Publication Date: May 2019
Research and Editorial Team: Council of the European Union
EU Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World 2018

In 2018, the EU remained at the forefront of the protection and promotion of human rights by committing to the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2015-2019). The EU's worldwide engagement creates global resonance on the issue, strengthening the awareness that a multilateral response is needed and leading the way for positive change.

The report is divided into thematic issues, using country-specific examples.

  • The EU Special representative (EUSR) for Human Rights: Stavros Lambrinidis continued his work to increase the effectiveness, cohesion, and visibility of human rights in EU foreign policy through cross-regional alliances; this work culminated in the launch at the UNGA high-level week of the "Good Human Rights Stories Initiative".
  • EU work at multilateral level: the EU remained a leader in the universal promotion and protection of human rights at multilateral level, working at the UN HRC and at the Third Committee of the UNGA, and supporting the CoE, the OSCE, and the ILO.
  • Democratic Governance: the EU supported representative and participatory democracy, political pluralism, transparency, and the accountability of institutions through political dialogues, partnership with regional and international organisations, and cooperation programmes; furthermore, in contrast to the growing threats to democracy, the EU focused on developing effective ways to address negative trends such as shrinking democratic space, including for civil society, disinformation campaigns, attempts to undermine electoral integrity, the abuse of big data, and decreasing trust in democratic institutions.
  • Enabling space for civil society: in 2018, a number of important developments occurred. The EU addressed through public or non-public communication the limitation of space for civil society and attempts to hinder its work, the inclusion of civic and democratic space as a component of Human Rights and Democracy Country Strategies (HRDCS), the development of new civil society, and changes to funding mechanisms.
  • Human Rights Defenders: the EU committed to supporting the implementation of the EU Guidelines on HRDs, who have been increasingly harassed, detained, and even killed.
  • Freedom of expression and media freedom: the 2018 World Press Freedom Index states that media freedom is threatened worldwide and that Europe faced the worst drop between 2017 and 2018. The EU fostered the implementation of the EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline.
  • Freedom of religion or belief: the promotion and protection of FoRB remained a key priority in the EU's external human rights policy.
  • Torture and ill-treatment: the EU intensified its work against torture and ill-treatment in line with the Guidelines on EU Policy towards third countries on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Death penalty: the EU continued to voice its strong opposition to the death penalty, which it considers to be a cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment violating the right to life, while not deterring crime more effectively than imprisonment.
  • Equality and anti-discrimination: the EU committed to supporting gender equality, the rights of the child, of the youth, of older persons, of LGBTI persons, of persons with disabilities, of indigenous people, of minorities, and to fight racism, xenophobia, and intolerance.
  • Economic, social, and cultural rights: using policy dialogues, engagement in multilateral fora, trade policy, and development cooperation, the EU committed to fostering a comprehensive agenda to promote ESCR.
  • Business and Human Rights: it called on States and business enterprises to comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (based on three pillars: “the State duty to protect”, “the corporate responsibility to respect”, and “access to remedy”).
  • The EU Human Rights approach to conflicts and crises: the EU promoted the integration of Human Rights in conflict prevention, crisis management, and transitional justice; it provided political support to the ICC and remained engaged in the promotion of respect for International Humanitarian Law. The EU also issued a call “to strengthen the capacity to prevent and respond effectively to radicalisation and terrorism, in full respect of fundamental rights”.
  • Human Rights throughout key EU external policies: it continued to protect the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It used trade policy and development cooperation to promote and protect human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in third countries.
  • EU instruments: the EU adopted 11 sets of Human Rights Guidelines and prepared Human Rights and Democracy Country Strategies; it also established Human rights dialogues with an increasing number of countries. Finally, for the 2018-2020 period, the Commission adopted new strategic priorities for EIDHR, a unique financing instrument for the promotion of and support for democracy and human rights worldwide.


According to the 2018 World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters without Borders, the trend is a decline in press freedom worldwide, with Europe being the safest region but witnessing the worst drop. Thus, the EU continued to commit to the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy and to the EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline. In line with Junker’s statement, according to which Europe must always be a place where freedom of the press is sacred, the Commission assessed freedom of expression as part of the enlargement package and provided financial support to protect and promote it. 

In particular, the EU issued declarations opposing limits to freedom of expression, calling states to reinforce preventive measures and to align their legislation with the relevant international conventions. Also, the EEAS set up task forces to address communication challenges (in the Eastern Partnership, the MENA region, and the Western Balkans), with the aim to support a better media environment, address disinformation, and develop campaigns on explaining EU policies. Additionally, the EU provides financial support for projects and activities on the field, through funding mechanisms and programmes such as the “”, “Media4Democracy”, the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance in the Western Balkans, and other bilateral cooperation envelopes.

Acknowledging that media freedom and pluralism are under threat also within Europe, the Commission continued to fund projects both in member states and in candidate countries, including the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (which provides legal assistance to journalists under threat), the Index on Censorship, which created the “Mapping Media Freedom”, the International Press Institute, and the Media Pluralism Monitor. The EU also works on improving and implementing new laws and directives to guarantee the protection of personal data as well as of freedom of expression and for whistle-blowers. In particular, in May the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) became applicable, obliging EU Member States to reconcile the right to the protection of personal data with the right to freedom of expression and information. Also, the 2018 evaluation of the implementation of the ‘Code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online’ showed considerable progress.

Finally, the Commission addressed the problem of online disinformation, outlining a number of actions to counter its spread proposing, for example, a self-regulatory Code of Practice on Disinformation for online platforms and the advertising sector.

Tags: Human rights European Court of Human Rights Media freedom Freedom of expression Media ownership EU Member States

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