The Vigilant Role of the European Parliament in Safeguarding Human Rights

22 February 2024 /

1 min

For the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a colloquium was held in the European Parliament. (Picture by EP/Alain ROLLAND)

The European Union stands as a beacon of human rights commitment and protection, yet it faces scrutiny as the gap widens between its noble declarations and the practical implementation of policies.

Over the years, the EU has made significant strides in codifying and defending fundamental values, exemplified by milestones such as the adoption of the Common Declaration on Fundamental Rights in 1977 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. However, challenges persist, particularly in addressing pressing issues like the migration crisis and economic inequalities within its borders.

The European Union, renowned for its commitment to human rights and the protection of the most vulnerable, faces criticism amid the growing gap between its noble commitments and the practical reality of its policies. Despite being an entity that advocates for social justice and equity, the EU finds itself at a crossroads to demonstrate the effectiveness of its actions in protecting people most in need.

The year 1977 marked a fundamental milestone with the adoption of the Common Declaration on Fundamental Rights by the European Parliament, the European Council, and the European Commission. This declaration laid the groundwork for the continuous commitment of EU institutions to safeguarding fundamental rights. In 1979, the European Parliament endorsed the accession of the member states to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), underscoring its strong stance in favour of  improving international standards. To clarify, the ECHR was signed in 1950 as an international treaty by the 47 countries that formed the Council of Europe. The ECHR further led to the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights. 

In the draft Treaty establishing the EU in 1984, the Parliament reflected a clear commitment to the protection of individual dignity and the recognition of fundamental rights and freedoms. The culmination of these efforts materialised in the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, which granted the EU its own Charter of Fundamental Rights in a legally binding manner.

While the EU has established solid legal frameworks and policies in theory, the gap between commitments on paper and their effective implementation has raised concerns. The lack of coherence between statements of principles and the tangible application of policies has raised concerns about the true priority of the EU in addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged groups.

This has manifested itself in the migratory crisis, which has been a critical point of tensions and challenges for the European Union regarding the respect of human rights. Although principles of solidarity and reception have been proclaimed, the response from certain member states has been insufficient and even detrimental. The lack of a unified strategy and the prevalence of national interests have weakened efforts to address the urgent needs of refugees and asylum seekers.

Furthermore, the EU faces the challenge of tackling the economic and social inequalities that persist and even grow within its territory. Despite development and cohesion programs, the gaps between member states and within them remain significant. The absence of effective measures to address these disparities undermines the EU’s efforts to ensure an adequate standard of living for all its citizens. The exacerbation of social and economic inequalities ultimately leads to an unequal enjoyment of rights within the Union.


Since 1993, the Parliament has conducted annual assessments on the situation of fundamental rights in the EU. These assessments, based on reports from the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, demonstrate a consistent commitment to monitoring and improving the protection of human rights.

To reiterate, the EU is founded on the fundamental values set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). These values include the respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

If we have a look at Article 7 of the TEU, it establishes a mechanism to address serious and persistent violations of these values by a member state. This mechanism was recently activated for the first time in relation to Poland and Hungary. Additionally, the Union is committed to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and has sought to accede to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). 

Concerns about the gradual erosion of the provisions of Article 2 TEU in some Member States have led the Parliament to propose concrete measures to strengthen the protection of fundamental rights, democracy, and the rule of law. The establishment of the “Copenhagen Commission” as well as the “Cycle on European Policy on Fundamental Rights,” and the proposal for an annual Union mechanism for democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights highlight the Parliament’s determination to address existing gaps.

Thus, the European Parliament plays a fundamental role in protecting and promoting human rights in the European Union, underscoring its continued commitment over the decades. Since its early joint actions in 1977, Parliament has worked closely with the Council and the Commission to strengthen respect for and protection of fundamental rights. The adoption of the Common Declaration on Fundamental Rights in 1977 and the resolution in favour of the accession of the member states to the ECHR in 1979 illustrate this early commitment.

The European Parliament has further been consistently advocating for the need for its own declaration of rights as well as for the binding nature of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This objective was achieved in 2009 with the Lisbon Treaty, a significant accomplishment supported by the Parliament.

A historic resolution in 2016 reflects the consolidation of previous proposals, calling for the creation of a Union mechanism for democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights. This proposed mechanism would involve an annual political cycle, a report from the Commission and experts, a parliamentary debate, and provisions to address risks or infringements. This again highlights the European Parliament’s key role in protecting human rights in the European Union, from formulating principles and declarations to proposing concrete mechanisms and procedures to ensure the respect and promotion of fundamental values.

To bridge the gap between commitments and practice, the EU must adopt a more proactive and coordinated approach. This involves coordination and solidarity, where member states must work jointly, overcoming national interests to effectively address common challenges, especially in crisis situations such as migration. And for this, the European Parliament stands at the epicentre of the EU’s efforts to protect human rights. From its pioneering actions in the 1970s to more recent proposals to strengthen monitoring mechanisms, Parliament has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to defending fundamental values. On Wednesday 29th November 2023, as a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a colloquium was held in the European Parliament, highlighting the institution’s intention to reaffirm and strengthen human rights. In times where the protection of human rights is crucial, the EU and its Parliament continue to be a beacon of hope and an example of concrete action on the international stage.

(Edited by Luka Krauss)

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