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Like the United Nations and the United States, the European Union has maintained its relationship with Middle East countries for years since its formation. This is necessitated by a number of issues, including finding a peaceful solution in Israeli-Arab war, economic development and promotion of democracy among others. These efforts have are through its commitment to signed treaties, support of those who preach peace in the region and criticism of those who do not obey the rule of law.
Although there is a lot to be done in finding peace in the Middle East, analysts observe that EU’s role remains significant in establishing stronger international ties with Arab countries and the entire Middle East (Gad 1). In the understanding of this relationship, it is further important to focus on the concept of human rights and its influence or role in the EU-Middle East relationship. This research paper explores the role played by human rights in the European Union’s relations with the Middle East.
EU-Middle East Relationship
As mentioned above, the relationship between the Europe Union and the Middle East has been founded on several grounds. Some scholars have linked the interest of the European Union with the oil resources in the region for the purpose of allowing economic ties between the two regions. Although the United States has always dominated in Middle East affairs, EU’s role cannot be under estimated (Gad 1). More so, it is yet to engage in high profile issues of politics as it has been with other players fighting to either develop a relationship with the region or dominate in its day to day activities.
Importantly, EU’s interest in the Middle East has not started in the 21st century. European countries under the European Community demonstrated their commitment in the peace process in early 1990s. This was officially started by the Madrid Peace Conference that was held in October, 1991. As the association headed to becoming European Union, it clearly demonstrated its reluctance in involvement in political matters of the region (Gad 2).
As a result, Europe distanced itself from discussions which surrounded Arab Lands, the root cause of conflict and continuous fighting in the Middle East. Instead, it surfaced during the signing of the peace agreement that was organized by the United States after a deal was reached between Israel and Arab parties through bilateral negotiations. This was further witnessed in Oslo in 1994 during the signing of the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement. As a way of showing its steady commitment to realizing peace in the Middle East, the EU offered technical and economical support to the peace process even though its member states did not engage in any direct bilateral procedures that led to the signing of the peace treaties (Gad 2).
On the other hand, the European Union remained on the fore front in various multilateral talks, hosting meetings that discussed five major issues, which were affecting the region. These issues included arms control, water, economic corporation, the environment and refugees (Seeberg 292). Although these efforts resulted into good outcomes and hope for the region, the Arab parties that were involved did not view EU’s involvement positively.
These parties believed that the move was aimed at achieving normalcy without addressing the Arab boycott of Israel. As a result, Arabs have only linked success of the process with direct bilateral talks addressing Israel’s occupation of what has always been referred to as “Arab lands”. Others have viewed EU’s approach as a way of undermining negotiations by not giving it a first priority (Seeberg 292).
Another reason why Middle East countries have not cooperated with the European Union in finding a lasting solution is the belief that its close ties with the United States and Israel could be used to play a political role during bilateral negotiations. However, this has not been the case as the EU has remained focused in supporting peace efforts, leaving the supervision of the entire process to the U.S. Regardless of this position with the Middle East, EU has not remained silent in matters affecting the region. It has participated in various forums in finding peace, promoting democracy and protection of human rights (Seeberg 292).
Role of Human Rights
In its involvement in the affairs of the Middle East and maintaining a stable relationship between the two regions, the EU has continuously supported the need to have to have peace through a wide range of ways. For instance, it considered having a special envoy for the Middle East, commitment to the European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan and through several civil society programmes (Gad 1). Not to mention that the EU is the leading aid offer in autonomous areas of Palestine.
Based on the involvement of EU in the Middle East, it is important to appreciate the role of human roles in the existing relationship between the two regions. This is evident through the manner in which EU responds to human rights-related issues in the region and its efforts to have an environment in which all human rights are honored. Human rights have defined the kind of relationship and basis of EU’s intervention in moments of war or actions which undermine the fundamental human rights of people from the region.
EU and Azerbaijan
The relationship between the European Union and Azerbaijan dates back in the year 1999 after the signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. The initial focus of the relationship was based on basic assistance which amounted to 400 million Euros by 2004 (Boonstra 5). This basic package offered to Azerbaijan included food aid and rehabilitation and humanitarian programmes that were important in promoting human rights.
However, its efforts to support human rights issues during the period were limited and got involved through restructuring of Azerbaijan institutions for better functioning. Additionally, agreements with other organizations in the country were signed between the European Commission and the International Labor Organization and OSCE (Boonstra 5). Moreover, some member states including Germany, UK and Sweden offered assistance and showed serious concerns over the violation of people’s human rights after flawed elections that were held in the country.
In order to strengthen its support for human rights in Azerbaijan, EU went ahead to appoint a special representative in Southern Caucasus. The representative was to help the countries to solve frozen conflicts and assisted to implement reforms in the rule of law, human rights, democratization, poverty reduction and development. In the year 2007, EU expressed its dissatisfaction with limited media freedom and harassment of journalists which was a direct way of undermining the rights of people (Boonstra 5). The European Commission also established contacts with the civil society and officials from political parties to oversee implementation of an action plan.
