A Human Rights Agenda for France
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13 min read

A Human Rights Agenda for France

As he enters his second term, French President Emmanuel Macron and the French government should ensure that human rights are central to all their policies, both at home and abroad.
A Human Rights Agenda for France

Human Rights Watch recommends 14 human rights priorities for the French president and government in this agenda. In France, the Covid-19 crisis exacerbated socio-economic vulnerabilities, despite governmental support and safeguard measures. More people experienced food insecurity during the pandemic and sought food aid. Youth unemployment and food insecurity among young people increased. Parts of France that already experienced high economic inequality were also affected particularly badly by Covid-19 deaths. As of April, vaccination rates were lower among people living in poverty. Although vaccinations are available to all, health care facilities may not be equally accessible to the most marginalized populations, and they may not have equal access to information about vaccines or health care more generally. At the global level, vaccine access has been deeply inequitable, primarily due to limits on production reinforced by rules that hamper sharing intellectual property and technology for these vaccines and other Covid-19 treatments and testing. This has disproportionately increased the risk of Covid-19 transmission, sickness, and death in low- and middle-income countries. Less than 18 percent of people in low-income countries have received a vaccine. Opaque vaccine procurement contracts with companies have undermined transparency and accountability in public procurement. Unfortunately, the limited deal negotiated at the June 2022 WTO ministerial conference won’t help address these issues.

The world will remember France, as a part of the European Union, as among those blocking a more comprehensive waiver during a devastating health crisis. Inequitable access to Covid-19 health technologies also allows greater possibility for the emergence of variants and strains. It also prolongs the pandemic and may extend the need for stringent measures such as lockdowns, which restrict rights and freedoms and can undermine the safety of some at-risk people such as domestic violence survivors. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: Since 2015, France has spent more than 35 months under a state of emergency, first on security grounds and then in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Under a state of emergency, the executive branch has exceptional powers and can impose temporary restrictions on several fundamental rights and freedoms. Measures such as curfews, administrative closures of associations and places of worship, restrictions on movement and holding protests, and surveillance restrict the rights to freedom of assembly and of association, and interfere with the right to privacy. While restrictions such as these can sometimes be justified, including on public health grounds, they should be non-discriminatory, necessary and proportionate to the legitimate public interest threat, limited in duration, and subject to review. In some instances, exceptional measures introduced in France during a state of emergency have later been incorporated into ordinary law, which extends their application beyond the emergency for which they were considered necessary. For example, French authorities used powers initially introduced under a state of emergency to dissolve a leading anti-discrimination organization, alleging among other things that its descriptions of certain counterterrorism measures as Islamophobic incited hatred. Human rights organizations and other international bodies have documented and criticized excessive use of force by police during protests, harming protesters and threatening the right to protest. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: Ethnic profiling during police checks, affecting Black and Arab youth in particular, continues to be a pervasive problem in France, even though the Constitutional Council (Conseil Constitutionnel), France’s highest constitutional authority, has confirmed that identity checks must be “based exclusively on criteria that exclude discrimination of any kind.” Successive governments have failed to address this widespread, systemic discrimination targeting Black and Arab youth and have allowed this abusive and illegal practice to persist, which deeply harms not only the affected people, but also relations between the police and the population. Faced with the inaction of the French authorities, a group of non-governmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, in January 2021 initiated an unprecedented legal case against the government that seeks to end these abusive practices. Beyond ethnic profiling, discrimination by state agencies more widely, including in education, access to housing and employment, affects Muslims, Roma, and migrants, as well as people who are Black and of Arab descent. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: Across Europe, several countries are engaged in violent pushbacks of migrants at borders and support externalizing migration controls to countries with less capacity and oversight. This puts at risk internationally protected rights, such as everyone’s right to leave their country, the right to seek asylum from persecution, and the right not to be returned to a place where one's life or security would be threatened. Human rights groups have also documented French authorities subjecting migrants to degrading treatment, including police harassment, restrictions on access to humanitarian assistance, summary rejection of unaccompanied children at the French-Italian border, and denial of access for unaccompanied children on French territory to protection and essential services. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: Recorded sexual violence increased dramatically in France, and France’s femicide rate is among the highest in Europe. The Covid-19 crisis has had a disproportionate impact on female employment, leading more women than men to reduce their working hours or leave their jobs, largely due to increased caregiving responsibilities. Women are also overrepresented in high-risk jobs responding to the pandemic, particularly at lower levels, where risks of infection are highest. Covid-related lockdowns created particular risks for domestic abuse survivors, and reports of domestic violence increased significantly during lockdown periods. In October 2021, France’s parliament adopted a bill to enable France to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Violence and Harassment at Work Convention (C190) but France has yet to do so. Moreover, France has not undertaken any legislative reform to ensure that the convention and its recommendations are effectively incorporated into French law. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: For more than three years, an estimated 400 French citizens, including about 200 French children and their mothers, have been arbitrarily detained in camps and prisons for suspected members of the Islamic State (ISIS) and their families in northeast Syria.

