Eamon Gilmore, ex Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister: Will we be equal and free? Utopia or the future of the EU?

Eamon Gilmore, ex Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister: Will we be equal and free? Utopia or the future of the EU?
Why is the “Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024” needed and how does it differ from the previous one?

This EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy is the third such multiannual Plan adopted by the EU.  As with the previous two Action Plans, the objective is to strengthen and sharpen EU efforts to promote human rights and democracy across the world.  Each Plan is an opportunity to reassess, renew and reinvigorate our work; to build on what we have done, think hard about how to address current challenges and proactively work over the next 5 years.  It is important to have a roadmap that fits our ambition and priorities for the challenging times we live in. 

In November of last year, this Plan was adopted by the Commission and approved by all 27 Member States of the Council.  So it will inform not only the human rights and democracy work of the EU institutions and Delegations on the ground, but also that of the Member States and their Embassies. 

The need for strong, coherent and effective, collective action on human rights and democracy is more vital than ever.  Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were witnessing a gradual and persistent backsliding in democracy and human rights. 

The pandemic itself has made clear, in a very real and tangible way, the universality, indivisibility and interdependenceof human rights.  But it has also worsened existing problems and generated its own human rights issues.  Respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law must remain at the heart of responding to the COVID crisis and supporting the global recovery.  Multilateralism, global cooperation and solidarity are more important than event.  This new Action Plan sets out concrete objectives in this respect, because other crises will come and we need to be more resilient. 

In this Plan, we are stepping up action on long-standing EU priorities on human rights and democracy, such as gender equality, the protection of human right defenders, freedom of expression online and offline, the eradication of torture, the abolition of the death penalty, the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence and many more. 

But there are also new elements in this Plan which include:

  • strengthening the link between human rights and the environment,
  • leveraging the benefits of digital technologies and minimising the risks,
  • increased action on economic, social and cultural rights,
  • more emphasis on democracy, including shrinking civic and political space,
  • greater focus on business and human rights,
  • further action on the protection and empowerment of human rights defenders and
  • greater investment in explaining what we do to promote human rights and democracy.  

Promoting a global system for human rights and democracy and strengthening multilateralism is at the very core of EU’s work.  We are fully committed to continue playing a leading role in multilateral fora and strengthening EU’s coherence and unity, to deepen bilateral partnerships, and to build new cross-regional coalitions. We have to innovate, create a more flexible network of partners, react faster and more effectively, but we also need to be more proactive. 

The protection of human rights is one of the key challenges of the international community. What are the main assumptions of the Plan and how will it affect the nations?

Firstly, the Action Plan reaffirms the founding principles of the European Union – respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.  These values define us and guide our work.  History has taught us that when the rights of one person come under attack, it renders all our rights vulnerable.  That is why advancing democracy and respect for human rights is central to the external action of the European Union.  It is profoundly in our interest. 

Secondly, the Action Plan identifies priorities in view of changing geopolitics, the digital transition and environmental challenges. At the same time, it offers an opportunity to refresh the EU’s approach to human rights and democracy to address current challenges, such as the shrinking space for civil society, weakening of the rule of law, rising violence against human rights defenders, intimidation of journalists, growing threats to the integrity of elections, widespread impunity for human rights violations, growing opposition to women’s rights or persistence of labour abuses. 

Thirdly, this new Action Plan is built on 5 pillars:

  • Protecting and empowering individuals
  • Building resilient, inclusive and democratic societies
  • Promoting a global system for human rights and democracy
  • New technologies: harness opportunities and address challenges
  • Deliver by working together

The Action Plan will be implemented at local, national, regional and multilateral level and we will work with all stakeholders, especially the United Nations.  Civil society will continue to be a crucial partner in realising the goals of the Action Plan and making it a living document.  So too will the European Parliament and we look forward to broadening engagement with other actors. 

Action will also be backed up and bolstered by the new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, which was adopted by Council in December.  The establishment of the new Regime was one of the first actions to be carried out from the new Action Plan.  This new regime will further strengthen our collective action on human rights and ensure perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses have nowhere to hide.  The first sanctions under this Regime were announced at the beginning of this month on four Russian individuals responsible for serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as widespread and systematic repressionof freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, andfreedom of opinion and expression in Russia. 

