ABKHAZIA: CONTINUED CONFLICT CAUSES SEVERE HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

PALME CENTER PUBLISHES THE FIRST INDEPENDENT REPORT ON HUMAN RIGHTS INCONTESTED  ABKHAZIA

 The Palme Center has decided to make public a report on the human rights situation in Abkhazia, a disputed territory in the former Soviet Union. The report is based on thorough research and several field visits by myself and Magdalena Grono, an expert on post-Soviet conflicts, now working with the International Crisis Group.

The report states that the unresolved conflict has severe impact on the human rights of people living in the contested territory of Abkhazia, as well as of persons displaced by the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz armed conflict.

The human costs of the continued conflict, playing out at Georgian-Abkhaz as well as Georgian-Russian levels, must be a serious consideration in all settlement efforts and dialogue, recommends the report.

A final settlement that would guarantee sustainable peace may continue to be elusive for some time, but a number of human rights problems can be addressed, and even resolved, before comprehensive political resolution is reached.  

Further international visits to Abkhazia on human rights issues would benefit both people affected by the ongoing conflict but also the broader climate for conflict settlement, in which humanitarian and human rights issues get easily politicized. Substantive apolitical dialogue on human rights issues with internationally recognised independent human rights experts should therefore be encouraged.  

The report is based on extensive research on both sides of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict divide, and especially in Abkhazia, over the course of nine months in 2016. They had full access to all relevant interlocutors – including authorities, civil society and ordinary people.

Their report is the first major assessment of the human rights situation in Abkhazia made by international, independent experts. The situation of ethnic Georgian returnees living in Abkhazia’s Gali district is one of the important aspects the report highlights.

This assessment, and an earlier version of their report, was initiated by the European Union and also circulated to relevant diplomats and international organisations. In view of its broader significance the authors have given the Palme Center the privilege of publishing the full and updated report. It will be an important contribution to ongoing efforts to address the conflict, including in the Geneva International Discussions, the conflict settlement forum in this case.

The full report can be found on the web site of Olof Palme International Center.

The Olof Palme International Center publishes the first independent report on human rights in Abkhazia

Military coup in Greece 50 years ago, democrats were betrayed – what did we learn?

Fifty years have now passed since the military takeover in Athens. The coup in the early morning of 21 April 1967 was indeed a shock for democrats all over Europe. How was it possible that a simple group of colonels could wipe out democracy in one of the oldest members states of Council of Europe?

The shock deepened when it became known that the Greek parliament was closed and the political parties dissolved, that strict media censorship had been introduced and that about 6 000 people, including politicians and journalists, had been taken prisoner, many of whom were tortured  during interrogation.

Though the colonels were political novices and made naïve – even ridiculous – statements, they were well prepared in military terms, got to grips quickly with the state machinery and launched their systematic terror skillfully. Obviously, the Greek army and security forces had not been kept under sufficient democratic control. Their links to colleagues in the United States became gradually more obvious.

As a young member of Amnesty International, I went to Athens soon after the coup in order to collect evidence about torture. I was immediately struck by the wide spread fear in the community. To testify to a foreign human rights organization involved a serious risk.

However, testimonies did come out and an interstate complaint was submitted at the end of 1967 by governments in Scandinavia and the Netherlands to the Commission of Human Rights within the Council of Europe. The Commission concluded that the European Convention had been violated and the Greek junta decided in 1969 to leave the organization in order to avoid the embarrassment of suspension.

However, torture continued and the colonels managed to stay in power for another five years, until July 1974. There were several reasons for this, a major one being that the solidarity with the Greek democrats – though strong in several countries – was not shared by everyone. The US government gave the junta political protection and the colonel’s Greece could therefore remain member of NATO.

The Greek democrats at the time appealed to European governments to try to convince Washington to stop supporting the junta, or at least demand an end to torture, but their requests were generally met with silence.

The succeeding democratic regime in Greece reined in the military and security forces and put the colonels and some of the most notorious torturers to trial. However, there was little discussion about the fact that the international community failed to stop the junta for years.

What did we learn?

