Dispatch: The Failure of French Ambassadors to Support Human Rights Defenders

 In a year of political turmoil for the European Union, as well as countries near and abroad, France continues to project its image as a leader of humanitarian values and a proponent of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” However, our research over the previous months has evidenced that liberty, equality, and fraternity are far from the French government’s international mission.

As a member of the EU, France is obliged to follow a number of guidelines and regulations in order to meet the goals of the union. The EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders outline which actions a Head of Mission (HoM) is supposed to take in order to support human rights defenders in a specific country. These guidelines were designed for EU missions in a third country, which refers directly to an embassy of a member state. Hence, the French HoM abroad is a country’s respective ambassador.

What are the EU Guidelines for Human Rights Defenders?

The EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders “establish the EU’s approach to supporting and protecting human rights defenders in non-EU countries” and focus on a number of key issues. In short, they state that it is important for member states to provide periodic reports on the human rights conditions; to consult with human rights defenders and maintain contacts; to stress the importance of human rights defenders’ protection and promote relevant strengthening mechanisms; to encourage third countries to accept requests for state visits by the UN Special Procedures; to assist in democratic processes and institutions; to assist in establishing a network of human rights defenders at the international level; and to ensure their access to resources and support.

Despite these being clear and concise goals, the EU and member states such as France are failing to enact their commitments and protect human rights defenders in Middle Eastern countries. Amnesty International’s report “Defending Defenders? An Assessment of EU Action on Human Rights Defenders” reveals that in some states, human rights defenders are significantly more supported by HoM’s than in others. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that support for human right defenders is systematically neglected by EU member states in Middle Eastern countries, which are geostrategically, economically, and politically powerful allies to states like France. This allyship is maintained in spite of the ongoing violation of human rights in countries such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia.

The very first recommendation in order for an EU member state to comply with the outlined guidelines is that the HoM provides a “period report on the human rights situation” in their respective third country. However, searching for these documents from the French government for Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia is totally in vain, as ADHRB has been led to conclude that such reports simply don’t exist. Considering the widespread and increasing concern felt for human rights issues in these countries, which has not only been raised by prominent NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), but also by UN Special Rapporteurs, the fact that French HoMs overlook human rights defenders is extremely alarming. Furthermore, if EU governmental bodies or HoMs are ever pressed to take minor action, their measures are not always visible. For example, if a French statement is issued in a third country, it may not be translated into the local language and is subsequently inaccessible to their targeted wider audience.

Many issues with HoMs concern; their lack of transparency in regard to their non-existent communication of their local human rights evaluation; their opposition to supporting human rights defenders, and their unsatisfactory compliance with EU guidelines. This prompted ADHRB to contact them in order to express our concerns and detail the current cases that require the immediate support of ambassadors in Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Our organisation directly addressed the French Ambassador to Bahrain Jérôme Cauchard, the French Ambassador to the UAE Ludovic Pouille, the French Ambassador to Saudi Arabia François Gouyette, and the Head of the European Union Delegation to Saudi Arabia Michele Cervone d’Urso. In our correspondence, we posed concrete questions regarding their actions in connection to the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders over the period of their appointments. None responded to our enquiries.

Jérôme Cauchard (French Ambassador to Bahrain)

The French ambassador to Bahrain, Jérôme Cauchard, has not taken any visible action in regard to supporting Bahraini human rights defenders since his appointment on 7 November 2019. This is in spite of France’s recommendation to Bahrain within the third UPR cycle, which called for the government to “release all political prisoners and bring its national legislation into compliance with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with guaranteed freedom of expression.” The divide between outward French values and their actions behind closed doors is therefore profoundly evident. Whilst the central French government is aware of the violations committed against human rights defenders and political prisoners in Bahrain, its ambassador on the ground refrains from taking any substantial action.

Even more concerning is the fact that the previous French ambassador to Manama, Cecile Longe, was more prepared to call Bahrain out on its abuse of human rights defenders than Cauchard. In June 2019, whilst she was still in office, she expressed her concern over the “treatment of human rights defenders and political opponents in the country,” drawing particular attention to Nabeel Rajab who, until recently, was imprisoned due to tweets and media interviews which criticized the Bahraini government. When asked to comment, the French presidency declined, along with Cauchard and Bahrain’s embassy in Paris. Consequently, human rights violations in Bahrain have continued into 2020, including the continued imprisonment of the political prisoners Hassan Mushaima and Zakeya AlBarboori, as well as the death sentences recently upheld on 15 June 2020 against Zuhair Ibrahim Jasim Abdullah and Hussein Abdullah Khalil Rashid.

In relation to Bahrain’s political prisoners, Jérôme Cauchard ultimately proved his lack of commitment toward EU guidelines when he publicly supported the Bahraini government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. In an interview on 21 April 2020, he gave credit to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, stating that Bahrain had treated the spread of the virus with “precision and transparency.” Despite this, accredited NGOs have evidenced Bahrain’s failure to deal with COVID-19, particularly within detention centres. Unsanitary conditions in Bahrain’s overcrowded prisons compound the risk of COVID-19 spreading amongst inmates and staff, especially to those who are already suffering from health conditions that are exacerbated by their denied access to proper medical care. This mistreatment of political prisoners goes against both the mission outlined in the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, as well as the alleged French values of free expression and liberty.

Ludovic Pouille (French Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates)

Ludovic Pouille has acted as the French ambassador to the UAE since 2 July 2017, yet he has likewise taken no visible action over the past three years to support or promote Emirati human rights defenders. Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights defender, was detained by Emirati forces only months before Pouille’s appointment in March 2017 on speech-related charges. He was sentenced to ten years in prison on 29 May 2018. Nasser bin Ghaith, a prominent academic, received a similar sentence from UAE courts also in March 2017. Despite the European Parliament adopting a resolution in 2018 calling for the immediate release of Mansoor and all other “prisoners of conscience” in the UAE, Pouille has made no statements regarding human rights issues within the country.

