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Improving human rights through empowering citizens and rebuilding trust across Europe

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“2020 has been a disastrous year for human rights in Europe,” commented Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, at a speech in front of the Council of Europe at the end of last year.

In an unprecedented fashion, the COVID-19 pandemic (C-19) has brought to fore a tremendous increase in human rights violations in 2020 throughout the world. According to Reporters Without Borders’ tracker 19 mapping human rights cases of abuse worldwide, Europe is no exception to the rule. While it contains one of the most advanced human rights protection systems globally, the old continent has seen itself prey to governmental and media attempts to erode democracy and human rights.

Infringement to human rights peaked last March in Hungary when President Viktor Orbán used the pandemic to seize unlimited power through an emergency law granting him absolute power to suspend rules, bypass the Parliament and adopt decrees, without any judicial oversight. This law also offered the Hungarian Prime Minister the ability to jail journalists and activists criticizing his policies under the pretext of spreading disinformation.

While Hungary arguably remains a specific case within Europe for its long-standing record of human rights violations, the region indicates some worrying trends in its ability to protect the rights encompassed in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Degradation of human rights protection in the COVID-19 era

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic by member states of the Council of Europe has not remained undisputed as far as the protection of fundamental freedoms is concerned. Many European states declared a state of emergency. They introduced a wide range of legal measures that derogate from their internal constitutional laws and the European Convention on Human Rights.

While these measures have undeniably affected society’s normal functioning and people’s way of life, the Convention itself does not preclude derogations from the obligations outlined in emergency times. Article 15 indicates that derogations from obligations under the Convention are allowed “in time of war and other public emergencies threatening the life of the nation.” Nevertheless, this clause remains valid “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.” Until today, the application of Article 15 had remained confined to situations of political violence and terrorism.

As Europe faced the second wave of the virus, many member States reintroduced states of emergency. These typically allow temporary limitations to individual rights, such as freedom of movement under Article 45 of the Convention, freedom of assembly and association under Article 12, as well as private life under Article 7.

Nevertheless, in its “COVID-19: Toolkit for member States” published last April, the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, posed limits to the ability of states to derogate from the Convention’s obligations. Any derogation must have “a clear basis in domestic law” to prevent arbitrariness and cannot justify any action that goes against the “essential requirements of lawfulness and proportionality” set out in the Convention. The common understanding is that the pandemic’s exceptional circumstances can uphold some rights, yet governments shall deploy substantial efforts to preserve them.

However, such efforts towards human rights protection from national authorities have failed to materialize across Europe.

A worrying trend took shape in the increasing deficit of transparency from governmental authorities, including mandatory detentions and technological surveillance, as observed in Ireland. To add, civil society organizations in several member states expressed concerns over police misconduct during protests. Alarming instances of racism have also been observable, as exemplified by the violent beating of a black man in front of his house by two French police officers in Paris.

COVID-19 exposes the structural vulnerabilities of Europe’s social democracies

The coronavirus-related health challenges have provided certain actors and authorities with a pretext to infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Such a context dominated by the discourse on an “emergency” situation with an exceptional character requires increased attentiveness to human rights violations.

Vulnerable populations, such as migrants, refugees, racial minorities, the homeless, elders, women, disabled people, and children, have found themselves on the frontline of these violations. Arguably, the COVID-19 pandemic did not create, yet only laid bare structural challenges, and fragilities of Europe’s democracies, highlighted by the glaring social inequalities deepened across the continent.

For instance, women have been significantly impacted by governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which further exacerbated gender violence and inequality. According to a study requested by the European Parliament, across Europe, calls to domestic violence outlines have increased by 20 – 60%.

Furthermore, the coronavirus response also disproportionately impacted disadvantaged children across member states by infringing on the fundamental right to education. A report by Save the Children shows that in Romania, 23% of vulnerable families could not purchase medicines for their children. In Spain, emergency food measures could only reach half of the children normally provided with school meals during the crisis. 