Several developments however followed, which supported the functioning of the Europe House in dealing with human rights issues in the region. An action plan was proposed to offer training that would strengthen democracy through fair and transparent electoral process as defined by internal requirements (Boonstra 6). Secondly, the EC training was to focus on total protection of human rights in the region and the overall rule of law, complying with Azerbaijan’s international commitment. It can therefore be noted that throughout its interaction with Azerbaijan, human rights have taken center stage with most of its programmes and foundation of its association being determined by protection of human rights (Boonstra 6).
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Besides having established a relationship with the Middle East in early 90s, the EU has maintained its commitment towards protection of human rights even in the 21st century. With the uprisings witnessed in most Arab countries, EU strengthened its objective by gathering support for the protection of human rights in all affected countries. The European Council on Foreign Relations has closely worked with FRIDE in strengthening its force to defend democracy and human rights in its entire neighborhood (Boonstra 1). Several instruments were identified through survey as important for the EU together with the operation of the European Neighborhood Policy.
Iran is a major player in the Middle East with its advancement in nuclear weapons having placed it at odds with most European Union countries and the United States. Being an oil-rich country, several states and unions have considered strengthening their relationships for economic gains. This has not been the case for EU as it has focused on protection of human rights in recent years. During the summit meeting held on 10 October 2011 in Luxembourg, the EU expressed its concern over the deteriorating situation of human rights and restated the EU’s measures against those who were behind a series of activities seen to be undermining the rights of millions of Iranians (European Union 1).
This led to the release of a list of twenty nine people considered to be key players in the violations of human rights and were threatened to have their assets frozen and receive travel bans from Europe and other destinations around the world. It follows that human rights have led to EU and Iran to focus their relationship towards protection of people’s rights and ensuring that the country does not violate any of the fundamental human rights (European Union 1).
The EU alarm towards the human rights situation in Iran was summarized in five points, considered to be important in protecting human rights. First, it noted the rise in execution of minors with majority being held publicly using inhumane methods. The EU also took the opportunity to call on Iran to abolish death penalty as it was undermining the rights of many (European Union 1).
Secondly, Iran’s oppressive approach towards human rights activists, journalists and lawyers caught the attention of the EU, which argued that the affected people were being harassed and arrested for expressing their lawful rights. It therefore appealed for immediate and unconditional release of arrested people with strong condemnation of cruelty and inhuman treatment of its citizens.
EU also raised its voice on limited freedom of speech and movement and demanded the release of opposition leaders. Above all, it called on Iran to respect its obligation towards international human rights and promote human rights and fundamental rights of Iranians. This concern was followed by a commitment by the EU to continue monitoring the situation, extend the measures that had been adopted in April 2011 and continue speaking for the voiceless Iranians (European Union 1). Despite this situation, the EU further expressed its willingness to discuss violation of human rights with Iranian authorities.
Like in other Middle East countries, human rights remain the focus of the relationship between the EU and Syria. As an advocate of peace, democracy and human rights, EU has expressed its dissatisfaction with human rights violations across the country. The Council of the European Union reinforced EU measures against Syria to have its leadership respect the rule of law and the fundamental human rights. EU has gone ahead to freeze assets belonging to some of the perpetrators of violence and supporters of oppression in the country (Mann, Kocijancic and Brabant 1). The same sentiments have been put against several Middle East countries like Bahrain, which continue to experience massive violation of human rights supported by respective leaders.
Based on the above analysis, it is clear that the European Union has maintained its relationship with the Middle East for various reasons. Having kept a low profile in most Middle East political issues, EU remains committed to ensuring a peaceful region that respects the rule of law and human rights. Importantly, the role of human rights in these ties has promoted the push for democracy in Middle East and the protection of its people from leaders who have no recognition for human rights and fundamental rights upon which each everybody is entitled to. Although the EU may be having other interests within Middle East, its recent approach has mainly focused on ending widespread violation of human rights.
Boonstra, Jos. “How serious is the EU about supporting democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan?” FRIDE, 2008. Web.
European Union. “Iran: EU reinforces restrictive measures due to serious human rights violations.” Europa-Eu-UN Articles, 2011. Web.
Gad, Emad. “The EU and the Middle East: An Egyptian view.” Acquisition Central, 2003. Web.
Mann, Michael., Kocijancic Maja, and Brabant Sebastien. “Statement by EU High Representative on the publication of the report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.” European Union, 2011. Web.
Seeberg, Peter. “Union for the Mediterranean; Pragmatic Multilateralism and the Depoliticization of EU-Middle Eastern Relations.” Middle East Critique 19.3 (2010): 287–302. Print.