Implementing changes always requires more effort than just developing an action plan. How long will it take to implement the new Plan and what are the resources to implement it?

It is a five year Plan.  There are new actions, but many have been part of our daily work to advance human rights and democracy for many years and will continue to be – they are not time-bound.  In addition, the new Action Plan is not a one-size-fits-all.  It is a roadmap, with a broad range of policies, tools and political and financial instruments at our disposal to implement it. The 140 EU Delegations and Member States Embassies around the world will bring this Action Plan to life, to translate it from objectives to concrete actions targeted for local circumstances.  Each of these Delegations will devise country strategies, and it will be implemented at local, national, regional and multilateral level. 

We will work with all stakeholders, including civil society, as well as broadening engagement with other actors, such as sport, the arts, culture and the private sector.  And as the European Special Representative for Human Rights, I will have a key role in guiding the implementation at central level.  

Dialogue with third countries is central to our action – this Action Plan is not about imposing a model on anyone. It is about finding ways to fully implement human rights and democracy obligations and commitments that the international community – including the European Union – has signed up to.  Non-interference in internal affairs is not an adequate response to criticism – human rights are universal and no country or region has a perfect record, including the European Union. 

We are always ready to listen and work closely with others to improve and address our common problems.   But we will raise concern when needed. And we expect our partners to do no less.  We need to talk and we all need to learn from one another.

We will also invest money into this action plan through the new multiannual financial framework to ensure we match our ambition with adequate financial assistance where needed.

The new Action Plan includes a separate chapter focusing on monitoring and implementation, clearly referring to the instruments that the EU and EU Member States will use to achieve its objectives on human rights and democracy in the years to come.  We have a vast range of tools, instruments and policies to advance human rights and democracy through its external relations, including, among others:

  • Political dialogues and Human Rights dialogues with partner countries and regional organisations, as well as with civil society, human rights organisations and the business sector.
  • Thematic and geographic financial instruments, such as the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, which has funding of €1.5 billion from 2021-2027.
  • Dialogue and monitoring missions under the Trade Generalised Scheme of Preferences supports the implementation of the objectives defined on human rights and labour rights.
  • Observation of trialsof human rights defenders.
  • Actions in multilateral and regional human rights fora such as EU-led thematic and geographical resolutions, support for other relevant resolutions, EU statements and interventions, among others.
  • Public statements and demarches condemning human rights violations and abuses and recognising steps taken to promote and protect human rights.
  • 13 EU human rights guidelines on specific issues which guide practical work on the ground
  • Election observation missions and follow-up;
  • Dialogue with civil society, human rights organisations, and the business sector;
  • Cooperation and coordination with multilateral human rights institutions, UN human rights treaty bodies and regional organisations.

Action will also be backed up and bolstered by the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime referred to earlier, which was adopted by the Council in December.  

It often happens that our assumptions differ from the real chances of success. How to monitor and measure the success of the Plan?

Effective implementation will require a joined-up approach, including with EU Member States, to ensure greater coherence and maximise impact.  I intend to work with all actors to drive visibility and raise awareness about the Plan, as well as to ensure coherence and effective action. 

Actions apply to all regions in the world taking into consideration local needs and specificities: here, as mentioned earlier, over 140 EU Delegations and Member States Embassies will take the lead in defining specific actions through tailored-made strategies at a local level.

The EU will also engage with different stakeholders on the overall implementation, and for instance, organise annual meetings with civil society. It is also foreseen to conduct a mid-term and end-term review of the implementation.  This is not only to monitor and evaluate the implementation of actions, but also to use the results as an input for the next Action Plan. The public EU annual report on human rights and democracy in the worldis another effective tool to monitor the progress made in a transparent and open manner.

How successful we are externally in promoting human rights is very much linked to how successful we are in protecting human rights within the European Union.  Consistency and coherence on what we do externally and what we do internally are vital, not just for our credibility, but because human rights are universal and democracy provides the best way to protect those rights. 

