Marta Ibero EU-LAC

Is the EU or should it be an ally of human rights in Latin America?

Marta Ibero Dolla's career in NGOs began to make sense when she realised the transformative power of human rights in the lives of individuals and communities. And her passion for Latin America is so strong that she became a visiting professional at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. She has more than 20 years of experience in advocacy and Latin America in the NGO sector and is currently working in Brussels leading an NGO advocacy network with the European Union. She is executive director at EU-LAC network.

When human rights crises occur in a Latin American country, we can ask ourselves: In what way can the countries of the global North contribute to reversing these contexts? In the case of the European Union, the relationship with Latin American countries is historic and in the face of social outbreaks like Peru, Marta Ibero explains how the EU can become an ally in the defense and promotion of Human Rights in crisis situations.

By Marta Ibero

The European Union (EU) has a mandate to promote human rights in its foreign policy. As the Treaty on European Union stipulates, respect for human rights is a fundamental component of all relations with third countries and international institutions, and this is the case with Latin America and Peru. And to fulfil this obligation, the EU has developed numerous policies and tools, some linked to «soft power» and others to «hard power».

Experience shows that if the EU adopts a holistic approach – peace, development and human rights -, uses its policies strategically and builds a network of international alliances, it can be an influential actor in situations of human rights violations. Unfortunately, there is no successful magic formula for each and every case, but rather an intelligent and progressive use of its tools, adapting to different and constantly evolving situations. And a healthy dose of political leadership.

Soft power actually works

A good example of this «soft power» are the communiqués issued by the EU Delegation in Lima and the External Action Service between December and January «condemning the acts of violence and the excessive use of force by the security forces» and «calling for justice, restoring calm and ensuring an inclusive dialogue». In addition, the EU and its member states should use the channels of dialogue in Brussels, European capitals and Lima to strengthen pressure for an end to violence.

In such situations, the relationship between the EU and civil society must be a strategic priority. Member state embassies and the EU Delegation have a key role to play in promoting safe spaces for dialogue with civil society organisations (CSOs) and affected communities. These dialogues can weave a political and technical alliance that allows not only support and protection of defenders at risk, but also progress towards the inclusive construction of a peaceful solution to the crisis. 

An example of this can be seen in Guatemala through the «filter group». This group is made up of the EU Delegation, EU embassies and the UN human rights office. It meets regularly with civil society organisations to discuss democracy and human rights issues. Throughout their existence, and with both good and bad moments, these dialogues have facilitated joint analysis and coordination of the international community present in the country, with concrete results, such as public support for organisations at risk, the protection of defenders, and the blocking of abusive legislative reforms.

Another element that could help promote inclusive dialogues in Peru is the figure of the EU High Representative for Human Rights, currently held by Eamon Gilmore, whose mandate ends in February 2024. His work as ‘EU Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Colombia’ has been positively evaluated by stakeholders. In the case of Colombia, the EU and its State have actively supported peacebuilding and a political solution to the internal armed conflict, as in the case of the political and financial support to the 2016 Final Peace Agreement between the Colombian State and the FARC-EP.

While using the instruments of political dialogue, the EU also has a valuable instrument at its disposal: the development community. Peru’s Multiannual Indicative Programme provides €57 million for the period 2021-2024. In addition, Peru is a beneficiary of regional and thematic programmes that allow for structural reforms in the country. This is a key tool for CSOs. Support for them in situations of conflict requires a strategic vision, greater financial resources, flexibility and a streamlining of bureaucracy. There are some concrete cases, for example in Nicaragua, where the flexibility of some donors has allowed outlawed and/or exiled organisations to continue their work. 

From soft power to hard power

With regard to EU cooperation with governments, the question we ask ourselves as NGOs is this: can a government that violates human rights receive EU cooperation funds? What does the European taxpayer think? I don’t have an answer, but there are some examples that may shed light. In September 2022, the European Commission adopted an aid conditionality regulation because of Hungary’s violation of the rule of law. Through this mechanism, for the first time in more than a decade, the Hungarian government committed to implement anti-corruption reforms, demonstrating the effectiveness of this tool to push for a change of course. In December 2022, the EU Council considered the measures to be partial and temporarily suspended the payment of €6.3 billion.

Another element to take into account is that the EU’s trade policy is also an instrument of foreign policy. The EU trade agreement with Colombia and Peru has been provisionally applied with Peru since March 1st, 2013. In the case of Peru, the EU is the third largest trading partner; the country concentrates 72% of its trade in Spain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. This trade agreement has positioned the EU as an investor and as one of the region’s most important trading partners.

Without going into whether these agreements have a positive and/or negative impact on development, it is important to recognise that in some cases they have been useful for dialogue on human rights issues. In the particular case of Peru, in 2019, in response to complaints lodged by the CSO in the Advisory Group, the European Commission established technical and political relations on the implementation of labour and environmental commitments in the country.

Hard power:

And what happens if human rights violations become chronic? The EU also has tools of coercive power, and they have sometimes proved effective, but these are applied with double standards, which has led to much criticism of the EU.

An example of this is sanctions. In the case of Latin America, sanctions have been issued against individuals and entities in Nicaragua and Venezuela due to the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in both countries. These sanctions are intended to bring about a change in policies.

In all my experience, I have never received a unanimous response on the effectiveness of these measures. My opinion is that, if used in extreme cases and in an intelligent way, by sanctioning the masterminds of violations – often linked to economic power – they can have a dissuasive effect on future violations. For this reason alone, it is worth exploring this possibility. It can also be used by organisations in future judicial processes for determining responsibility and accountability.

In turn, the EU can issue economic sanctions or restrictions on certain sectors of economic activity, such as a ban on the import or export of certain goods, investment, or the provision of certain services.

Effectiveness of international pressure

According to a survey conducted by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Nueva Sociedad and Latinobarómetro in 2022, the EU is perceived in Latin American societies as a «‘leader in standards and values’, which reinforces its role as a defender of human rights». However, Europe alone is hardly capable of reversing national agendas that violate human rights.

Multilateral alliances in international lobbying can be more effective. In human rights, the most powerful alliances come from a combination of regional organisations – the Inter-American Human Rights System – international organisations – the United Nations – countries in the region -CELAC- and of course, the US and Canada.

What is our role as International NGOs? 

In a case such as the current one in Peru, the EU must prioritise human rights policy with the country, and use all tools strategically, ensuring an active and public presence, through communiqués, official visits, observation missions etc. And experience has shown that in order to achieve this, a dynamic, organised civil society, which demands that its authorities fulfil their obligations, is very important. The work of civil society is not only valuable: it is unique and irreplaceable.

This is why advocacy with European and other international authorities is part of the mandate of many NGOs. The change we want requires us to collaborate and coordinate with other actors, drawing on our strengths, skills and resources to collectively create greater impact.

One example of this strategic alliance is the EU-LAT network, made up of 43 European NGOs whose mandate is to lobby the EU to promote European policies that contribute to the full respect of human rights in Latin America. It is currently one of the main actors in civil society policy working on Latin America in Brussels. The network and its members have a strong alliance of social organisations in Latin America, and consequently in Peru, which allows it to raise its voice and exert influence on the European authorities to take political leadership on human rights. And this is why, in January 2023, the EU-LAT network raised its voice before European bodies about the abuses in Peru.

And yes, I admit it, I am aware that there is a long way to go, that the road is difficult, but in the face of a global tendency to silence critical voices, we have the right – and the obligation – to use our voice, loud and clear, to achieve the change we want. And if we want to, we can.  

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