Von der Leyen’s human rights hypocrisy

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In the United Arab Emirates, she made no public reference to dozens of jailed activists, missing another golden opportunity to champion human rights ahead of the COP 28 U.N. Climate Change Conference. And during her G20 trip to India, where civil and political rights have sharply deteriorated under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, human rights was seemingly not a topic of discussion.

Furthermore, even though von der Leyen had previously warned of the Chinese government “becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad,” this didn’t come up during her December visit. She didn’t publicly speak about how Beijing’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and grave human rights violations elsewhere could impact the EU’s relations with China.

And now the Commission leader appears ready to double down on a renewed partnership with the Egyptian government — another grave rights violator — with no indication that she wants to even try to use EU leverage to secure genuine human rights progress.

Migrants from Africa, stranded on the seashore at the Libyan-Tunisian border in Ras Jedir | Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images

Finally, since Oct. 7, von der Leyen’s response to the escalation of hostilities in Gaza and Israel has prompted even more questions. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks by Hamas and other armed groups on southern Israel, the Commission chief rightly condemned Hamas’ unlawful killing of civilians and hostage taking. But for weeks after the start of Israel’s military operations in Gaza — which have been marred by war crimes, including a blockade of humanitarian aid — she referred only to the fact that Israel has the right to defend itself, without ever mentioning obligations to respect international humanitarian law.

It took thousands more Palestinian deaths and intense criticism before von der Leyen called on Israel to respect the laws of war. And even then, she has persisted in avoiding pointing out Israeli authorities’ responsibility for mass civilian deaths in Gaza and potential violations of international law.

Von der Leyen’s record isn’t altogether bleak. She did prioritize new EU legislations on human rights and environmental due diligence for companies, and on banning the import of goods made through forced labor — both are still under negotiation. And she took a strong stand in favor of justice and accountability for the crimes that Russian forces committed in Ukraine — though she has refrained from doing the same for victims in Israel and Palestine.



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