In 2021, in a context characterised by a prevailing global pandemic and a sustained trend of rising authoritarianism, the EU stepped up its work to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the world and strengthened its tools.
On the eve of the Human Rights Day on 10 December 2021, the EU launched the Global Europe Human Rights and Democracy programme1 . This programme worth EUR 1.5 billion, which President von der Leyen announced at the US Summit for Democracy, replaces the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) and increases EU support in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law and the work of civil society organisations (CSOs) and human rights defenders worldwide in the period 2021–2027. 2021 marked the first year of implementation of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024)2 , which recommitted the EU and its Member States to use the full range of instruments for the protection and promotion of human rights and democracy in all areas of external action and highlighted the link between human rights and the environment, climate change, and the impact of digital technologies.
This annual report on human rights and democracy monitors the implementation of the EU Action Plan by presenting the progress achieved to date. EU delegations are on the frontline of this work and the EU Special Representative for Human Rights will continue to guide the implementation of the EU Action Plan.
One landmark achievement is the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime (EUGHRSR)3 . In 2021, the EU adopted restrictive measures targeting persons and entities from China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea and Russia, involved in serious human rights violations and abuses. The EU imposed sanctions in the case of Alexei Navalny’s arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as sanctions against the Wagner group and its members. In December, the Council adopted a decision prolonging for one year the existing sanctions.
Throughout the year, the EU took the lead in UN human rights fora on initiatives aimed at addressing human rights violations and abuses in Afghanistan, Belarus, Burundi, DPRK, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Myanmar. The first EU strategic dialogue with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in October 2021 was an opportunity to share updates on global human rights issues, to discuss priorities and to build a stronger partnership for more effective multilateralism and rules-based international cooperation. As a staunch advocate of multilateralism, the EU also remains vigilant in the defence and advancement of universal human rights and the integrity and functionality of the global human rights system.
Pursuing its political priority towards achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, the EU reinforced its ambition through the implementation of the EU Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in the EU External Action 2021-2025 (GAP III) 4. The EU remained committed to preventing and combatting all forms of gender-based violence and engaged as an Action Coalition leader in the Generation Equality Forum, as well as in the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies.
In 2021, the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child5 was also adopted. It was developed with contributions from over 10,000 children and proposed new actions to support children and contribute to the protection and promotion of their rights.
In 2021, the EU further expanded its concrete support to civil society organisations and human rights defenders, especially environmental, land and indigenous peoples’ rights defenders, women human rights defenders and labour rights defenders, who remained under severe pressure around the world. The 23rd EU-NGO Human Rights Forum6 organised on 7-8 December 2021 focused on ‘Rebuilding better: a human-rights based recovery from the pandemic’. The EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism ProtectDefenders.eu (EUR 35 million for 2015-2022) has supported nearly 53,000 human rights defenders at risk and their families since its launch in 2015.
In a global context of democratic backsliding, supporting democratic electoral processes remained a cornerstone of EU engagement worldwide. Despite the restrictions linked to the pandemic and political and security circumstances, in the second half of 2021 the EU successfully deployed Election Observation Missions to Zambia, Kosovo*7 , Iraq, Venezuela, Honduras, and The Gambia.
The ongoing global health crisis has further deepened pre-existing inequalities and demonstrated that human rights and democracy must be continuously defended. In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected persons in vulnerable situations such as women and children, persons with disabilities and older persons, human rights defenders and journalists, LGBTI persons, indigenous peoples and persons belonging to minorities, refugees and migrants, among others. The EU aims to seize this moment by placing human rights and democracy at the heart of the recovery effort. Finding an effective global response requires upholding the universality and indivisibility of human rights, exercising vigilance against any attempt to undermine international commitments, and strengthening accountability for human rights violations and abuses.