Older people have also been particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus lockdown measures because of their social settings which isolated them further from their families and communities. Shortages in the healthcare sector and isolation of elders have increased the risk of abuse, with data from the UK suggesting a 37% rise in the country.

Several asylum-seekers have also been unlawfully rejected at EU borders and sent back to their home countries, violating the 1951 Refugee Convention. To add, the inadequacy of living conditions and overcrowding in detention centers raised alarming concerns. Asylum seekers in Italy launched a hunger strike to protest against the spread of the virus in the center, inadequately equipped to respond to the health crisis. In Belgium, some centers released detainees without any assistance.

Suppose the issues listed above receive the attention they deserve. In that case, the COVID-19 pandemic could provide an opportunity to formulate a wake-up call for increased social inclusion across European countries, with solidarity at the heart of its response. Recalling Mahatma Gandhi’s words, this is today more compelling than ever to bear in mind that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

Empowering the citizen base and improving social “bonding” for human rights protection

As highlighted in the November Bulletin by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, local authorities and grassroots organizations have played a prominent role in supporting society’s most vulnerable groups.

Local and regional authorities appeared to have taken up an unprecedented responsibility in providing access to services and information directed towards certain societal groups on a daily basis. The Bulletin also noted that member states with greater decentralization of responsibilities had proven better-equipped authorities to tackle the pandemic’s health challenges.

The voluntary sector also took a primary seat in proactively advocating for the rights and interests of the diverse marginalized groups within society and increased its role as an essential social service provider. Altogether, these structures have proven uniquely capable of strengthening the citizen base at its core and instilling a sense of solidarity within communities. 

Robert Putnam, in his sociological study ‘Bowling alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,’ suggests that increased social capital and trust within society generates adequate civil engagement, necessary for the healthy functioning of democracies.

Further, according to Putnam, increased trust and civic engagement in society go hand-in-hand with the efficient protection of freedom and human rights. “Far from being incompatible, liberty and fraternity are mutually supportive,” notes Putnam, in his study demonstrating the strong positive correlation between equality and bonding social capital.

In contrast, the beginning of 2021 witnessed widespread anti-lockdown protests, primarily dominated by extreme rights across the continent. Trust in government institutions across Europe has reached its lowest. In such a societal context captured by distrust, a weakened citizen base could prevent the European societies’ ability to deliver sustainable solutions supported and trusted by the population.

Arguably, the media, when providing factual and objective information on all matters of public interest, plays an essential role in consolidating social “bonding.” In contrast, when resorting to “sensationalism, improper language, or reporting in ways that may raise the alarm unnecessarily or provide a platform for divisive views to spread,” as DunjaMijatović warns, the media could instead decrease trust among society, endangering the health of healthy democratic societies.

More salient than ever is the mobilization of all citizens around a collective response to the virus. In democracies, social trust or “bonding capital” plays a central role in empowering the citizen base. And this trust cannot be achieved without an irrevocable and unconditional commitment to human rights.

The COVID-19 crisis taught us that only governance in compliance with the rule of law and human rights is capable of adequately managing the challenges associated with this unprecedented crisis. More clearly than ever before, preserving human rights proves an essential pillar to managing the health crisis and must be actively incorporated within public policies.

Paying heed to the many challenges to individual rights posed by the health crisis must be part of a genuine effort to restore trust in today’s European societies.

Chloé Bernadaux is an International Security specialist (Sciences Po Paris), prolifically writing on the neighbourhood policy, Euro-MED relations, and disarmament affairs. She is the IFIMES newly appointed representative in Paris (UNESCO).

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Europe tells Biden “no way” to Cold War with China

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Amidst the first big transatlantic tensions for the Biden Administration, a new poll shows that the majority of Europeans see a new Cold War happening between the United States and China, but they don’t see themselves as a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, 62% of Europeans believe that the US is engaged in a new Cold War against China, a new poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations found. Just yesterday US President Joe Biden claimed before the UN General Assembly that there is no such thing and the US is not engaging in a new Cold War. So, Europeans see Biden’s bluff and call him on it.