The work done through this Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy will complement the implementation of the EU’s internal plan, the European Democracy Action Plan, launched in December.  That Plan fosters democratic and electoral integrity inside the EU.  The EU is has also renewed its internal and external policy framework on gender equality with the Gender Equality Strategy and the third Gender Action Plan.  And of course we have the European Rule of Law Mechanism to identify challenges as soon as possible to help Member States find solutions to safeguard and protect the rule of law.

The European Union is based on values, such as respect for human dignity, freedom and equality. What are the achievements of EU in improving the situation of human rights and democracy?

Let me give you a few examples of what we did during the last 5 years:

  • We helped protect over nearly 45,000 human rights defenders at risk via the dedicated mechanism ProtectDefenders.eu since 2015.  
  • We deployed 98 Election Observation Missions to help strengthen democratic institutions and build public confidence in electoral processes.  Examples include strengthening Paraguay on campaign finance and increasing women’s political participation and leadership in Pakistan.
  • We supported democracy in more than 70 partner countries with €400 million.  This included supporting the organisation of elections as well as support to oversight bodies, independent media, parliaments and political parties
  • We put financial muscle into our efforts through €1.3 billion in the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.  The new programme from 2021-2027 has seen that budget increased to €1.5 billion.
  • We advocate strongly for the abolition of the death penalty, and executions have decreased by 58% since 2015. 114 countries do not have death penalty in law and another 46 have not carried out an execution for 10 years. 
  • We launched the Spotlight Initiative to strengthen gender equality and combat violence against women worldwide with funding of €500 million.
  • We used our trade agreements and our trade preferences to improve human rights and implement labour Conventions.  In 2019, we had monitoring missions in 11 key countries and when necessary, we act to withdraw trade preferences, like we did in Cambodia.  
  • Through a network of 100 universities, the Global Campus, we helped fund human rights education.  More than 3,600 graduates of these universities are now human rights ambassadors and defenders in international, governmental and civil society organisations.  

All of this is vital work and it has made a real difference to many lives.  But the EU is expected to do more and to do it better, particularly now when human rights and democracy are under increasing pressure.  That is why we have a new Plan. 

In the world, the violation of fundamental human rights is still a serious problem. This is happening. This is also happening in countries close to the European Union. Is the Union taking action in this direction?

This Action Plan is external in focus, but of course it must be reinforced by what we do at home.  One of the main fora for our engagement with countries close to the European Union is through the Council of Europe.  After the official launch of the Action Plan, the first public event I did on the new Action Plan was Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic. 

In my engagement with political leaders around the world, I often refer to Council of Europe as the standard setter in human rights and democracy.  Many of the standards and guidance set by the Council of Europe are of course used by the European Union itself, such as the toolkit to help respect democracy, rule of law and human rights in the context of the COVID pandemic

Cooperation with regional organisations is an important facet of the Action Plan and our collaboration with the Council of Europe is a rich one.  Our joint programmes are instrumental in supporting justice reform, fighting corruption, and promoting the development of an independent media and civil society in Europe and its neighbourhood.  

There a number of areas where the new EU Action Plan will allow us to forge an even deeper partnership with the Council of Europe, for example on digitalisation and environmental protection.  On freedom of expression and media freedom, the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, remains an essential tool to protect journalists and ensure access to reliable information through monitoring crimes against journalists and media workers.

Early warning is a key element of the Action Plan and in this context, the Venice Commission and the Group of States against Corruption provide us with invaluable insight on the rule of law situation across Europe. The European Commission’ own first annual Rule of Law report, assessing all 27 Member States, based many of its findings on recommendations by these Council of Europe bodies.

And of course the EU remains fully committed to its accession to the European Convention on Human Rights.  Once the EU becomes the 48th Contracting Party to the Convention, citizens will be able to challenge the EU’s actions before the European Court of Human Rights

Of course, the Council of Europe is only one way we engage with countries in our neighbourhood and many close to our borders are not members.  I myself have closely engaged with countries in the neighbourhood since I began my work as EU Special Representative for human Rights. 

For example, on Belarus, prior to the August 2020 Presidential elections, I had helped to develop a reasonably good relationship with Belarus interlocutors, through the Human Rights Dialogue in 2019 and meetings with both Foreign Minister and his Deputy. Today, we have temporarily suspended all our bilateral engagements and adopted the 3rd package of sanctions.  I have met with the Belarussian ooporition and actively addressed the ongoing human rights violations and the situation of political prisoners in my meetings with the Belarussian civil society and international events. 

