Recent oil and gas sanctions imposed on Russia, in light of its human rights violations in Ukraine, have revealed major problems in the EU’s energy security. As the EU now scrambles for new sources, questions about the human rights track record of alternative energy providers are raised. How can the EU ensure that its new energy supplies and an energy policy that are committed to the protection of human rights internationally?

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, countries in the West have been working together desperately to weaken the superpower and demonstrate their solidarity with Ukraine. Currently, economic sanctions have been the major form of action. In the short run, they can contribute to “ramping up economic pressure on the Kremlin and cripple its ability to finance its invasion”. In the long run, they are a lot more ambitious: beyond frustrating Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine, they aim to end Vladimir Putin’s grip on power, now recognised as a menace to global security.

The EU has agreed on a series of restrictive measures, which include the prohibition of EU transactions with Russian State-owned Enterprises (SOEs), the introduction of import bans on steel products, and export bans on luxury products. Russian oligarchs and business elites linked to the Kremlin or found to be playing a role in Russia’s military operations have also been sanctioned, as countries have been given the green light from Brussels to hit these individuals with travel bans and asset freezes.

As discussions about sanctioning Russia went on, it became increasingly apparent that most EU countries had been extremely dependent on the Russian economy. As governments and businesses find themselves in urgent need of new economic partnerships to replace their economic relations with Russia, the question of how has been raised.

energy dependence on russiaPhoto Credit: AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky

EU’s Current Energy Policy and Reducing Dependence on Russia

Never has the EU’s realisation of their extreme dependence on Russia’s energy sector been made more clear until the war in Ukraine. As the third-biggest producer of oil in the world (behind the US and Saudi Arabia), Russia’s gas accounts for about 40% of the EU’s natural gas imports. This reliance has therefore enabled Russia to strengthen their bargaining power in the global order and eventually allow them to get away with more ambitious foreign policy directions, which a report produced by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for External Relations in 2018 predicted so accurately. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and Eastern Europe have long existed. The EU’s continued reliance on Russian crude is also a key revenue stream of Russian exports which has been vital to Russia’s military funding today.

To end their dependence – and therefore Russia’s hostage over European oil markets – many countries in the EU have agreed to move away from investing in Russian energy companies by looking at alternative energy providers and sources. It is hoped that by the end of 2022, the EU will be able to cut Russia gas imports by 80%. Italy has frozen a share loan of USD$561 million for a Russian liquified natural gas (LNG) plant project. Germany has halted a gas pipeline project that was designed to double the flow of Russian gas to Germany.

Given the current situation, the EU has little choice but to look for alternatives to Russian energy. On March 24, the EU took advantage of its friendly partnership with the US and agreed on a new LNG deal  following US President Biden’s visit to Brussels. With the deal, they are expected to take over more than 20% of Russia’s current gas supplies. Other options include making deals with countries like Canada, United Arab Emirates (UEA), Qatar, Nigeria, Lithuania, Norway, Iran, and Algeria.

However, several nations are already operating at full capacity and whether they are willing to make new deals with the EU remains uncertain, especially those in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as group  officials have expressed concerns about the destabilising impacts of banning Russian oil on the global economy.

Since the EU’s energy infrastructures have always been so oriented towards the East, many are expecting a rise in costs of living in Europe and a stagnation in economic growth. Electricity prices in some European countries are already very expensive (like Germany), as most electricity is imported. If gas prices continue to soar (due to increases in costs of importing them), energy poverty will proliferate in Europe, especially in colder climates. If energy disruptions persist, the International Energy Agency (IAE) warns that we could be launching ourselves into “the biggest supply crisis in decades”.

From Despot to Despot: Are Our Alternatives Better?

The oil embargoes implemented were designed to punish Russia and show the EU and the West’s position against Russia’s warmongering behaviour, as well as demonstrate its commitment to the protection of global human rights.

Recently, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with leaders in the Gulf to discuss potential opportunities for partnerships. However, critics charge that this may not be the right move either, especially with Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest exporter of oil. Saudi Arabia has long had a reputation for human rights abuses, where mass executions following unfair trials and extrajudicial killings are commonplace. Similar things can be said for Qatar, as media exposure building up to the World Cup this summer have also shed light on the death of 6,500 migrant workers (many of which remain uninvestigated) since winning the bid for hosting the World Cup in 2010.

So while countries might not be funding Russia, they might still be funding human rights violators elsewhere. As UK Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks to the BBC, “going cap in hand from dictator to dictator is not an energy strategy”.

energy policyDecarbonisation as the Way to Energy Independence in the EU

Today, activists and politicians are calling for governments to view the Russia embargo as an opportunity to fast-track domestic initiatives to promote energy independence and self-sufficiency. However, we must accept the fact that eventually, countries will have to work with Russia to address global energy security problems in the long term.

