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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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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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