In addition, since taking office, I have continued exploring venues to engage and visit Russia, in consultations with  the Council of Europe and the Russian civil society. However, my efforst have yet to bear fruit, but I will still continue to closely engage.  Human rights engagement with Russia remains a challenge. 

Business organizations are strongly connected with human rights. What role the leaders play in the process of implementation and how can they support the actions of the EU in this area?

The business sector plays a great role in creating an environment in which human rights are respected and thrive.  As the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights recognise, States have the responsibility to protect and guarantee human rights and business actors must respect human rights, both online and offline.  Victims of human rights abuses committed by business enterprises must have access to effective remedy.  In today’s world, large business enterprises have sometimes more clout than States to shape the human rights situation in a country.

The EU is a strong advocate of the UN Guiding Principles as a uniting multi-stakeholder platform.  The new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy is clear about our support of the UN Guiding Principles, as well as on support of multi-stakeholder processes to develop, implement and strengthen standards on business and human rights and due diligence.  The new EU Action Plan also has a greater focus on business and human rights and includes a dedicated section on the business sector with specific commitments. 

Engagment with the business sector on upholding and promoting human rights, anti-corruption measures and best practices on responsible business conduct, corporate social responsibility, due diligence, accountability and access to remedies in a participative manner (e.g. supply chains, zero tolerance for child labour), willl be an important element.  Of course business organisations also have a signifcant role to play in the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which continue to be our main benchmark in this area. 

EU Delegations and EU Member States’ Embassies are currently working together to develop Human Rights and Democracy Country Strategies in their respective countries.  These strategies will build on broad multi-stakeholder consultations, which will include the private sector.

Throughout my time as EU Special Representative, I have closely engaged with the private sector, including industry leaders in the promotion of responsible business conduct and human rights.  Engagement with the business sector to discuss human rights issues has become a feature of some of my country visits, notably in Qatar in February last year where I visited the construction site of the stadium that will host the opening and closing the FIFA 2022 World Cup World Cup matches.  Onsite, I had the opportunity to talk to workers and their representatives as well as assess their working and housing conditions.

I have also held meetings with the Responsible Business Alliance , a non-profit coalition of leading companies (over 400 members worldwide) dedicated to improving social, environmental and ethical conditions in their global supply chains.  We have discussed how they can contribute to the objectives of the EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy. 

In running a business, it is essential to respect basic ethical rights. What do entrepreneurs forget about in the pursuit of profit?

Consumers are becoming more conscious about what they are buying and are making purchasing decisions based on sustainability, environmental standards and human rights.  The development of global supply chains as well as social media has made increasingly difficult for businesses to hide behind subsidiaries or companies they control, when dealing with weak or poorly enforced domestic legislation in third countries. 

Many businesses have recognised that corporate social responsibility, elimination of child labour, due diligence are all examples of businesses assuming human rights responsibilities.  For some businesses, public shame and the negative impact on their goodwill is a strong deterrent from partaking in, knowingly or not, and benefiting from human rights abuses.  Here, I see an important role for the media, whistle-blowers and human rights defenders, in exposing these abuses.

This increasing consumer consciousness is reflected in discussions on EU mandatory human rights due diligence.  The European Parliament recently called for the urgent adoption of a binding EU law that ensures companies are held accountable and liable when they harm – or contribute to harming – human rights, the environment and good governance. It must also guarantee that victims can access legal remedies.   The move is intended to increase EU scrutiny of companies over the impact their operations have on the environment and people globally, not just in the 27 Member States. 

Work is ongoing on Commissioner Reynders’ legislative initiative on sustainable corporate governance to introduce mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence across value chains.  I know this is of deep interest to the private sector, as well as civil society, and that they are contributing to the consultation process.  This is expected to come to fruition this year.    

Human rights can be particularly neglected during the crisis. How would you comment on the behaviour of Europe in this respect during the pandemic?