  

 

Israeli extension of illegal settlements undermines international peace efforts

Signals are coming from Washington that the Obama team will during the remaining months make new efforts to restart peace talks on the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the same time the French government is pursuing its project to establish a meaningful framework for genuine negotiations. The so called Quartet – US, EU, Russia and the UN Secretariat – has come out with agreed positions, one of which is a strong call for termination of the Israeli settlement activities.

But Prime Minister Netanyahu is certainly not cooperating with this these efforts, in particular not with the French initiative. Instead, his government is stepping up the expansion of settlements. New permissions are given for hundreds of units in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank. More than half a million now reside in these illegal settlements.

Protests from the US government, the EU and UN representatives have so far been ignored. The reaction from the US State Department has been particularly strong:

The United States is deeply concerned about Israel’s reported plans to build an additional 323 units in settlements in East Jerusalem on top of 770 units previously announced in the settlement of Gilo”.

“These steps by Israeli authorities are the latest examples of what appears to be a steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution”. 

The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, stated that the Israeli policies are destroying prospects for a Palestinian state.

“I remain increasingly concerned by the near-daily advancement of the illegal settlement enterprise in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem”.

In the midst of Israel’s acceleration of the settlement activities, the Republican Party decided at its convent to ditch any support to a two-state solution, a position largely influenced by Netanyahu’s agitation during his previous visits to the US. Now obviously embarrassed by this situation he made a statement that he was in favor of two states side by side (which he has said before – with conditions making the position totally meaningless).

Also, we have learned that when it comes Netanyahu deeds are definitely more important than words. For the moment he is busy building relations with the new dictator in Cairo and with the Saudi regime. One purpose is obviously to create an alibi for not supporting the serious initiatives from the outgoing Obama administration or the French government.

As before Netanyahu’s policy is to maintain the status quo. No compromises for peace.

 

 

 

Israel-Palestine: the two-state solution is now seriously undermined

Reports from the Middle East are not encouraging. While the world has given its full attention to the disaster in Syria, the relations between Israelis and Palestinians have reached a new low. The Israeli government has taken further steps to expand settlements on the West Bank and Palestinians have given up on the possibilities to reach a peace agreement through talks. Extremists are gaining ground on both sides. Violence has been spread during the last six months. 30 Israelis have been killed, several of them through knife attacks, while 198 Palestinians have lost their lives through the Israeli counter measures.

However, the international community has not been totally passive. The French government is trying to convene an international conference in order to start a peace process and the so called Middle East Quartet (with the US, the Russian Federation, the EU and the UN secretariat) is working towards a Security Council resolution with the same intention.

The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Process, Bulgarian diplomat Micholay Mladenov, has asked for new efforts by the international community to stop the negative spiral. His speech to the Security Council on 24 March gave a clear message based on an analysis which ought to be widely understood.

I quote below key passages of his presentation. 

“We in the international community must also be clear both in our understanding of the conflict and our role in how to help resolve it. Our immediate priority must be ending the violence which is tearing Israelis and Palestinians apart when both face the rise of radicals among their own constituents. We only need to look at the rest of the region to see the dangers of religious extremism, sectarianism and terrorism.  

But let us be also abundantly clear that the current security challenges cannot be addressed if we lose sight of the fundamental problems that have led us here — the persistent inability to achieve a just and lasting solution that meets the national aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis and allows them to live in two states, side by side, in peace, security and mutual recognition. This is why today we must once again play an important role by saying no, the prospect of a two-state solution is not dead, it remains the best pathway for peace

The time has come to ring the alarm bells that the two-state solution is slipping from our fingers, that it is disappearing as the realities on the ground – driven by the ongoing settlement activities and confiscation of Palestinian land, as well as the continued lack of genuine Palestinian unity – make the prospect of a viable and independent Palestinian state less possible and less likely. The time has come for us to speak clearly as to the risks that undermine the two-state solution but also point to the way forward to a return to meaningful negotiations 

This is why the United Nations Secretary-General, the EU, the Russian Federation and the United States ofAmerica — all members of the MiddleEast Quartet, have stepped up their efforts to break the political impasse. The Quartet Envoys have started our work on a report which will review the situation on the ground, identify the dangers to a two-state solution, and provide recommendations on the way forward. We remain seriously concerned that current trends – including continued acts of violence against civilians, incitement, ongoing settlement activity, and the high rate of demolitions of Palestinian structuresare dangerously imperiling the viability of a two-state solution.  