This, however, does not mean the EU should abandon its current line of action. Instead, as Sammy Roth from the LA Times writes, countries need to wean themselves off dependencies that may inhibit their ability to negotiate with Russia. This means that the EU’s energy policy must recognise the urgency of transitioning to energy sources that are “harder for bad actors such as Russia to disrupt”.

Decarbonisation may be a solution. There is no better opportunity than now to do this collectively, as there is common understanding that key to energy security without Russia is to diversify energy supply and explore the development of non-carbon renewables. It is no surprise that Europeans are finding all sorts of reasons today to push forward the EU Green Deal today which aims to pass the EU through to a more sustainable economic model

To aid member states in making greener energy policy decisions without sacrificing current energy security, the IEA swiftly published a 10-Point Plan. It proposes that members stop all gas contracts with Russia and look for alternative gas suppliers while accelerating the development of local solar, wind, nuclear and bioenergy projects. At the same time, it is also encouraging citizens to turn down their thermostats by 1 degrees Celsius to deliver immediate annual savings and bring down energy bills.

At the same time, the IOE is aware of the economic and infrastructural impossibility of making green energy an immediate substitute for gas and oil – this would have to take years. Nevertheless, as a long-term investment, not only will decarbonisation help achieve the EU’s environmental and energy objectives but also help free itself from energy captivity by non-democratic countries that pay little attention to human rights, which will allow it to strengthen its foreign policy standing against them.

Human Rights Issues in the Development of Renewables

As Yadaira Orsini, Principal Consultant (Human Rights) at ERM writes, “[i]t is easy to perceive renewable energy as ‘inherently good’ or to assume that it is protected by a ‘green halo.’” However, there are growing concerns that green projects are failing to incorporate human rights into their models. In an outreach to 50 global green power companies conducted by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) in 2016, only five of the companies were found to have a “stated commitment” to human rights. Worse, only three were facing allegations of human rights violations. 

Hence, while the horrors of Russian imperialism today have demanded us to focus more on human rights when devising new energy policy strategies, we must also pay attention to the less visible practices of exploitation and displacement arising from the expansion of the renewables industry, which are virtually prevalent along every step of the supply chain. For example, according to a study by Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, the solar panel manufacturing process has been found to be heavily imbricated with forced labour in the Uyghur region, responsible for around half of the world’s production.

In Norway, the government has ramped up land-based wind power developments to reduce dependence on oil and gas. However, these developments, often in the countryside, have frequently led to the dispossession of Norway’s indigenous peoples, the Sámi. For decades, these green industrial projects have disrupted their traditional ways of life.

While the intensity of displacement of these projects might not be comparable to that of the devastation violently unleashed by the Russians on Ukrainian soil within the short span of a month, climate change – and the measures designed to counter it – can just be as violent in the long run, albeit “slowly”. These instances of “green slavery” or “green colonialism” show how climate justice can be invoked as a discourse just to gloss over human rights abuses.

As the EU looks to phase down Russian energy, it needs to be able to invest responsibly and accelerate the development of renewables to ensure energy independence and security in these times of precarity. Yet, the limitedness of available options can lead to controversial energy investment decisions, and supply chains are often harried with human rights issues that often go under the radar or are downplayed. If the EU claims to be so committed to the protection of human rights around the world, how can citizens and governments ensure that future energy policies will put human rights at the centre?

A Rights-Based Approach to Energy Policy

To guard itself against its possible perpetration of human rights abuses that it has sought to avoid, the EU must put human rights at the centre of all its policies. It is not just about devising sanctions and measures to pressure aggressive countries like Russia to improve their human rights records, but about ensuring that the policies promote the rights of all who may be affected by them.

A rights-based approach to energy policy would ensure that energy services, at every step of its delivery, prioritises human rights. Not only should governments see energy policies as vital to the promotion of dignified life outcomes for all citizens including future generations, but they should also recognise citizens’ status as key actors and stakeholders throughout their decision-making processes and after the decisions are made.

Moving forward, a few questions are vital for policymakers:

1. Are policies targeting the right people?

Every policymaker must first ask whether the benefits of a policy can reasonably outweigh its risks. But in the context of the EU’s position on the Russian invasion, sanctions are deliberately “harmful” – they are designed to “harm” those who might be lending support to the Kremlin. It is not clear how many Russians truly support Putin’s current actions.