Since the COVID-19 crisis started, the EU has worked hard to ensure human rights were at the centre, not only of our own response to the pandemic, but also at the centre of the international community response.  We have also kept a close watch on emergency measures taken by States in response to the crisis, which limited or impacted on human rights. 

In February, the Council approved conclusions reaffirming the EU’s commitment to human rights in the context of the recovery from the pandemic.

I myself published an op-ed at the start of the crisis on how the pandemic was itself a human rights crisis (“Fighting COVID-19 is a battle for human rights”).  A large part of work focused on those most vulnerable during the pandemic and I made several interventions at high political level for the humanitarian release of prisoners, particularly political prisoners and human rights defenders. 

The EU has taken a human rights-based approach in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the help focuses on responding to the immediate health crisis and the resulting humanitarian needs. This includes supporting the response plans of the World Health Organisation and the UN, and providing humanitarian support in affected countries.  Other measures include strengthening health, water and sanitation systems, as well as partner countries’ capacities and preparedness to deal with the pandemic; and mitigating the immediate social and economic consequences, including support to the private sector with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises, and government reforms to reduce poverty.

The EU is using all the tools at its disposal to coordinate the response to COVID-19, providing financial support and technical support to Member States. The Commission is assisting in exchanging good practices on emergency response measures, in particular as regards those vulnerable groups. The Commission also aims at working with NGOs and other institutions that could provide housing, health and social support for the vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 crisis.  EU Funds, such as the European Social Fund and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived were redirected in 2020 and additional budgets were made available to support persons in vulnerable situations.

The crisis has affected us all and to help the most vulnerable countries, the EU and its Member States, acting together as “Team Europe”, launched a package in April 2020.  This package promotes an equitable, sustainable and inclusive recovery and seeks to help people most at risk, including children, women, older persons, persons with disabilities, as well as migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons and their host communities.  The EU is focusing on the countries in particular need, because it wants to underline the EU will not forget its partners when addressing this global pandemic.  The overall figure of the “Team Europe” package has reached €40.5 billion.

In 2021, the long-awaited vaccines have given us hope that we may be at the beginning of the end of this pandemic.  Beyond the EU vaccination plan started on 27 December 2020, the European Union is committed to ensuring that everyone who needs a vaccine gets it, anywhere in the world and not only at home.  The EU is one of the leading donors to support the COVAX Facility, a global collaboration aiming to secure access to the COVID-19 vaccine in low and middle-income countries.

The European Commission has announced that it will also set up an EU vaccine sharing mechanism to structure the provision of vaccines shared by Member States with partner countries through a Team Europe approach.


We invite you to watch the speech by Eamon Gilmore, who opened the second day of the 5th edition of the European Executive Forum conference, on April 27 in 2017 at the Sheraton Hotel in Warsaw.


Eamon Gilmore

Eamon Gilmore is the European Union Special Representative for Human Rights (since March 2019) and has also served as EU Special Envoy for the Columbian Peace Process since October 2015. Eamon was Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2011 until July 2014 in a coalition government. He was leader of the Irish Labour Party from 2007 to 2014 and led the party to its best ever election results in the general and presidential elections of 2011. He was one of the longest serving members of the Irish Parliament (Dáil Éireann), from 1989 to 2016, being elected in six successive elections to represent the constituency of Dun Laoghaire. Eamon is a former Union leader and active advocate for social rights and a champion of the liberal agenda. He has campaigned for women’s and LGBT+ rights. In 2016, he was appointed adjunct professor at the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University. In 2017, he was Visiting Practitioner Professor at the School of Public Policy in the Central European University, Budapest. He has also lectured at universities, think tanks and public policy conferences throughout Europe, the UK, the USA, Latin America, China and Africa. He has written two books; “Inside the Room” tells of his experience in Ireland’s Crisis Government (2011 – 2014).

Eamon has been honored with awards for his leading role in the promotion of human rights. In 2017, Eamon was shortlisted for the European Innovation in Politics Award for his role in the same sex marriage campaign, and also for his idea in 2010 to establish the Constitutional Convention (later the Citizen’s Assembly), which recommended the holding of the referendum. The Government of France has made him an Officier of the Legion d’Honneur. Colombia has honoured him with the Order of San Carlos (Gran Cruz) for his work on the Colombian Peace Process.

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