The study was released on Wednesday by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev at the European Council on Foreign Relations and found that Europeans don’t see themselves as direct participants in the US-China Cold War. This viewpoint is most pronounced in Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Italy, according to the study. The prevailing view, in each of the 12 surveyed EU member states, is one of irrelevance – with respondents in Hungary (91%), Bulgaria (80%), Portugal (79%), and Austria (78%) saying that their country is not in a conflict with Beijing.

Only 15% of Europeans believe that the EU is engaged in a Cold War against China. The percentage is so low that one wonders if there should even be such a question. It is not only not a priority, it is not even a question on the agenda for Europeans. Even at the highest point of EU “hawkishness”, only 33% of Swedes hold the view that their country is currently in a Cold War with China.  Leonard and Krastev warn that if Washington and Brussels are preparing for an all-in generational struggle against China, this runs against the grain of opinion in Europe, and leaders in Washington and Brussels will quickly discover that they “do not have a societal consensus behind them”.

“The European public thinks there is a new cold war – but they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Our polling reveals that a “cold war” framing risks alienating European voters”, Mark Leonard said.

The EU doesn’t have the backing of its citizens to follow the US in its new Cold War pursuit. But unlike the views of the authors of the study, my view is that this is not a transatlantic rift that we actually have to be trying to fix. Biden’s China policy won’t be Europe’s China policy, and that’s that, despite US efforts to persuade Europe to follow, as I’ve argued months ago for the Brussels Report and in Modern Diplomacy.

In March this year, Gallup released a poll that showed that 45% of Americans see China as the greatest US enemy. The poll did not frame the question as Cold War but it can be argued that Joe Biden has some mandate derived from the opinion of American people. That is not the case for Europe at all, to the extent that most of us don’t see “China as an enemy” even as a relevant question.

The US’s China pursuit is already giving horrible for the US results in Europe, as French President Macron withdrew the French Ambassador to the US. The US made a deal already in June, as a part of the trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia, and stabbed France in the back months ago to Macron’s last-minute surprise last week. Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is Macron that is actually arrogant to expect that commitments and deals should mean something: “Back in February, Macron rejected the idea of a U.S.-E.U. common front against China. Now he complains when America pursues its own strategy against China. What’s French for chutzpah?” What Boot does get right is that indeed, there won’t be a joint US-EU front on China, and European citizens also don’t want this, as the recent poll has made clear.

The US saying Europe should follow the US into a Cold War with China over human rights is the same thing as China saying that Europe should start a Cold War with the US over the bad US human rights record. It’s not going to happen. You have to understand that this is how ridiculous the proposition sounds to us, Europeans. Leonard and Krastev urge the EU leadership to “make the case for more assertive policies” towards China around European and national interests rather than a Cold War logic, so that they can sell a strong, united, and compelling case for the future of the Atlantic alliance to European citizens.

I am not sure that I agree, as “more assertive policies” and “cold war” is probably the same thing in the mind of most Europeans and I don’t think that the nuance helps here or matters at all. Leaders like Biden argue anyway that the US is not really pursuing a Cold War. The authors caution EU leaders against adopting a “cold war” framing. You say “framing”, I say “spin”. Should we be in engaging in spins at all to sell unnecessary conflict to EU citizens only to please the US?

Unlike during the first cold war, [Europeans] do not see an immediate, existential threat”, Leonard clarified. European politicians can no longer rely on tensions with China to convince the electorate of the value of transatlantic relations. “Instead, they need to make the case from European interests, showing how a rebalanced alliance can empower and restore sovereignty to European citizens in a dangerous world”, Mark Leonard added. The study shows that there is a growing “disconnect” between the policy ambitions of those in Brussels and how Europeans think. EU citizens should stick to their sentiments and not be convinced to look for conflict where it doesn’t exist, or change what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears in favor of elusive things like the transatlantic partnership, which the US itself doesn’t believe in anyways. And the last thing that should be done is to scare Europeans by convincing them they live in a “dangerous world” and China is the biggest threat or concern.