They are held in life-threatening, deeply degrading, and often inhumane conditions, with no ability to challenge the legality and necessity of their detention. Detained children are deprived of their basic rights including the rights to life, protection, health and education. To date, France has only repatriated 35 children (the last ones in January 2021) and no adults.

The humanitarian and security conditions in the two locked camps holding women and children continue to deteriorate. Hundreds of detainees in the larger camp, al-Hol, have already died in the past three years, at least half of them children, according to the UN. Causes include lack of medical care, unsanitary conditions, accidents such as tent fires, and dramatically rising insecurity, including targeted killings by ISIS and sexual assaults, including of children. Conditions are even worse in the overcrowded prisons holding thousands of male ISIS suspects including an estimated 60 Frenchmen and 850 boys from dozens of countries. ISIS assaulted the largest of these prisons in January, leading to a deadly, 10-day battle and hundreds of deaths of prisoners and local armed forces.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, UN human rights experts, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as France’s National Human Rights Commission (CNCDH) and defender of rights have called for the repatriation of children and their mothers.

The Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria who are detaining the French and other foreigners have repeatedly urged home countries to repatriate their nationals. In a February 23 decision, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found that France had violated the right to life of French children held in these camps, their right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and their best interests.

The arbitrary detention of children also violates international principles for children associated with armed groups, who are to be viewed primarily as victims. UN Security Council Resolution 2396 of 2017, which is binding on all member states, emphasizes the importance of assisting women as well as children associated with groups such as ISIS who may themselves be victims of terrorism. Governments that substantively contribute to their citizens’ abusive detention may be complicit in their unlawful detention and collective punishment. By abandoning their nationals in northeast Syria, countries such as France have only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis and security risks. Moreover, by allowing their nationals to be indefinitely detained in northeast Syria with no due process, France and other home countries are contributing to impunity for any ISIS crimes committed by adult detainees, while collectively punishing their children. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: Global warming presents the greatest global threat to enjoyment of human rights. France has made a commitment to reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2030. While efforts have been made to reduce emissions, past progress has been too slow, revealing an urgent need for more ambitious measures to ensure that France meets its target. France positively advanced plans to end international public finance for fossil fuels. But other financial support and subsidies for fossil fuels remain. In fact, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, France has given more financial support to fossil fuels that are driving the climate crisis and threatening rights than to clean energy. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: The European Union (EU) is at a critical moment when it comes to upholding its values. Several political leaders of member countries increasingly challenge the values on which the EU is founded.

They try to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law with laws targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, women’s rights, independence of the judiciary, media freedom, and human rights defenders.

The EU has mechanisms to hold states accountable for failure to respect its values, including through sanctions and conditioning EU funds on reforms. Human Rights Watch and many other nongovernmental and international organizations have documented unlawful pushbacks, sometimes accompanied by violence, of migrants and asylum seekers at various external borders of the EU, including by Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Spain, and more recently, Poland. European institutions have repeatedly failed to address these serious violations. More than 23,300 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 trying to reach Europe.

The EU does not operate a dedicated search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean and nongovernmental organizations filling the gap face delays and obstruction. EU member states and agencies such as the border agency, Frontex, provide material and financial support to the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea and take them back to abusive, arbitrary detention in Libya. The European Commission proposed that EU member states should establish independent border monitoring mechanisms that could investigate allegations of fundamental rights violations at borders.

