The European Union “persistently failed” to act on its human rights commitments in 2023, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

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The watchdog’s latest annual report lists “repressive” migration policies, discrimination against marginalised communities and democratic backsliding by certain member states as some of the EU’s human rights shortcomings in 2023.

The bloc is also denounced for its “double standards” on foreign policy, as it endorses accountability for war crimes in Ukraine whilst shying away from similar efforts in Gaza. Such contradictions mar the EU’s “standing as a principled global actor,” the report says.

The highly-valued publication provides a barometer of respect for human rights across the world.

Human Rights Watch’s EU Advocacy Director Phillippe Dam pinned personal responsibility for the EU’s underperformance on human rights on Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“The EU is increasingly parking human rights to a lower level of engagement, or is, in fact, de-prioritising it,” Dam told Euronews.

“And of course, von der Leyen has a responsibility. Her contribution to the EU-Tunisia deal really puts human rights aside, but also in other international engagements, be it with the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, or the conflict in Israel and Gaza.”

“We really hope that in the months left for this Commission, there will be efforts to put human rights back at the centre again.”

Euronews contacted the European Commission for comment, but they did not immediately respond.

EU reputation dragged down by ‘double standards’

Respect for human rights is one of the EU’s founding values. But the report denounces the current EU executive for prioritising trade, economic and political ties at the expense of human rights, and for failing to exert sufficient diplomatic pressure on states in the Persian Gulf, China and India to tackle abuses.

“The rest of the world sees this discrepancy, and it makes the EU perceived not as a principal international actor,” Dam explained, “but it also makes the EU less effective and less impactful in the world because human rights violators see that reality and they feel that they can also blackmail the EU in return.”

The report lists other glaring shortcomings in the bloc’s foreign policy efforts, such as its failed attempts at mediating the long-standing dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Baku’s military takeover of the region in September led to the forced displacement of its ethnic Armenian population.

Sudan, where a bloody civil war broke out last April, has also been neglected by the EU in 2023, the report says.

The New York-based watchdog has also consistently criticised the EU’s inaction on the hostilities in Israel and Gaza, which it says has exposed “biases and divisions” between European countries.

“The EU was right to strongly condemn the heinous attacks and the killings of hundreds of civilians in Israel by Hamas and other armed groups in October,” Dam said.

“But after three months of bloodshed in Gaza, it’s really shocking to us not to hear the European Union call for accountability for the investigation of the International Criminal Court,” he added.

It comes as a high-stakes lawsuit filed by South Africa kicks off Thursday at the Hague-based International Court of Justice, which will see Israel contest allegations of genocide. EU nations have so far refrained from expressing support for the case.

Migration policy under fire

Human Rights Watch also says the EU’s migration policies have contributed to “death, torture and abuse” in 2023, as the death toll of those trying to reach EU territory by sea reached more than 2,500.

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The bloc’s controversial deal with Tunisia to curb the number of migrants embarking on the dangerous route to Europe across the Mediterranean is lambasted as a “failed approach.” The agreement was signed last July with Tunisia’s President Saied, despite widely-documented evidence of his authorities’ abusive treatment of sub-Saharan migrants, including illegal pushbacks, racial hatred and human rights violations.

Dam told Euronews he fears mainstream political parties’ divisive rhetoric on migration could fuel polarisation ahead of the upcoming European elections.

“Mainstream political parties do not have the courage to tell their voters that there are ways to have migration policies that respect the human rights of migrants (…) to regain control and borders while at the same time protecting the rights of asylum and ensuring accountability when migrants’ rights are under attack.” he explained.

Migration is set to be a defining issue in the electoral campaign before Europeans head to the polls in June.

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