EU accused of “maladministration” over trade deal

The EU Commission is accused of maladministration for failing to address human rights

The EU Commission is accused of maladministration for failing to address human rights

The European Ombudsman has accused the EU Commission of maladministration for its failure to undertake a human rights impact assessment over its free trade agreement with Vietnam.

Emily O’Reilly told the Sub-Committee on Human Rights that the Commission’s refusal to carry out the audit went against the spirit of articles in the Lisbon Treaty.

Human rights groups welcomed her finding saying it set an important precedent that should be used to press for stronger human rights guarantees before the FTA is ratified.

Negotiations for the Vietnam-EU free trade agreement were concluded last December. The agreement still needs to be signed by the EU Council and ratified by the EU parliament.

“While the Commission may not have been legally obliged to conduct a prior human rights impact assessment, its decision not to do so reflected a failure to act in a manner consistent with the highest values and principles on which the EU is based. This, to me, was maladministration,” said Ms O’Reilly in her presentation.


Emily O'Reilly said the EU commission rejected her recommendation on human rights

Emily O’Reilly said the EU commission rejected her recommendation on human rights

She said the Commission was fully aware of continuing human rights violations in Vietnam but had taken the view that these could be addressed after the trade agreement was signed and in other contexts.

She conducted her inquiry following complaints from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR).

Rejected by Commission

Ms O’Reilly said that she and the European Parliament had both requested that a human rights assessment be carried out last year, before the conclusion of negotiations for the FTA. She said the recommendation had been rejected by the Commission.

“I take the fairly simple view that this is a question best asked before, rather than after, any trade agreement is concluded. A prior human rights impact assessment is a critical preventative tool; it is designed to anticipate and avoid any negative consequences of a proposed agreement. The alternative is to identify problems after an agreement has been concluded and then try to fix those problems…I am not at all convinced that this is an acceptable approach,” she said.

She concluded that the Commission’s argument that human rights issues could and would be addressed in a range of other contexts and forums was not convincing.

“I pointed out that the Commission is well aware of the specific human rights situation in Vietnam and, in this context, of the importance of assessing the impact of the Free Trade Agreement on human rights. Furthermore, I was aware that the Commission already has a thorough knowledge of how this tool – the human rights impact assessment – operates and of its usefulness,” she said.

Concrete step

Human rights groups say the Ombudsman’s conclusions will strengthen their case when the free trade agreement goes to the European Parliament for ratification.

“The Ombudsman’s decision is a concrete step in the right direction to ensure the EU complies with human rights in its trade and investment policies. It must be considered and supported by MEPs,” said Karim Lahidji, FIDH President.

Human rights groups in Vietnam say that the government appeared to moderate its legal crackdown on dissidents during its trade negotiations last year with the EU and the United States. However, they say that, if anything, the climate has become more oppressive, with an increase in physical attacks and harassment of government critics.

“The Ombudsman’s decision sets an important precedent, and the European Parliament should use it to press for stronger human rights guarantees before signing the FTA with Vietnam,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

“The EU should make the Human Rights Impact Assessment an obligatory prerequisite to all trade and investment agreements, to ensure that countries seeking commercial relations with the EU cannot benefit from preferential trade or investment relations on the back of violations of their people’s rights” he said.