There are increasing calls for accountability for deaths at sea and for ending cooperation with Libya that facilitates abuse against migrants. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a member of the UN Human Rights Council, France has a critical role to play in defending rights globally. In line with its international commitments, France should take a leadership role and initiate coordinated actions in multilateral forums on specific country situations. Such situations include countries facing atrocity-filled armed conflicts, including Ukraine, Yemen, countries in the Sahel region, Central African Republic, and Cameroon; China, where authorities are committing crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang; Myanmar, where the military has committed crimes against humanity both before and since the 2021 coup; Afghanistan, where the worst women's and girls' rights crisis in the world is unfolding; Israel-Palestine, where Israeli authorities are perpetrating the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians; Ethiopia, where authorities have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against Tigrayans in Western Tigray; and situations of widespread violations in Russia, Egypt, Lebanon, and others that require strong international responses. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: In a context of overt contempt for human rights and checks on their power on the part of governments in many regions of the world, France should make human rights a priority of its bilateral relations with other countries. Failing to mention substantial rights abuses and weak adherence to the rule of law when discussing French relations with partner countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and others, weakens France’s credibility when promoting human rights on the world stage. Strong diplomatic statements, delivered publicly and privately when serious human rights violations occur, can push states to end these abuses, hold perpetrators accountable while ensuring justice for victims, and enact the reforms necessary to stop systemic abuses. France should use its leverage and condition its support to concrete human rights progress with governments responsible for serious violations. France also has an important role to play in the European Union's foreign policy.

The EU’s response to human rights violations worldwide has highlighted major double standards, as individual member states often block a principled response due to their own specific interests and bilateral relations with certain abusive governments. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: French armed forces are deployed in many regions around the world, including the Sahel, Iraq, Eastern Europe and Lebanon. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: France's biggest arms export clients over the past decade include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), all of which are responsible for serious human rights violations at home, and some of which are accused of war crimes and unlawful attacks in the Yemeni conflict. French arms exports are marked by opacity and lack of democratic control. For years, nongovernmental organizations and others have been pressing the French authorities to reinforce transparency and parliamentary control over France’s arms sales. Since 2013, France has participated in international talks at the United Nations on concerns raised by autonomous weapons systems particularly those that would select and engage targets without meaningful human control.

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas has disastrous consequences for the protection of civilians. People in affected areas are at grave risk of death and serious injury, while damage to and destruction of housing and essential infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, power networks, and water and sanitation systems, causes yet more harm and has long-lasting consequences for communities and their well-being. Over the past decade, 90 percent of victims of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: France is a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), an institution essential to ensure that victims of the worst international crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity have access to justice. At a time of multiplying human rights crises, the need for accountability and justice has never been greater. France has been at the forefront of discussion around cooperation with the court, and it is important for France, together with other ICC member countries, to ensure that the court gets the political, financial, and practical support it needs to realize its crucial mandate, while respecting and safeguarding the court’s independence. Under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, French judicial officials can investigate and prosecute the most serious crimes under international law even if they were not committed on French territory, or by or against a French citizen. But French law includes restrictions that limit the application of universal jurisdiction and raise concerns that France could become a haven for alleged perpetrators of atrocities. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government: Corporations should respect human rights and the environment not just in their own operations but also in their global supply chains. In 2017, France was the first country to adopt the path-breaking duty of vigilance law introducing civil liability for corporations for human rights abuses in their global supply chains. But enforcing it has not been a strong enough priority. The government provides little support to civil society organizations providing legal assistance to victims of corporate abuses. Efforts to develop EU-wide legislation for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence have long been under way. In February 2022, the European Commission published a draft proposal on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence. This proposed legislation is crucial to create a level-playing field among corporations operating within the EU.

The Commission’s February 2022 proposal fell far short of the blueprint recommended by the European Parliament in the resolution it adopted in March 2021.

The draft proposal has a number of shortcomings as explained by Human Rights Watch and the European Coalition for Corporate Justice. Recommendations to the President of the Republic and his government:.

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