Who saw that human rights were violated?

EU: ignoring human rights violations in member states

(Brussels) - The European Union and the governments of the member states were hardly prepared to counter human rights violations within the EU in the past year. At the same time, however, they emphasized the importance of human rights for the Arab Spring, Human Rights Watch said in a release today World Report 2012.

Human Rights Watch highlighted worrying human rights trends across the EU, highlighting events in nine Member States and developments in migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, and counter-terrorism.

An essay in the report analyzes long-term trends in human rights protection in Europe. According to this, human rights are in a crisis in Europe: They are being respected less and less, there is insufficient action against their violation, extremist parties have more and more influence and human rights are increasingly losing their universal validity. That is why there is an urgent need for action.

"If you listen to the lofty rhetoric about the Arab Spring, you should think that human rights are a central concern of the EU," she said Benjamin Ward, Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia, Human Rights Watch. "But the sad truth is that EU governments often disregard human rights, especially the rights of vulnerable minorities and migrants, when they prove to be a nuisance, and that they sweep criticism of human rights violations under the carpet."

In the 676-page report, Human Rights Watch assesses the human rights situation in over 90 countries around the world, including the popular uprisings in the Arab world, which were practically unimaginable a year ago.

While it may seem far-fetched to speak of a human rights crisis in the EU, a closer look reveals deeply worrying trends. Four developments stand out: the erosion of human rights in the context of the fight against terrorism, the growing intolerance and repressive politics against minorities and migrants, the rise of populist-extremist parties and their influence on the political center as well as the declining effectiveness of instruments and institutions for human rights protection .

The way politics reacted to migrants from North Africa in 2011 was an example of this. It was called for the freedom of movement within the EU to be restricted; there were disputes over who was responsible for rescuing shipwrecked boat refugees; and the EU was hardly ready to accept refugees from Libya.

Populist extremist parties continued to receive support across the EU and exerted a negative influence on middle-class politics, particularly in dealing with Roma, Muslims and migrants. Many governments took up criticism from the radical parties and used methods that violate human rights.

The EU Commission has not fulfilled its duty to take decisive action against measures that violate the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and other EU law. She accepted half-hearted changes to an extremely problematic media law in Hungary, waived criminal proceedings against France despite continuing violations of the deportation of Roma from Eastern Europe, and dropped proceedings against Greece, even though the country did not reform its poor asylum procedure and the inhuman and degrading conditions of detention for Migrants did not finish. On January 17, the Commission announced coercive measures against Hungary for lowering the age limit for judges, but it remains unclear how this move will affect government interference in the judiciary and the media.

“Contrary to the announced zero tolerance strategy, the EU Commission did not show the necessary will to hold member states accountable for human rights violations,” said Ward. "If the Commission doesn't get bolder soon, the downward trend in human rights in the EU is likely to continue."

Important developments in 2011

Although hundreds of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean fleeing Libya, the EU did not take concerted action to better coordinate rescue workers or to relocate significant numbers of recognized refugees from North Africa. Although Italy and Malta rescued many castaways, 63 refugees were killed in late March and early April when several warships allegedly failed to come to the aid of a boat in distress. In other cases, refugees were at risk because of disputes over the reception of rescued boat refugees and asylum seekers.

The development of a common asylum procedure made slow progress in the past year. The proposed new guidelines on admission, procedures and requirements were still pending at the end of the year. The EU focused unilaterally on controlling immigration and neglected access to safeguards.

In January 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) declared in a landmark judgment that the deportation of asylum seekers to Greece violated the rights of those affected. The ECHR is an institution of the Council of Europe whose decisions are binding for EU states. To justify the judgment, the judges referred to the inhumane and degrading conditions of detention and the poor access to the asylum procedure for refugees in Greece. With this decision and despite the attacks from parts of the EU (e.g. by British ministers), the court confirmed its importance for the protection of human rights in the EU.

The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights and a similar decision of the European Court of Justice in December clarified the problem of the Dublin II Regulation, which obliges the arrival country to examine the asylum application and thus places an unreasonable burden on the states at the EU's external borders. While most EU states suspended their deportations to Greece after the ECtHR ruling, efforts to reform the regulation came on the spot because the majority of EU states opposed it.

In several EU countries, including Greece, Italy and Hungary, there was racist and xenophobic violence against migrants, asylum seekers and Roma, which the governments concerned countered only half-heartedly. The terrible terrorist attack by a xenophobic extremist in Norway in July, which killed 77 people, underscored the dangers of uncontrolled intolerance. The Norwegian government set a positive example against this with its decision to respond to terrorism with “more openness, more democracy and more humanity”. New laws came into force in France and Belgium prohibiting the wearing of full face-masking Muslim headgear. At the same time, top British and French politicians declared multiculturalism to have failed.

European states also violate human rights in the context of anti-terrorist measures. In Spain, for example, terror suspects can be detained in a secret location for up to 13 days. In France, a reform of the rules governing the treatment of people in police custody allowed terror suspects to be interrogated without the presence of a lawyer and restricted their access to a lawyer for up to 72 hours. In Great Britain, bills that were supposed to restrict the length of pre-trial detention and the use of so-called control orders for terror suspects were undermined by regulations that allow the old powers to be restored in emergencies.

There was also little progress in clarifying whether European governments were responsible for torture and the operation of secret prisons by the US. Lithuania closed its investigation, similar investigations in Poland were slow and in Romania authorities rejected evidence suggesting the location of a former CIA secret prison in central Bucharest. A German court dismissed a lawsuit against the federal government that was accused of refraining from extraditing US citizens allegedly involved in the transfer of a German citizen to Afghanistan in 2004.

"Overall, the development of human rights protection in Europe is of great concern," said Ward. "If the EU governments do not change course together, the next generation of Europeans could no longer regard human rights as a central value, but only as an optional extra."