The EU’s external relations with third countries have always offered excellent object lessons with respect to the omnipresent tension between the promotion of the EU’s essential moral values and the political and economic interests of its Member States.
Most recent evidence to this effect can be found in the 2897th External Relations meeting of the Council of the European Union held 13 October in Luxemburg. There, the Council of the European Union decided to partially lift the sanctions against Belarus and Uzbekistan, i.e. countries that have a notorious record in terms of human rights and democracy.
Belarus and Uzbekistan have been subject to so-called “smart sanctions” laid down in a number of Common Positions of the Council of the European Union in the context of the Common Foreign and Security Pillar of the EU (the basic documents are Common Positions 2006/276/CFSP and 2006/362/CFSP for Belarus and Common Position 2005/792/CFSP for Uzbekistan). These measures aim directly at the persons which are deemed to be responsible for the perpetration of the relevant international standards. The Common Positions oblige Member States to prevent the entry to or the transit through the EU territory of these individuals. Furthermore, in the case of Belarus the Common Positions provides also for a freezing of their funds and economic resources. As far as Uzbekistan is concerned an additional arms embargo is applicable. The travel ban covering Uzbek officials has, however, be suspended since 2007 in order to “encourage” the national authorities to improve the situation in the countries and in order to take into account the positive measures taken so far (see Common Positions 2007/734/CFSP and 2008/348/CFSP).
The Council Conclusions of 13 October further loosen the sanctions in place. As regards Belarus, the travel ban is suspended for six months except for the measures against the officials involved in the disappearances from 1999 and 2000 and the President of the Central Electoral Commission. The freezing of the officials’ funds and economic resources remains in force. With respect to Uzbekistan the travel ban – that has already been suspended – is lifted. The loosening of the sanctions does, however, not affect the arms embargo against Uzbekistan which remains applicable.
The loosening of the sanctions seems doubtful for a number of reasons. The positive development which the Council invokes in order to justify the loosening of the sanctions against Belarus is negligible. Although Belarus had allowed OSCE spectators to the elections in September and did apparently not prevent the opposition from demonstrating in the evening before the election, the elections fell again short of any international election standards (for the highly critical evaluation of the elections by the OSCE after the elections see here). Similarly, the appalling human rights situation in Uzbekistan and the continuing unwillingness of the authorities to cooperate with most of the relevant international organizations and NGOs makes it difficult to see any objective reason for the partial withdrawal of the sanctions. Indeed, Human Rights Watch had explicitly called on the Council of the European Union not to loosen the sanctions in place against the regime (see here for the press release).
It seems therefore that the promotion of human rights and a credible democratic environment can hardly justify the partial lifting of the sanctions. Rather, the political considerations and indeed the business interests Member States have in the two countries seem decisive in that respect (EUobserver has a quite revealing analysis of the Member States’ interests in Belarus and Uzbekistan).
All in all, the decisions taken on 13 October appear to be another disturbing example where the promotion of human rights lost out against (so-called) “hard” political considerations. It remains to be seen whether the current trend to loosen EU sanctions against countries violating human rights will also affect the EU’s trade sanctions against Belarus. This concerns in particular Belarus’ trade preferences which were withdrawn in 2007 on account of the country’s disquieting trade union rights record in accordance with the findings of an ILO Commission of Inquiry (see EC Regulation 1933/2006). In any case, the recent developments call for a more serious approach to the sanctions taken in the name of human rights and show the ever greater need for consistency of those sanctions with the findings of the relevant international organizations.