Human Rights Govern the EU–GCC Relations

It is true that international relations are mainly governed by interests, whereby many countries in the world tend to sacrifice human rights, and ignore human rights violations when these contradict their interests. Hence, economic interests are no longer an absolute determiner of relations between countries. Due to the active work of international human rights organizations and an increased awareness of human rights principles, human rights have become another determiner of relations between countries. The issue has gradually taken its place next to economic interests and sometimes it has even become more influential. This is reflected in the amount of pressure, which some countries are under, whether from local civil society or international human rights organizations.

All the countries in the world, and especially the Gulf States, must have noticed that the issue of human rights has moved from the margin to the centre of relations between countries. However, some countries resist human rights becoming a core issue in international relations, including not only totalitarian countries, but also some Western ones, who do not wish to give human rights more importance than economic interests. However, international human rights standards have forced these countries to restructure their relations with countries that might have previously been regarded as friends or allies.

The issue of human rights has become part of the laws that organise relations between countries in some Western countries. For example, out of all six GCC states, the U.S. signed the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) only with Bahrain. The reason for this is the refusal of these states to link economic relations with human rights, in addition to lacking the suitable human rights foundation. The Agreement with Bahrain was approved after a close study by the U.S. Congress where several things were checked including: the existence of trade unions and an elected legislative authority, the existence of transparency and freedom of expression, respect of human rights in general, developed laws and legislation system.

The EU also wants to sign the FTA, but the meetings that took place in recent years with all GCC states did not yield anything. The reason is the refusal of some Gulf States to include human rights standards as an integral part of the agreement. The countries of the EU insist that their laws do not allow them to develop free trade in areas where a suitable human rights’ ground does not exist. This is in addition to increasing pressure by local and international human rights organizations to guarantee that human rights principles are included as an essential part of their trade and economic relations, as well as political and security ones.

The last ministerial meetings between the EU and the GCC took place last June. The EU guaranteed that the subject of respecting human rights would be part of the Agreement. The FIDH welcomed this move in a statement issued in Brussels on 11 June 2010, and pointed to the European Parliament’s decision in April 2008, which stressed on including human rights articles in any free trade agreement signed by the EU.

The GCC countries made a minor concession in April 2009, when they reaffirmed that they share the universal values of respecting human rights and democratic principles, which are an essential part of their relations. They also reiterated their continued commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and other fundamental freedoms. This compromise was not enough and was just words and ink on paper. The FIDH remains concerned about the general pattern of human rights violations in the GCC countries, for very few steps have been taken by the authorities in the GCC countries to improve the enjoyment of human rights on their territory.

The FIDH urged both the GCC and EU to give specific attention to the following priorities: adopting concrete measures to protect the rights of migrant workers and women’s rights, taking effective measures to improve the enjoyment of freedom of association and establishing societies, developing the situation of human rights defenders, guaranteeing freedom of expression, taking effective measures to guarantee non-discrimination on religious or sectarian basis.

In summary, it is difficult for the GCC countries as well as the other countries to avoid their commitments regarding human rights. It is best for them to reform themselves instead of allowing others to impose reforms on them, or put themselves in an embarrassing situation. Perhaps, human rights could be used as an excuse for interference in their internal affairs.