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Globalisation: How the EU’s trade policy helps to promote human rights

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Globalisation and international trade can affect human rights, so the EU’s trade policy include tools to protect them. Find out how.

International trade and globalisation have great potential to create jobs in the EU and beyond. Yet, growing global competition can endanger human rights by for example leading to worker exploitation. As human rights are a priority of its foreign policy, the EU uses its trade policy to promote and protect human rights in non-EU countries through preferential trade deals, as well as unilateral trade restrictions.

Preferential trade access

One of the EU’s main tools to protect human rights and labour rights in non-EU countries is the  Generalised System of Preferences (GPS). This scheme grants 90 developing countries preferential trade access to the EU market. However, this depends on them respecting human rights. Access can be withdrawn when systematic violations occur.

The EU’s strategy is to encourage gradual progress through dialogue and monitoring. Sanctions are used only in extreme cases. Suspension of GSP preferences has occurred three times: with Myanmar in 1997, Belarus in 2007 and Sri Lanka in 2010.

While the scheme has led beneficiary countries to make legislative and institutional changes to promote human rights, implementation has been slower in a number of countries.

Trade restrictions

The EU can also impose unilateral trade restrictions or set due diligence obligations for importers to ensure that money from trade with the EU is not being used to fund conflict and human rights violations in these countries.

The EU also has strict rules to prevent the use of European goods and technologies for unethical intentions elsewhere, for example medical substances that could be used in executions..

Imports of items whose production is related to human rights violations are also restricted, including conflict minerals and objects that can be used for torture.

Import ban on conflict minerals

The EU has taken steps to ban the import of conflict related minerals.

In 2002, after recognising the impact international trade in diamonds has on human rights, the EU adopted rules that ban all imports of rough diamonds without a certificate of origin. Similarly, minerals, used in the production of, for example high-tech devices, often stem from countries afflicted by conflict. The revenue gained from minerals exported to the EU often sustained armed revolts.

To prevent the international trade in minerals from funding conflict and human rights violations, MEPs adopted in 2017 rules obliging EU importers of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold to carry out due diligence checks on their suppliers. The regulation will be fully in force from 2021.

Export ban on torture goods

EU rules ban any trade in goods and services that may contribute to torture or execution.

Since 2004, an export control system is in place, which checks and prohibits goods that may be used to treat people badly. Authorisation is necessary for items that have legitimate purposes but that can also be used for human rights violations, such as medicinal substances.

The rules also include a ban on the marketing and transit of equipment used for cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that have no other practical use than execution or torture, such as electric chairs or automatic drug injection systems.

Export control for trade in items that can be used to violate human rights

The EU has rules to ensure that products and technologies originally produced for civilian use in Europe cannot be used to violate human rights. Dual-use items are goods, software, or technology that, besides their original purpose, can be abused. Examples of other uses include developing weaponry, committing terrorist attacks, spying on people, or infiltrating computer systems, hacking computers, or intercepting mobile phones.

An update of the rules is being discussed featuring stricter export controls, brokering, transit and transfer of dual-use items and taking into account technological developments. Export controls are facilitated by a common EU list of dual-use items.

EU rules to prevent worker exploitation

In 2017, Parliament adopted a resolution calling for EU rules obliging textile and clothing suppliers to respect workers’ rights. It proposed a due diligence obligations system, meaning investigation into the standards of human rights before entering a trade agreement. Non-EU countries would have to comply with EU norms to produce sustainable and ethical textiles. Parliament also wants the EU and member states to promote International Labour Organisation standards on wages and working hours with partner countries in the garment sector.

Child and forced labour

A 2016 Parliament resolution calls for ways to trace evidence of forced and child labour. Measures include labelling child-labour-free products, giving trade preferences to countries that meet certain labour standards and prohibiting the import of products made by child labour.

The implementation of an effective traceability mechanism would steer towards a complete ban on such products. The resolution also calls for the combating of forced and child labour to be included in the trade and sustainable development chapters of EU agreements to promote human rights through international trade.

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Human Rights

Africa’s Sahel: Act now before the crisis ‘becomes unmanageable’

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UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meets internally displaced people in Burkina Faso’s Centre-North region. © UNHCR/Sylvain Cherkaoui

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is stepping up response in Africa’s Sahel region where escalating violence has forced a rising number of people to flee their homes. 

Agency chief Filippo Grandi this week concluded a visit to three affected countries—Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger—expressing alarm over the rapidly deteriorating situation.

“We always look at the Sahel, we think about terrorism…we think about what, in theory, threatens Europe”, said Mr. Grandi, speaking in Burkina Faso on Tuesday.  

“But the real problem is here. The emergency is here. It is here that people are suffering, people are being killed, women are being raped, small children cannot go to school. It’s here that we must intervene before this crisis becomes unmanageable.” 

Armed groups terrorizing local populations 

The Sahel region encompasses an area south of the Sahara Desert and spans across parts of 10 countries: from Senegal in the west all the way to Eritrea, in East Africa. 

Violence there intensified after the 2011 revolution in Libya, and an uprising in Mali a year later.  As a result, terrorist groups, organized criminal groups and others took advantage of weak governance and ethnic tensions to move across borders and terrorize local populations. 

High Commissioner Grandi praised the three countries for continuing to welcome refugees.   

They have taken in around 165,000 people from Mali, expressing solidarity even as they face their own internal security and humanitarian challenges. 

Generous countries shielding one million displaced 

Overall, countries in the central Sahel are sheltering more than one million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). 

“In the Sahel, some of the poorest countries in the world remain some of the most generous,” Mr. Grandi commented.   

The High Commissioner concluded his visit in Burkina Faso, where armed extremists have carried out brutal attacks in the north and east.   