The concerning responses from the UAE government to criticism has been increasing since the country promulgated its Cybercrime Law in 2012, which criminalizes defamation and defines terrorist activity as any act that could “antagonize the State.” Mansoor was arrested under the charges of cybercrime, and UN Special Procedures condemned the conditions of his detention and highlighted that his prolonged solitary confinement may constitute torture. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for action on Mansoor and the unjust treatment of human rights defenders in the UAE, and has similarly urged French President Emmanuel Macron to raise concerns with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince regarding humanitarian violations in Yemen. However, France has continued to supply the country with military equipment and surveillance technology, and on 4 November 2019, Pouille publicly stated that the relationship between the two countries “is forging ahead on a clearer path and with ever-growing strategic mutual trust and shared values.


François Gouyette (French Ambassador to Saudi Arabia)

Since 15 May 2018, the Saudi government has specifically targeted prominent women human rights defenders (WHRD) such as Samar Badawi, Nassima AlSaada, and Loujain AlHathloul, with arrest, torture, sexual assault, deprivation of liberty, and ill-treatment in connection with the lifting of the driving ban in 2018. Despite this, François Gouyette, the French Ambassador to Saudi Arabia since September 2016, has to our knowledge never publicly condemned the targeting of WHRDs or of human rights defenders in general, including activists and journalists. Also, notwithstanding the French recommendations in scope of the third UPR cycle urging the Saudi government to “guarantee the safety of journalists and human rights defenders and put an immediate end to the arbitrary imprisonment and arrests they face,” Gouyette has not taken any visible action in regard to insisting on its implementation.

Moreover, the French government is also complicit in the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia that are being used to attack Yemeni civilians, and in regards to which, Gouyette has provided no statement. As ADHRB investigated in a previous dispatch, French firms which produce arms, such as the wholly state-owned Nexter, have manufactured armoured vehicles that have been sold to Saudi Arabia. In addition, a leaked document from Disclose reveals that CAESAR guns are being used to allow Saudi troops to enter Yemen. The report shows that 48 of those vehicles are allegedly positioned near the Yemeni border, and that the population that lives within the target of the artillery fire consists of 436,370 civilians. In spite of this, in April 2019, Gouyette stated that bilateral ties between Paris and Riyadh were “at their best” and highlighted the strategic relationship that the two countries maintain.

Michele Cervone d’Urso (Head of the European Union Delegation to Saudi Arabia)

Only the Head of the European Union Delegation to Saudi Arabia, Michele Cervone d’Urso, has cautiously addressed human rights issues. In the scope of Human Rights Day 2017 in Saudi Arabia, he mentioned that countries that have acceded to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights worldwide are still “far from full compliance” with their human rights obligations. He also stressed that a number of UN countries have still not adopted the Declaration, and here addressed Saudi Arabia directly, as the Saudi government never adhered to the Declaration. D’Urso simply stated that when the EU cooperates with national authorities and bodies, such as the Human Rights Commission or Saudi Arabia’s National Society for Human Rights, to promote the “common values” of human rights, they “cannot agree on everything.”

It is shocking that d’Urso defines human rights as “common values” between the EU and Saudi Arabia, due to the fact that human rights are violated on a daily basis by the Saudi government. Given the EU’s primary goal, the protection of human rights, the brief attempt from d’Urso to mention human rights issues is far from what is expected from his position as the EU’s HoM in Saudi Arabia, or from the union in general. Similarly, when the Saudi human rights defender Mohammed Al-Otaibi was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia from Qatar, the EU Delegation to Saudi Arabia made a statement on human rights issues, but did not condemn the action nor implement any measures to support him. Instead, the public statement stressed the respect for the “prerogatives of the Saudi Arabian judiciary,” despite their clear humanitarian violations.

Compared to his current role, Michele Cervone d’Urso, in his former role as the European Union Envoy to Somalia, was more outspoken on human rights violations. For example, together with the International Organisation for Migration, he addressed the issue of discrimination against women in Somalia on International Women’s Day 2013. However, he has given no similar statement on womens’ rights in the Gulf States. Moreover, in Somalia, the EU funded a “training on human rights-based reporting for journalists and Ministry of Information officials in Puntland, Somalia.” Such a project could have significant potential in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, yet the EU has never proposed a similar project in the Gulf region.  This lack of a direct response to human rights violations in Gulf states is likely linked to the strong economic interest of the EU in the region. Consequently, there is a conflict of objectives between dealing with human rights violations and maintaining good economic relations. Unfortunately, it is evident which area the EU attaches greater importance.

The Failure of French Ambassadors

The diplomatic work of a HoM requires careful negotiation with their respective third country. However, the complete inaction and silence of EU member states in the face of severe human rights violations makes them complicit in the ill-treatment of citizens in the Gulf region. Despite the fact that France presents itself as a model state in terms of civil freedom and respect for human rights, its government has resisted the adequate global promotion of these rights. The French ambassadors to Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have refused our attempts to contact them about their position toward human rights in their respective countries, and their actions have suggested that they are more interested in their socio-economic allyship with Gulf states. Ultimately, Jérôme Cauchard, Ludovic Pouille, François Gouyette, and Michele Cervone d’Urso have failed to embody the French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity where it is most needed by civil society. None of these ambassadors have publicly condemned the actions of the Gulf states toward their people, and none have promoted or protected human rights defenders in the region.