In pursuit of peace: How can the EU defend human rights and humanitarian law in armed conflict?

New research has proposed a set of practical measures for how the EU can take action to protect and promote human rights and humanitarian law during armed conflict in non-member states. Also included in the recommendations are tools for raising awareness of human rights and humanitarian law violations, and ways to encourage non-member states to adhere to international human rights and humanitarian law instruments.

Bringing together eight partners from the UK, France, Belgium, Spain and Romania, the ATLAS research project investigated how effectively the existing EU guidelines1 on defending human rights in non-member states can be applied to the diverse and increasingly hostile nature of modern armed conflict. Additionally, the key message of the ATLAS research is that the EU should ensure that it leads by example at all times, by maintaining best practice standards, particularly when engaged in activities on foreign territory.

Drawing on a detailed analysis of post-conflict situations in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia and Kosovo), Haiti and Sierra Leone, the researchers proposed a set of 23 recommendations outlining the role that the EU can play in future conflicts, and drafted a Code of Conduct for European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) personnel.

Summary of primary recommendations:

  • All commanders of military operations on foreign soil should include a thorough report on the IHL status, highlighting violations by third nation forces and potential EU courses of action against them.
  • To designate a human rights advisor for each conflict, who is responsible for overseeing the safeguarding of women against violence, rape, forced pregnancy and other atrocities, and for the special protection of child soldiers.
  • To demonstrate a commitment to outlining the ‘rules of engagement’ for EU troops in order to avoid situations of legal uncertainty of foreign intervention.
  • To promote rapid access to EU courts of law for victims of human rights violations, to enable compensation for damages suffered and prosecution of human rights offenders.
  • To show special consideration for the extreme vulnerability of ethnic, religious or national minorities, whose rights may diminish during armed conflict.
  • To support the safe return of displaced citizens, without risk of retaliation or intolerable economic consequences.
  • To demonstrate complete EU liability for violations committed by its own forces on foreign soil or by private contractors operating on its behalf.

For each case study country, a specialist consultant conducted an extensive field review, which included interviews with representatives of the government and of civil society, international organisations, journalists, academics and victims of human rights abuses.

The draft Code of Conduct for EU ESDP personnel builds on this work by highlighting the human rights and humanitarian law obligations of EU personnel deployed in third countries.

A large part of the research focused on how to proactively raise awareness in non-member states of human rights and humanitarian law issues, in order to help prevent international law violations from taking place when conflict erupts.

The ATLAS researchers recommended the use of sanctions towards non-member states to promote compliance with IHL, which seeks to alleviate the effects of armed conflict on civilians. Economic and political incentives could also be a useful tool to encourage the ratification of international treaties to protect the most vulnerable citizens. Specifically, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)2 and the 2002 Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child3.

One of the most challenging aspects of the research was the complex political and social context of the case-study counties. A successful case that ATLAS draws on is that of Cambodia. Despite little domestic respect for the judicial system after decades of political turmoil, cooperative action by the UN and the Cambodian government successfully led to the public trial and prosecution of a former Khmer Rouge prison officer in 2010 for crimes against humanity. Four other suspects are in detention, awaiting trial.

In Sierra Leone, longstanding poor governance, brutal civil war, corruption and extreme poverty have made the pursuit of justice for human rights abuses exceptionally difficult. Whilst partial success has been achieved with post-conflict transitional justice systems, efforts have largely failed to offer sufficient reparations to victims, of a material or symbolic kind, or to hold perpetrators of human right abuses to account. This is an example of the lessons the project recommends future EU operations must learn.

The researchers explain that whilst some of the recommendations, such as specialist officers and reports during operations, can be implemented with immediate effect into existing peace keeping strategies, others reflect the long-term vision of the EU with respect to standardising, or ‘mainstreaming’, global human rights laws. Recommendations, such as the voluntary ratification of EU and UN treaties by non-member states, will require considerable political will and harmonisation with other international political and humanitarian organisations, such as the UN and NATO.


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ATLAS – Armed conflicts, peace keeping, transitional justice: law as solution (duration 1/2/2008 – 31/12/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 4 “Europe and the World", Research area 4.2 “Conflicts, peace and human rights". Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Svetlana Zasova,