A Renewed EU Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood or More of the Same?

In Opinion Articles by CIHRS

Nadège Lahmar
a French-Tunisian researcher covering the Maghreb region at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

Maha Abdallah
a Palestinian human rights advocate and an International Advocacy Officer at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

In February 2021, the EU adopted A New Agenda for the Mediterranean”, which claims to present a renewed and mutually-beneficial partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood. The agenda is centred around economic-investments and concerned with five key policy areas: human development, good governance and the rule of law; digital transition; peace and security; migration and mobility; and green transition.

While the new agenda aims to support human rights, including freedom of expression, the rule of law and good governance; to empower young people, civil society and human rights defenders in the region, it remains to be seen whether the EU is able and willing to apply these commitments in its cooperation and relationships with its southern neighbourhood, in a manner that reflects the peoples’ aspirations and meets their needs. This is all the more doubtful that the new agenda does not address the devastating impact of European externalisation policies, but only reaffirms the European New Pact on migration and asylum as a problematic framework of action.

Absent Legitimacy correlates with Restrictions on Free Speech

Although the situations vary from one country to another, governments have used similar strategies to suppress and silence opposition and critical voices in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Common tools used to repress freedom of expression across the region have ranged between censorship and control of the internet, to the harassment, arrest, prosecution, torture, and killing of activists, human rights defenders and journalists. Women human rights defenders and activists in the region face compounded repression and attacks.

Under the pretext of “countering terrorism”, the prosecution of human rights defenders, journalists, and peaceful activists has become a recurring practice, as well as their arbitrary detention, ill- treatment and torture, physical attacks and killings, among others, to restrict their freedom of expression, association and assembly. States such as Morocco have also used questionable sexual assault accusations to discredit and imprison journalists.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on freedom of expression have surged in many parts of the region (and the world), as governments, such as Jordan and Algeria, have exploited the health emergency to justify the censorship of media and the silencing of dissent, including through the passing and/or expansion of laws criminalizing misinformation and others restricting access to information, as well as the detention of journalists and activists. In fact, 2020 saw an upsurge in internet censorship and the violation of digital privacy.

In occupied Palestine, through its settler-colonial project, administered through a system of oppression, persecution, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, Israel has heightened its systemic attacks and institutionalized smear campaigns against Palestinian human rights defenders, activists and civil society, to prevent them from exposing Israel’s violations against the Palestinian people – and curtail efforts seeking accountability. This is exemplified in Israel’s repressive campaign against Palestinians since April 2020, including through the use of excessive and lethal force against protestors, mass arrests, torture and ill-treatment, and other forms of punitive measures and collective punishment. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has restricted and

censored freedom of expression and the press, including through laws, criminalizing activists, human rights defenders and journalists. The Palestinian Authority’s security apparatuses have faciliated this by carrying out home raids, arbitrary arrests and attacks, as evident in the recent killing of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat.

Horrific EU-sponsored Entrapment of Migrants and Refugees

A “return mania” has characterised EU states and institutions’ approach to migration in the Euromediterranean region, leading to gross violations of human rights, unmeasurable loss of life and human suffering. The EU’s migration policies have contributed to the erosion of fundamental principles such as the right to life and remain indefensible. Member States and institutions such as Frontex have cooperated with MENA countries to stop departures and ensure that people are disembarked away from European shores, even if it means trapping them in unsafe countries.

This externalisation strategy has been designed to allow the EU and Member States to circumvent their responsibility under international and European laws, in order to keep at bay those deemed “undesirable”. This situation is perfectly illustrated in Libya, where the EU-sponsored entrapment of migrants continues to subject migrants to horrific abuses, in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called a “lethal disregard for desperate people”.

In a context where state-affiliated armed groups dominate all institutions, the EU and Member States have maintained material and financial support to Libyan authorities despite strong allegations of involvement in gross human rights violations such as human trafficking, torture, forced labour and sexual abuse. In doing so, the EU is participating in illegal pushbacks of migrants to abuses they seek to escape while misusing its own funds. This situation is compounded by reports of migrants knowingly left to die, starving or drowning, and NGO search and rescue operations being hampered and criminalized.

Making Human Rights a reality in the EU’s Agenda for the Southern Neighbourhood

Given the deteriorating state of play for fundamental freedoms in the region and the increasingly restrictive and dehumanizing migration policies enabled or enacted by the EU, the EU’s new agenda is likely to remain abstract, with little genuine efforts to allow for the necessary structural change in the region and the pursuit of rights, freedoms and dignity for all.

In order to have a horizontal partnership, without depriving MENA citizens of their agency or unfairly exonerating governments, the EU should assess and recognize how it has itself contributed to the deterioration of human rights in the region.

Authoritarian and colonial powers that are curtailing freedoms and rights in the region rely on critical political, financial and military support from the EU and Member States. The “strengthened Mediterranean partnership” will ring hollow if the EU does not acknowledge the many ways in which it has enabled relentless state-sponsored violence in the region.

For example, the EU has provided surveillance tools and legal assistance to governments to outsource migration control, which are also used to deny fundamental freedoms. Implementing

the EU’s new agenda would require the European Commission to urgently enact strict due diligence and risk assessment procedures and to ensure transparency, parliamentary scrutiny and public oversight over the newly-centralised Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument, and to focus resources on actors and institutions protecting rights and freedoms.

In order to effectively renew its partnership with its Southern Neighbourhood, the EU must invest political capital to protect fundamental freedoms, not as a footnote but as an essential condition of cooperation with MENA governments. The Renewed Partnership’s “people-centred agenda” requires that the EU actively supports local changemakers, human rights defenders and prioritises local populations’ demands. This means exerting critical pressure to protect freedom of association and expression, as well as more assertive support for grassroots movements, such as the Algerian Hirak. While the renewed agenda does mention the “Arab Spring”, the EU in the past ten years has largely disregarded the reasons behind and the meaning of these uprisings, favouring the status quo over uncertain institutional changes.

In order to advance a truly “new, ambitious and innovative agenda for the Mediterranean”, the EU must also acknowledge the detrimental impact of stability and sec urity-focused policies for MENA citizens and for the EU’s own objectives with regards to resilience, security, economic development, and the threat it represents for European strategic interests.

While the EU recognises that democracy and human rights constitute the bedrock for stable, fair, inclusive and prosperous societies, it has so far only selectively applied these commitments. The EU and Member States’ unwillingness to uphold international law and human rights cannot be more stark than in Palestine, as illustrated by the ever-expanding support to Israeli apartheid and to a hollow Palestinian State that the EU itself refuses to recognize. The EU has become a complicit sponsor of colonialism, persecution, apartheid and authoritarianism against the Palestinian people.

At the same time, the EU continues to ignore the link between irregular migration and repression in Algeria, while Morocco’s recent weaponisation of migrants has only illustrated that the EU has alarmingly submitted to authoritarian countries. The EU must address the tragedy it has created in the Mediterranean through its obsession with reducing migration flows at any cost – fed by systematic racism, islamophobia and xenophobia. The commitment to “realising the untapped potential” of the region will remain meaningless without a drastic overhaul of its externalisation policies, which does not yet appear to be on the agenda of the EU, based on recent European Council conclusions on Turkey or media reports about the use of the problematic European Peace Facility in Libya.

This article was originally published in Spanish on esglobal

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