Human Rights and the European Union

With the progress of European integration, human rights issues became more and more important on a community level. The most notable document containing the fundamental laws of the European Union is the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The need for a comprehensive record on human rights was first raised at the Cologne Summit in 1999 and was adopted at the Nice Summit in 2000 as a political declaration. The final text of the Charter was adopted in 2007 and became binding with the Treaty of Lisbon.

Apart from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Treaty of Lisbon also contains provisions regarding the protection of human rights. The implementation of these rights is so significant for the EU that a member state’s right to vote in the Council can be suspended if they seriously violate human rights (Treaty of Lisbon, Section 7).

Generally speaking, the EU places huge emphasis on human rights and democratic governance when it comes to foreign affairs. Clauses on human rights and fundamental freedoms can be found in various bi- and multilateral contracts. In addition to this, countries must meet the so-called Copenhagen criteria, the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the European Union.

The EU institutions address human rights issues within their own competence. In the European Parliament a Subcommittee on Human Rights has been operating within the Committee on Foreign Affairs since 2004. The Parliament has been issuing public reports about human rights conditions in various countries of the world for over a decade, which provides an opportunity for the EU to put pressure on states which limit the exercise of fundamental rights.

Within the Council of the European Union, the General Affairs Council and the Foreign Affairs Council address human rights issues. Since 1998 seven human rights guidelines have been adopted concerning capital punishment, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, human rights dialogues, children's rights in armed conflict, human rights defenders, the protection and promotion of children's rights and violence and discrimination against women. These guidelines encourage the more effective protection of human rights and action in the countries involved.

The European Commission also handles fundamental rights in connection to various policy areas. The EU’s policy on human rights appears most significantly in the activity of the European External Action Service. The task of the EU Special Representative for Human Rights is to make the European Union’s policy on human rights more effective and to draw attention to its work and achievements.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights is an institution specialized in the protection of human rights. It provides professional advice for EU bodies and member states and raises awareness among EU citizens on fundamental rights. The Agency also coordinates the work of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

The European Data Protection Supervisor is responsible for making sure that all EU institutions and bodies respect people’s right to privacy when processing their personal data. It also maintains dialogue with international data protection institutions and consults with the Commission, the Parliament and the Council during the preparations of the EU laws.

Europol handles cross-border criminal activity to promote the exercise of freedom, safety and laws. Its main tool is information exchange between member states and the development of a broad database, but it also provides an opportunity to share good practices and the most effective techniques for investigation.

Eurojust was created to improve the handling of serious and organized cross-border crime by stimulating investigative and prosecutorial co-ordination among agencies of the EU Member States. Its main aim is to quickly and efficiently try those responsible for criminal acts.

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