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Human rights

Human rights

Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights – these values are embedded in the EU treaties. Now they have been reinforced by the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

EU countries and prospective EU members must respect human rights.

Drawing of balanced scales with half-globes containing people on either side

Human rights are universal.

Through its human rights policy the EU

  • defends civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights
  • seeks to promote the rights of women, children, minorities, and displaced persons
  • opposes the death penalty, torture, human trafficking and discrimination
  • demonstrates its commitment to defending the universal and indivisible nature of human rights by working in full and active partnership with partner countries, international organisations, regional organisations and groups and associations at all levels of society.
Keywords associated with human rights, such as ‘universality’ and ‘justice’

Human rights mean many things to many people.

Human rights don't discriminate

The 2012 strategic framework and action plan on human rights and democracy is designed to improve the effectiveness and consistency of EU human rights policy as a whole. In 2012, the EU appointed its first ever EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis. His role is to make EU external human rights policy more effective and bring it to public attention.

Three children holding hands

Children need special protection.

Protecting fundamental rights at home

In the EU, fundamental rights are guaranteed nationally by the constitutions of individual countries and at EU level by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (adopted in 2000 and binding on EU countries since 2009). After they have been through the national courts, individuals may, as a last resort, bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights.

All EU institutions – the Commission, Parliament and Council – have a role to play in protecting human rights. They are backed up by the Fundamental Rights Agency, which identifies and analyses major trends in this field.

The Charter embodies in a single instrument the fundamental rights that are binding upon the EU institutions and bodies. It also applies to national governments when they are implementing EU law.

Promoting human rights worldwide

Children sitting on in the ground in front of an NGO vehicle

The EU works to alleviate poverty and prevent conflicts.

Human rights work is an essential part of alleviating poverty and preventing and resolving conflicts. This is why human rights are at the very heart of EU relations with other countries and regions.

All agreements on trade or cooperation with non-EU countries include a human rights clause stipulating that human rights are central to relations with the EU. There are now over 120 such agreements. The EU has imposed sanctions for human rights breaches on countries including Belarus and Iran.

The EU also pursues human rights dialogues with over 40 countries and organisations, including Russia, China and the African Union. Its Annual Report appraises its human rights work worldwide.

Through the European instrument for democracy and human rights, the EU supports groups and associations or individuals that defend human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law. This instrument has a budget of €1.3 billion for 2014-2020.




Justice, citizenship, fundamental rights

Manuscript updated in November 2014

This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series



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