Nonetheless, many innocent Russian citizens are suffering from the sanctions today and are struggling to keep up with the country’s inflation rate of 14.5%. As consumption and costs of businesses continue to rise, sanctions could indeed cripple the Russian economy and lead to an increase in poverty.

Furthermore, the sanctions can affect countries that are not directly involved in the conflict or are not the intended targets of the sanctions. For example, Lebanon is now facing a fuel and wheat crisis, as sanctions have only worsened the country’s already troublesome food security crisis.

Hence, instead of simply asking whether the benefits of a policy outweigh the risks, policymakers should consider whether the policies are targeting – or in this case, punishing – the right people. Given the destructive impacts of sanctions (though nothing like the deadliness of bombings and airstrikes), policymakers should also consider the wellbeing of those who have been unwilling dragged  into the EU-Kremlin saga today.

EU policymakers might want to reconsider sanctions on human mobility to allow Ukrainians and affected Russians to seek asylum. In particular, wealthier and better-resourced member states in the EU should also take more initiative in providing additional support for other countries like Lebanon that may have been affected by the war and the sanctions in these difficult times.

2 How should the EU evaluate its energy investment options?

As we have seen, the EU’s options for energy investments beyond Russia are not without controversy. Many of the options laid out by energy experts involve partnerships with countries whose human rights records can hardly be regarded as reputable.

Policymakers should therefore require companies to develop a comprehensive policy commitment to human rights, specifically to the first two principles of the UN Global Compact, that businesses should protect human rights and make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses. Concomitantly, to aid companies in making responsible investment decisions, rigorous investment risk assessment tools that incorporate human rights and geopolitical risk into their measurements should be popularised to help businesses and governments pay scrupulous attention to the deals and projects that they are about to commit to. Adopting a “risk to people” approach, the international accounting firm KPMG, for example, now actively helps companies develop long-term strategies for identifying risks related to human rights.

3. How can EU member states guard against the temptation to ignore human rights in the future?

Even if initial risk assessments of energy investments indicate low risks associated with human rights issues, there is always the possibility of oversight and the contingency of change when an energy programme is being implemented. Of concern here is how states and companies can continue to abide by human rights principles after a policy or investment decision.

It is essential that opportunities and channels for continued stakeholder engagement with projects and policies are institutionalised and put into regular practice. Especially when the EU is moving towards more localised developments of renewables, local populations will see themselves increasingly implicated in the consequences of energy-related activities. Precisely because some populations are going to be more affected than others, to prevent their marginalisation we need to place their voices at the centre of public discussions.

To ensure corporate and state accountability, the energy sector needs to establish clear guidelines on improving participation in stakeholder engagement procedures. Moreover, citizens should have easy access to complaints mechanisms and judicial remedies, so that critical voices on the planning and implementation processes of energy programmes (e.g. relating to corruption, exploitation or discrimination etc.) can be heard. Altogether, they can promote the democratic renewal needed to preserve the spirit for improvement.

To promote genuine participation, transparency of information is of paramount importance. Knowledge of what happens in the procurement and supply chains needs to be made available to companies, consumers and the general public. Consequently, traceability is important, as information about “the provenance and journey of products and their inputs, from the very start of the supply chain through to end-use” can be made visible. Traceability protocols allow public inspection of where and how (humanely) things are being done in energy projects, for example, how solar panels might be manufactured and delivered from other parts of the world, or offer insight on where the next wind farms might be best located to minimise harm on indigenous groups.

Collective accountability among member states of the EU will also be crucial. To foster this, policymakers may want to consider EU-wide benchmarking practices to ensure that energy projects throughout Europe are consistently in accordance with principles enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This will be a crucial ingredient against charges of hypocrisy by other countries.

Concluding Thoughts

While the EU is still trying to work out a better plan to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, sanctions will likely remain the most extreme course of action to be adopted by the EU. But how effective will they be? Research findings have been mixed: while some argue that the economic hardships generated can lead to growing dissatisfaction with Putin’s regime and therefore propel democratisation, others believe that sanctions might only drive Russia to unite with other authoritarian regimes like China and Iran, which might only insulate itself from some of the impacts of the West’s tough sanctions.

There is no silver bullet solution to the global problem of human rights. After all, as our incapacity to learn from history has shown, no practice can ever guarantee our invulnerability from the inherent darkness of the human condition. However, while Russia does not seem to be interested in stopping its military operations any time soon, the geopolitics of energy in Europe has revealed cracks and potential opportunities for countries to make an impact on the global human rights landscape. For certain, the international community will not give up on Ukraine so easily.