Human Rights: EU plans to put brutal regimes under spotlight

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SETTING ASIDE quarrels, real or imagined, over European Union tax policy, Britain and Germany yesterday launched an initiative designed to beef up the EU's presence in the international human-rights arena.

In a move to mark this week's 50th anniversary of the signature of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and his German opposite number, Joschka Fischer, are calling on Brussels to publish an annual report on the human rights performance of non-member nations. Assuming a go-ahead from the Vienna summit later this week, the first such report could appear next June, at the end of Bonn's six-month presidency of the EU.

According to British officials, the initiative stems from "an obvious meeting of minds" between the two foreign ministers on human rights, dating back to their first meeting last October. But it serves some more down- to-earth political purposes too.

First and foremost, it puts a little flesh on the trumpeted new relationship between the two countries, and the centre-left, third-way seeking governments now in power in both London and Bonn. What price a spot of local difficulty over Oskar Lafontaine, in other words, compared to a shared concern with human rights ?

In fact the EU's record on the issue, in the view of many human-rights groups, has been spotty, especially in areas such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Its recent decision to drop its traditional resolution on the state of human rights in China has also been criticised as letting China off the hook.

The Anglo-German approach also fits in with New Labour's aspirations to an "ethical" foreign policy. But the acid test may come on Friday with the deadline for Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to rule on General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who faces extradition to Spain to face trial for human rights abuses.