding its human rights obligations as set out in its founding treaties. Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union, which defines the EU external action principles, states:
“The Union’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity […] respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter […] preserve peace, prevent conflicts and strengthen international security”.
The betrayal of our founding principles is blatant here. We should demand of our leaders that they specify in which way, exactly, supplying weapons and training to Saudi Arabia, and other countries, entails the highest respect for human dignity and the universality of human rights or, on the other hand, preserves peace and prevents conflicts. European citizens should not be unconscious accomplices (or absent-minded bystanders?) of such grave foreign policy decisions.
The Union’s external action plan is always wavering, and so are our leaders, victims of their own dreams and needs, still trying to balance national interests with Europe’s. The current environment is not fertile for addressing fundamental issues such as those related to promoting human rights globally, an admirable but tough task, requiring resoluteness, initiative, passion and cohesion, all features which, at the moment, the aged Europe does not possess. Only once we have dealt with our internal crises d’identité might we set the basis for a renewed and reborn Europe, capable of enlightening the way ahead, in this long, arduous but ultimately fulfilling journey towards worldwide dignity, equality and prosperity.
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As long as we pursue the current path the lighthouse will remain switched off, and, our hopes too will remain extinguished.
Ludovico De Angelis is a MA graduand in International Relations at RomaTre University, Rome, Italy. He holds a post-graduate specialisation in International Human Rights Protection at the Italian Society for International Organization (ISIO) and has earned his bachelor's degree in Communication Science, with a final thesis on contemporary wars, al-Qaeda and the role of the media.