How the EU is failing to stand to its principles in matters of human rights

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These days I am wondering where the European Union, EU is. It is not that there is a lack of news on the news. Leaders from member states are gathering in Brussels for the European Summit, the key decision making body within the bloc. The European Central Bank’s inauguration of its massive new headquarters in Frankfurt provoked protests and turmoil in the streets when thousands of Europeans gathered to protest the austerity policies of the Union but still you do find almost nothing in terms of a united response of the bloc of the ongoing diplomatic row between Sweden, a member of the EU, and Saudi Arabia. The spat has turned so nasty that Saudi Arabia has stopped issuing business visas to Swedish business people while Sweden, a major arms exporter, cancelled a very lucrative defense deal with Saudi Arabia that retaliated with the recall of the ambassador to Sweden. The United Arab Emirates, in solidarity with its big brother, also withdrew its top diplomat from Stockholm.

How did all this mess start? In February the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom delivered a speech to the Swedish Parliament denouncing in very clear terms  human rights abuses, with a clear reference to the status of women in the Saudi Kingdom, creating an outpouring by defining the nation as a dictatorship. The occasion was the flogging of a Saudi blogger Raif Badawi for expressing his political views on the current status of the country. While the flogging had hit the global headlines, few media outlets covered the following spat between Wallstrom and the Saudis.

You might be wondering if it is a big deal criticizing Saudi Arabia for its abysmal status of human rights. It shouldn’t as it is commonly known by everybody that the country enforces a very strict reading of Islam that curtails basic freedoms and human rights together with an absolutistic political system.

The problem is that the Saudis are key strategic allies of all western countries, a key pivot against the perceived threats of the region. Saudi Arabia is also a pillar in the region’s geopolitics as a regional power able to stand against Iran.

To be fair the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has embarked upon a gradual reform path during the rule of the late King Abdullah but still women, for example, are not able to drive alone. The male guardianship system is still strong not allowing women to exercise their basic freedom of movement without a male guardian.

I believe it is important to acknowledge the complexities of the issues at play when religion’s factors interplays with deep cultural and societal beliefs that underpin the entire political system. Nevertheless with thousands of young Saudis receiving free scholarships to study in the west, change, albeit slow, is inevitable. It might take one or two more generations but a new era of freedom and human rights will prevail not only in Saudi Arabia but in the whole Gulf region.

Now the question is the role of western democracies in facilitating or accelerating this change.  Outspoken approaches like the ones taken by Sweden clearly backfired.

It is true that you never read on the news about the role of “back doors”, invisible diplomacy as recently explained by Hillary Clinton who during her time as Secretary of State, strongly raised her concerns on particular cases of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia without making her statements public. I am wondering how effective this approach can be. Clinton surely managed to solve few gross cases of human rights abuses but what about the rest, what is the norm?

Out of one case of freedom infringement hitting the news, there are thousands of violations happening on a daily basis.

Therefore I believe that Sweden’s approach in particular cases like the flogging of  Raif Badawi is the correct and important one because it is a welcome break to the usual usual double standard approach of the Western Countries in matters of human rights.

Both the United States and EU attach high value to the human rights agenda worldwide. Every year the State Department through its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor publishes the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. (Here is the executive summary of Saudi Arabia’s

Reading the report, you understand that the situation is evolving, change is occurring but overall standards are by far below the global benchmarks.

The EU also publishes an Annual Report on Human Rights Its delegation in Riyadh has been promoting a human rights agenda even awarding a local foundation, linked to the Government as there is no freedom of association in the country, with an award for the promotion of women’ human rights.

Is the glass half full or half empty? It depends on how you see the things.

If you start reading all formal declarations, policies and reports about the commitment of the EU towards the issue of human rights, well, certainly not.

For example:

There is even a Special Representative of EU on human rights that nobody really knows. (

The “policy” or declaration approach to Human Rights, the one we just saw, has huge limitations. Sometimes the Hillary Clinton way of doing is what is needed and it can work. Westerners cannot over preach to the Saudis on everything.

We also know that in the West human rights abuses do happen. At the same time if you look at the situation on the ground, the approach used by the Swedish Foreign Minister is what is needed.

This same week, Wallstrom was supposed to deliver a speech on women rights at a gathering hosted by the Arab League in Cairo but she was kindly informed that her speech was cancelled. A spokesperson of Mogherini, the EU Top Diplomat, said that the EU will try to mediate in the crisis.

Apart from this, you won’t find any formal statement or declaration in support of Wallstrom at the European level. The EU is foremost a community of values, all anchored on key principles of freedom, democracy and respect of human rights. I was hoping for some short and generic form of condemnation of what happened but nothing.

Sweden, while firm on its principles, is now trying to reach a reconciliation with Saudi Arabia ( The EU should do more to stand by Sweden and bridge the gaps with Saudi Arabia.

It is true that each circumstance and situation should be interpreted and analyzed for what it is and must be dealt with on a case by case approach.

Certain messages can be conveyed behind the cameras but others need to be made public and must be read out loud and clear. The way Sweden stood to by its principles is remarkable.

Mogherini recently addressed the EU Parliament saying “We must place individual & human rights at the center of EU external relations".

Really? Back to my initial question, where is the EU?





Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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