European Union

Human rights

Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights – these values are embedded in the EU treaties. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is a clear and strong statement of EU citizens' rights.

Protecting fundamental rights within 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). All EU institutions – the Commission, Parliament and Council – have a role to play in protecting human rights. The Charter:

  • lays down the fundamental rights that are binding upon the EU institutions and bodies.
  • applies to national governments when they are implementing EU law.

Individuals seeking redress must go through the courts in their own country. As a last resort, they can apply to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The Charter is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which has been ratified by all EU countries.

The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) identifies and analyses major trends in this field.

Promoting human rights worldwide

The 2012 strategic framework on human rights and democracy PDF is designed to make EU human rights policy more effective and consistent. The Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2015-2020) provides an agreed basis for a truly collective effort by both EU countries and the EU institutions. In 2012, the EU appointed its first ever EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Mr Stavros Lambrinidis. His role is to make EU policy on human rights in non-EU countries more effective and to bring it to public attention.

The European Union is based on a strong commitment to promoting and protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law worldwide. Human rights are at the very heart of EU relations with other countries and regions. Promoting human rights work can help to prevent and resolve conflicts and, ultimately, to alleviate poverty.

EU policy includes:

  • working to promote the rights of women, children, minorities and displaced persons
  • opposing the death penalty, torture, human trafficking and discrimination
  • defending civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights
  • defending the universal and indivisible nature of human rights through full and active partnership with partner countries, international and regional organisations, and groups and associations at all levels of society.

All agreements on trade or cooperation with non-EU countries (over 120 now) include a human rights clause stipulating that human rights are central to relations with the EU. The EU has imposed sanctions for human rights breaches in a number of instances. 

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

Through the European instrument for democracy and human rights (EIDHR), 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 bn for 2014-2020.


Factsheet published in July 2016

This publication is part of the 'THE EU AND' series

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