On 24-25 February 2019, the first ever EU-LAS Summit took place in Egypt focusing on the mutual consent of both the European Union and the League of Arab States to formalise a common ground of discussion on various shared issues. The meeting was purposely organised in one of the most criticised and unstable countries in the Maghreb and Middle East Area, a political move with the clear intention to generate a boosting process of re-evaluation and amelioration between its natural borders. The conference hosted by President el-Sissi can be objectively defined as a political success for further and future improved talks. As a matter of fact, as stated in the final Declaration (Article 17), the next Summit is scheduled for 2022 in Brussels. However, no possible space was given to human rights issues in the agenda. A saddening news, especially in relation to the official statements of President el-Sissi at the news conference.
“You are not going to teach us about humanity. We have our own sense of humanity, values and ethics, and you have your own idea of humanity and ethics, and we respect it. Respect our values and ethics, as we do yours.” These harsh words show how human rights issues can still be traced as an Achilles’ heel for Gulf and Maghreb political actors. No concerns about human rights in Egypt, or any of the other 48 countries, were raised publicly in Sharm el-Sheikh, even amid an unprecedented crackdown on dissent and a recent spike in executions. The numbers do not lie. At least 15 people have been put to death this year and many more still suffer from ill-treatments, illegal detentions and a widespread absence of any form of rightful freedom. No Summit official statement referred to a general appeal for human rights to be respected. Nevertheless, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker denied any critic by highlighting that the issue was raised behind closed doors in bilateral meetings between leaders. He did not name any country.
President Donald Tusk was the first European representant to introduce the EU perspective. By thanking President el-Sissi for the warm hospitality he addressed the importance of such gathering as the first cooperative ground and acknowledgement of common and possible partnerships in trade, political, and migration issues. As referred on the previous paragraph, no attention was driven to human rights matters. “With neighbours there are two ways of existence: cooperation or conflict. We choose cooperation”, stated President Tusk. However, it seems that the human rights pillar has no active role on such cooperative mood. Instead, investments, trade agreements and labour reforms were the only important topics. The creation of a common migrating policy was also underlined by President Tusk. As he stated “I want to acknowledge and salute all those here who have shouldered the burden of population displacement, helped refugees and acted early to tackle people smuggling. We must work together – countries of origin, transit and destination. In order to break the business model of smugglers and traffickers who lure people into dangerous journeys and feed modern-day slavery.”
President Jean-Claude Juncker intervened with a speech focusing on the secular cultural, sociological and economical ties in-between the European continent and the Mediterranean scale area. He stated that considered the various and historical differences, which in certain cases are evident, Europe and Middle East are built together. He continued by praising the revolutionary step of the meeting by underlining it as a political palliative for the most urgent international situation. President Juncker did not mention human rights issues, but he decided to focus on the economic reforms and measures. He stated: “Parce que le commerce, parce que les investissements, ça veut dire plus d’emplois et plus de croissance pour tous” (“Because commerce and investments mean more employment and more self-belief for everybody”).
The only mention of human rights is reported on the remarks made by VP/HR Federica Mogherini who attended the Summit but did not take part in the round of discussion. As a reply to a question on how raising the human rights issue could affect the cooperation, the VP/HR replied: “We constantly and consistently raise the issues related to human rights with all our partners in the world, no matter how far or how close to us they are, no matter how big or small. The European Union is a consistent champion of human rights everywhere […] A very important part of our work on human rights is the concrete support we give to human rights defenders, NGOs, civil society activists, who are always very important partners for the European Union. […] Our partners know where we stand, and we are always very clear with them.”
The EU-LAS Summit ended with the signing of a common Declaration, divided into seventeen different statements. We mention here the most important remarks through the human rights lens. Article 2,3 and 4 focus entirely on trade, investments, security, socio-economic development and conflict resolution with the peculiar interest on the Syrian, Libyan and Yemenite cases. Article 5 and 6 concern the possible strategies to reduce unemployment and to find proper regional tools to resolve conflict crises, in accordance with international and humanitarian law, in order to achieve peace and prosperity “that the peoples of the region need and deserve”. Concerning the Yemenite case, Article 11 welcomes the Stockholm agreement, especially the ceasefire on Hodeiah. However, Article 12 and 14 deal with one of the most sensitive field of international politics: terrorism and countermeasures, two major topics that are usually waved by LAS national governments as major justifications for illegal imprisonments and red notices.
The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) welcomes the EU-LAS Summit as a powerful tool to future cooperation in-between the two different organisations. We are really saddened to hear that the human rights issues have been completely bypassed by concerned authorities, particularly given its experimental nature. The unnoticed matter has deeply troubled the operative work of our group and the one of other NGOs, a major downgrading attitude overshadowed by high politics interests.