The profound human rights and democracy dimensions to the ongoing global health crisis have become increasingly evident. The COVID-19 pandemic has perpetuated and exacerbated existing inequalities and vulnerabilities worldwide. The humanitarian, health and socioeconomic consequences have had a disproportionate impact on the rights of persons in vulnerable situations. In 2020, in line with its commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic, the EU has promoted a human rights-based approach, stressing that human rights are universal, interdependent and indivisible and must be fully respected in the response to the pandemic.
In a geopolitical and COVID-19 context in which challenges to human rights, democracy and the rule of law have become more widespread, the EU has increased its efforts to consolidate its role as a principled and reliable global actor for human rights. In November 2020, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024),1 which sets out the EU’s ambitions and priorities for action in external relations for the next five years.
The Action Plan demonstrates the EU’s renewed commitment to protecting and promoting human rights, empowering people, and building more resilient democracies across the world. The EU annual report on human rights and democracy monitors the implementation of the new EU Action Plan by presenting the progress achieved to date.
Throughout the year, the EU continued to raise its profile and demonstrate global leadership on the human rights and democracy agenda. The new EU Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in EU External Action 2021-2025 (GAP III)2 , adopted by the Commission in November and welcomed through presidency conclusions by 24 Member States, outlines specific priorities and actions. It sends a clear message on the importance of mainstreaming gender equality and women’s empowerment into all areas of EU external action.
In December, the Council adopted a landmark decision3 and a regulation4 establishing the first-ever EU global human rights sanctions regime. This is a milestone achievement. It allows targeting individuals, entities and bodies – including state and nonstate actors – responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide. The restrictive measures provide for travel bans for individuals and the freezing of the assets of individuals and entities.
The 22nd EU-NGO Human Rights Forum, held in Brussels on 9-10 December 2020, focused on the impact of new technologies on human rights. This is one of the new Action Plan’s key strands of action and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the relevance of digital technologies in managing the opportunities and risks for human rights both online and offline.
Implementing the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy is more important than ever. The urgency to address the COVID-19 crisis opens up new opportunities to strengthen EU leadership and global collective action. Human rights and democracy are, and should continue to be, at the centre of EU external relations, from Russia and Turkey to Colombia and Hong Kong. EU delegations on the ground are on the frontline of this work and the EU Special Representative for Human Rights will guide the implementation of the new EU Action Plan.