There are now some 600,000 IDPs in the country; a 1,200 per cent increase over last year.  

“In the Sahel, the response to the crisis must not be a security one alone. The protection of those forced to flee must remain at the core of our response to this displacement crisis”, said Mr. Grandi.  

“This includes a better coordination between civilian and military authorities to ensure humanitarian access for immediate assistance. It is also critical to create the conditions for humanitarian and development actors to help with solutions to the affected population.” 

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Resolving Israel-Palestinian conflict, ‘key to sustainable peace’ in the Middle East

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Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “key to sustainable peace in the Middle East”, the UN chief said on Tuesday, maintaining that the lack of any progress only “furthers radicalization across the region”.

António Guterres told the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, meeting in New York, that the Organization supports an end to the decades-long conflict on the basis of numerous “resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements” that have been made, with “recognized borders on the basis of the pre-1967 lines”.

He cited the expansion and acceleration of illegal settlement activities in the occupied West Bank, ongoing demolitions, seizures of Palestinian-owned property and evictions, as continuing cause for concern.

Moreover, the UN has “repeatedly stated that Jerusalem remains a final status issue”, he continued, “the city’s future can only be resolved on the basis of international law and through negotiations between the parties”.

Unilateral proposal

Last week United States President Donald Trump proposed his ‘Vision for Peace, Prosperity and a Brighter Future’ that would legalize Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and also allow Israel to annex around 30 per cent of the West Bank.

Michael Link, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Palestine, referred to it as “a one and a half State solution”.

For his part, the Secretary-General responded by recalling the UN’s longstanding commitment to realize a two-State solution, with Israelis and Palestinians “living side by side in peace and security within recognized borders, on the basis of the pre-1967 lines.”

“The position of the United Nations on the two-State solution has been defined, throughout the years, by relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions by which the Secretariat is bound”, he upheld.

Human suffering continues

Meanwhile, human suffering prevails throughout the occupied Palestinian territory, said the UN chief, including the “dire socio-economic conditions” facing the two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

“Projects implemented by UN agencies and other donors are bringing a measure of relief, but far more needs to be done”, explained the UN chief.  

Ultimately, Gaza also requires political solutions: “On its own, no amount of humanitarian or economic support will resolve either the situation in Gaza or the broader conflict”, he said.

Restrictions must be eased on the movement of goods and people to and from Gaza, with the goal of ultimately lifting them.

“I call on Palestinian leaders to engage constructively with Egypt and others to advance intra-Palestinian reconciliation”, Mr. Guterres stated, repeating his pleas to Member States to “ensure reliable funding for UNRWA [UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] to fully continue its vital work on behalf of Palestinian refugees”.

Elections ‘long overdue’

Holding “long overdue general elections” in Palestine, including East Jerusalem, will be “a crucial step” towards renewed legitimacy for national institutions and “reuniting the Palestinian people under a single, legitimate and democratic Palestinian national government”, according to the UN chief.

“As my Special Coordinator of the Middle East Process recently said to the Security Council, we are hopeful that the Palestinian President will very soon issue the decree scheduling legislative and presidential elections and that Israel will allow voting in East Jerusalem as well”, he said.

UN’s diamond anniversary

In marking the Organization’s 75th anniversary, Mr. Guterres flagged, “we need a renewed commitment to uphold the values of the Charter as our shared framework of cooperation for realization of the rights of future generations of Israeli and Palestinians”.

“Rest assured of my full commitment and that of the United Nations” for a “just and comprehensive peace” between Palestinians and Israelis “living side by side” as two States, concluded the Secretary-General.

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UN rights expert: US Middle East peace plan ‘lopsided’

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A United States plan released this week to resolve the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is “lopsided” and will only entrench occupation, an independent UN human rights expert said on Friday. 

President Donald Trump announced his administration’s ‘Vision for Peace, Prosperity and a Brighter Future’ at the White House on Tuesday, which would legalize Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel also would be allowed to annex around 30 per cent of the West Bank.

In response, the UN underlined its longstanding commitment to realizing a two-State solution, with Israelis and Palestinians “living side by side in peace and security, within recognized borders, on the basis of the pre-1967 lines.” 

However, what the US plan offers is “a one and half state solution”, according to Michael Lynk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory. 

“This is not a recipe for a just and durable peace but rather endorses the creation of a 21st century Bantustan in the Middle East”, he said, referring to the homelands established for black South Africans during the apartheid era. 

“The Palestinian statelet envisioned by the American plan would be scattered archipelagos of non-contiguous territory completely surrounded by Israel, with no external borders, no control over its airspace, no right to a military to defend its security, no geographic basis for a viable economy, no freedom of movement and with no ability to complain to international judicial forums against Israel or the United States.” 

Mr. Lynk deplored the proposal to legalize Israeli settlements, and he urged countries to condemn any call to annex Palestinian territory, which is prohibited under international law. 

“This unilateral act undermines the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and it threatens to drag the world back to darker times, when conquest was acceptable, borders could be redrawn and territorial integrity was regularly undermined”, he stated.  

Under the Trump plan, Jerusalem would remain Israel’s undivided capital, which, Mr. Lynk called distressing as it “recognizes the conquest and illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, which remains occupied territory under international law, as embedded in scores of United Nations resolutions”. 

The rights expert also took issue with proposals that would prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes in Israel. 

 “Nothing in the Trump plan alters the continuing prevalence of the laws of occupation, the human rights of the Palestinians under occupation, and the absolute obligation on the international community to redouble its efforts to achieve a just, equitable and durable solution on the basis of equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis alike,” said Mr. Lynk. 

“International law remains the Northern Star, the only guide to a sustainable peace.” 

Independent experts’ role

Independent experts and Special Rapporteurs and are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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