What the study makes clear is that a Cold War framing against China is likely to repel more EU voters than it attracts, and if there is one thing that politicians know it is that you have to listen to the polls in what your people are telling you instead of engaging in spins. Those that don’t listen in advance get the signs eventually. At the end of the day it’s not important what Biden wants.

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Germany and its Neo-imperial quest

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In January 2021, eight months ago, when rumours about the possibility of appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia occurred for the first time, I published the text under the title ‘Has Germany Lost Its NATO Compass?’. In this text I announced that Schmidt was appointed to help Dragan Čović, the leader of the Croatian HDZ party, to disrupt the constitutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and create precoditions for secession of the Serb- and Croatian-held territories in Bosnia and the country’s final dissolution. I can hardly add anything new to it, except for the fact that Schmidt’s recent statements at the conference of Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft have fully confirmed my claims that his role in Bosnia is to act as Čović’s ally in the latter’s attempts to carve up the Bosnian Constitution.

Schmidt is a person with a heavy burden, the burden of a man who has continuously been promoting Croatian interests, for which the Croatian state decorated him with the medal of “Ante Starčević”, which, in his own words, he “proudly wears” and shares with several Croatian convicted war criminals who participated in the 1992-1995 aggression on Bosnia, whom Schmidt obviously perceives as his ideological brethren. The question is, then, why Germany appointed him as the High Representative in Bosnia? 

Germany’s policy towards Bosnia, exercised mostly through the institutions of the European Union, has continuously been based on the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. The phrases that we can occassionaly hear from the EU, on inviolability of state boundaries in the Balkans, is just a rhetoric adapted to the demands by the United States to keep these boundaries intact. So far, these boundaries have remained intact mainly due to the US efforts to preserve them. However, from the notorious Lisbon Conference in February 1992 to the present day, the European Union has always officially stood behind the idea that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned along ethnic lines. At the Lisbon Conference, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, the official representatives of the then European Community, which has in the meantime been rebranded as the European Union, drew the maps with lines of ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along which the ethnic cleansing was committed, with 100.000 killed and 1,000.000 expelled, so as to make its territory compatible with their maps. Neither Germany nor the European Union have ever distanced themselves from the idea they promoted and imposed at the Lisbon Conference as ‘the only possible solution’ for Bosnia, despite the grave consequences that followed. Nor has this idea ever stopped being a must within their foreign policy circles, as it has recently been demonstrated by the so-called Janša Non-Paper, launched a couple of months ago, which also advocates the final partition and dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a plan is probably a product of the powerful right-wing circles in the European institutions, such as Schmidt’s CSU, rather than a homework of Janez Janša, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, whose party is a part of these circles, albeit a minor one. To be sure, Germany is not the original author of the idea of Bosnia’s partition, this author is Great Britain, which launched it directly through Lord Carrington at the Lisbon Conference. Yet, Germany has never shown a will to distance itself from this idea, nor has it done the European Union. Moreover, the appointment of Schmidt, as a member of those political circles which promote ethnic partition as the only solution for multiethnic countries, testifies to the fact that Germany has decided to fully apply this idea and act as its chief promoter.

In this process, the neighbouring countries, Serbia and Croatia, with their extreme nationalist policies, can only act as the EU’s proxies, in charge for the physical implemenation of Bosnia’s pre-meditated disappearance. All the crimes that Serbia and Croatia committed on the Bosnian soil – from the military aggression, over war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, up to the 30 year-long efforts to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – have always had a direct approval and absolute support of the leading EU countries. During the war and in its aftermath, Great Britain and France were the leaders of the initiatives to impose ethnic partition on the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Germany has taken up their role. In such a context, the increasing aggressiveness of Serbia and Croatia can only be interpreted as a consequence of the EU’s intention to finish with Bosnia for good, and Schmidt has arrived to Bosnia to facilitate that process. Therefore, it is high time for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon any ilussions about the true intentions of the European Union and reject its Trojan Horse in the form of the current High Representative.  

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Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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