Protection and promotion of human rights

In 2000, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council proclaimed the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This document set out the fundamental rights and freedoms recognised by the European Union. 

With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, the rights, freedoms and principles detailed in the charter became legally binding on the EU and on member states when implementing EU law.

The Treaty also calls for the European Union to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Treaty of Lisbon sets out the obligation:

  • to respect fundamental rights within the European Union
  • to advance and consolidate human rights in EU external action

The Council makes sure that fundamental rights are taken into account when developing EU legislation and action. It also works on the promotion of human rights in relations with non-EU countries and international institutions, as well as in the negotiation of international agreements.

Human rights inside the EU

The protection of  fundamental rights is a horizontal issue, which affects all fields of EU activity. This means they must be taken into consideration by all Council bodies in their work, irrespective of their level or the topics they cover.

In addition to this, there is a specialised body dealing with all issues related directly to fundamental rights:  the Working Party on Fundamental Rights, Citizens' Rights and Free Movement of Persons (FREMP).

Some of the main areas of Council action on fundamental rights include:

  • the implementation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
  • the EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights

Implementation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights

Data protection reform

Protection of personal data is a fundamental right under EU law. In April 2016 the Council and the European Parliament adopted a legislative package to reform and modernise protection of personal data.

Where necessary, the EU adopts legislation to ensure the protection of the rights defined in the charter. This includes issues such as the right to a fair trial and the protection of personal data.

In addition, in 2011 the Council adopted conclusions defining its role in ensuring the effective implementation of the EU charter. These conclusions define the need for Council action in several areas, including on three main points outlined below:

1. Commission annual report on the application of the charter

Every spring the Commission submits an annual report on the application of the charter. This report gives the Council an opportunity to hold its own annual debate on the charter.

Following an exchange of views, the Council adopts conclusions on the Commission report

In 2017, these conclusions focused on several issues, including asylum and migration, rights of the child, racism and xenophobia, and violence against women.

2. Cooperation with the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights

The Council maintains close cooperation with the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. This includes:

  • adopting the legal basis and multiannual framework of the agency
  • ensuring follow-up to the agency's annual report and other studies and reports relevant to the Council's work

In 2016, the follow up to this annual report was included as part of the Council conclusions on the application of the charter in 2015.

3. Fundamental rights in the legislative procedure

All Council preparatory bodies need to ensure that fundamental rights are respected within the texts they discuss. In order to make this easier, the FREMP working party, together with the Council's legal service, drew up a series of guidelines on checking fundamental rights compatibility. These guidelines were last updated in 2014.

EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention of Human Rights, adopted in 1950, has been ratified by the 47 Council of Europe member countries. All 28 EU member states are parties to the convention. 

To ensure that the EU and EU law are subject to the same standards as member states, the Treaty of Lisbon sets out the obligation for the European Union to accede to the convention.

The accession would complete the protection of fundamental rights of EU citizens and would strengthen fundamental values. It would also improve the effectiveness of EU law and enhance the consistency of fundamental rights protection in Europe.

On 18 December 2014, the Court of Justice of the EU gave a negative opinion on the compatibility of the draft agreement with the EU treaties. Under discussion is a new solution which makes it possible to fulfil the treaty obligation of accession and takes into account all aspects mentioned by the Court in its opinion.

Human rights outside the EU

Respect for human rights is a fundamental part of all EU relations with non-EU countries and international institutions.

For example, all treaties and agreements signed by the EU need to be compliant with human rights as defined by the EU charter. This means that all Council bodies dealing with foreign affairs need to incorporate human rights into their work.

In addition to this, the promotion of human rights is also a priority in itself. The guiding reference for the EU's work in this area is the action plan on human rights and democracy, adopted in July 2015 for the period 2015-2019.

On 16 October 2017, the Council adopted conclusions on the mid-term review of the action plan on human rights and democracy

At the Council, a specialised body, the Working Party on Human Rights (COHOM), focuses on international affairs directly related to human rights. 

Some of the main aspects of Council work on fundamental rights include:

  • setting EU priorities at UN human rights fora
  • the adoption of thematic guidelines to support EU external action
  • the opening of dialogues with non-EU countries on human rights
  • the adoption of an annual report on human rights and democracy

Setting EU priorities at UN fora

The Council also agrees on the EU priorities at the UN General Assembly.

On 17 July 2017 the Council adopted the EU priorities for the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly, including several points on human rights.

The Council is in charge of defining the strategic priorities for the European Union at UN human rights fora. To this end, it adopts conclusions once a year setting the main lines of action for the EU in the coming months. Some of the points identified for 2017 were:

  • promoting a safe and enabling environment for human rights NGOs and human rights defenders
  • ensuring that full attention is focused on the dire human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria
  • highlighting the serious human rights violations linked to the conflict in eastern Ukraine
  • speaking out against executions and for the abolition of the death penalty
  • standing firm on the absolute prohibition of torture in all circumstances
  • condemning the abuses of human rights perpetrated by terrorist groups against women and children, including by Da'esh and Boko Haram
  • promoting freedom of religion or belief and the principles of equality and non-discrimination
  • protecting the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and all displaced persons

Adoption of thematic guidelines

The Council also draws up and adopts thematic guidelines. These guidelines support EU external action and provide EU officials with practical information on how to help promote specific rights.

Opening of human rights dialogues

The European Union, through its External Action Service, holds regular dialogues with non-EU countries on human rights. Each dialogue is established in accordance with the EU guidelines on human rights dialogues, adopted by the Council in 2001 and last updated in 2008. 

According to these guidelines, any decision to initiate a dialogue first requires an assessment of the human rights situation in the country concerned. This assessment is done by the the Working Party on Human Rights, in coordination with other relevant working parties. 

After the definition of the goals to be achieved and a series of exploratory talks with the country, a final decision on the opening of the dialogue is taken by the Council, through the adoption of conclusions.

Reporting: human rights and democracy

All the EU's work and achievements in the advancement of human rights through its external action are detailed in the report on human rights and democracy, which is adopted by the Council once a year.

On 16 October 2017, the Council adopted its annual report on human rights and democracy in the world (2016):