While the international community explores avenues for constructive engagement, there are trends that raise questions about the commitment of the parties to seriously address the main challenges blocking the progress towards peace.   

Israel’s settlement enterprise continues, despite broad international condemnation. In a particularly troubling development, on March 10th Israel classified 580 acress out of the city ofJericho, in the West Bank as so-calledstate land’. The area includes the 378 acres, reportedly approved, and widely condemned, in January of this year. This is evidence of a continued policy of systematic consolidation of Israeli control of the occupied West Bank, in direct contravention of international law.    

Since the early 1980s, Israeli authorities in the West Bank have adopted, based on a controversial interpretation of the Ottoman Land Law, a policy of declaring as “state land” land that is not otherwise registered as private. This has resulted in the State seizing control over certain areas where Palestinians claim ownership and has proved to be a precursor for settlement construction. Any such declaration, particularly of a large scale, raises justified concerns over further settlement expansion. Settlements are illegal under international law and I urge Israel to halt and reverse such decisions.   

The demolition and confiscation of Palestinian structures across the West Bank has also surged in 2016 withsome 468 houses and other structures demolished since the beginning of the year. On March 23, Israeli authorities demolished 53 structures in Khirbet Tana, including 22 homes, the third demolition this year in this particular community because Israel has declared by Israel as a firingzone. The total number of structures demolished or confiscated in these first 12 weeksof 2016 has now reached 85 per cent of the total number demolished or confiscated in all of 2015. As Palestinians are consistently denied permits to build legally, residents in the affected areas are left with few options but to build without permits, leaving them in constant fear of their homes and livelihoods being destroyed. I urge Israel to respect international humanitarian law and cease such unfair and unjust planning processes in the West Bank.”  

 

 

Nicolae Gheorghi had a message for us on Roma Rights

One of the foremost defenders of Roma Rights was Nicolae Gheorghi from Romania who sadly passed away in 2013. In memory of his remarkable contributions the European Roma Rights Center has now published a series of articles on his analyses, messages and efforts. The following was my own piece.

“He came with a broom in his hand”

I had invited Nicolae Gheorghi to a meeting of European Human Rights Defenders in Sarajevo. As Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe I had taken the liberty to convene meetings of activists who could give good advice and set the tone for our common struggle for human rights on the continent. Nicolae was an obvious invitee, not only because of his straight and often humoristic interventions – he had a message.

At that time he was no longer with the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. He had moved back to his Romania and joined civil society as an activist again. Entering the Sarajevo conference room he waived the broom in the air explaining that he and his colleagues had now concluded that their patience had run out. The time had come to sweep the corrupt decision takers out of power once and for all. The broom was the symbol for this determination.

Nicolae shared with many other activists a very deep commitment to the human rights cause. This was combined with other characteristics which made him unique: intellectual rigor, scrutinizing honesty and an openness to change opinion on the basis of experience. He became the sharpest critic of hypocrisy among both Roma and gadje. He told the truth even when inconvenient.

He exposed the symbiotic relationship developing between gadje Roma ‘experts’ and Roma leaders which tended to perpetuate the atmosphere of Roma victimhood. “The role of Roma opinion-makers”, he wrote, “is to suggest new approaches, focusing on integration rather than being victims”.

He stressed that misbehavior by Roma individuals should not be excused with a reference to the long history of repression. Criticism against someone’s criminal activities must be taken seriously and not just be dismissed as anti-Gypsyism.

Such statements – including Nicolae’s writings about ‘cunning’ (shmekeria) and early marriages – could hardly have been made by any gadjo without causing misunderstandings. Indeed, the approach taken by myself and many of my gadje colleagues is that raising such “taboo” issues must be left to insiders. We decided not to give the anti-Roma propaganda any further ammunition. We have also felt that these social issues were indeed to a large extent the consequence of enforced misery and marginalization.

Knowing that Nicolae did take up these issues was a relief and of course the best answer to those who used these negative social phenomena in their racist hate speech.

While defining and pointing at such problems, Nicolae also gave positive inspiration to the Roma rights cause. Many of his messages could be summarized with the slogan “Yes, we can”. Real change must come from ourselves, he repeated.

Of course, he was deeply aware of the divisions among the Roma people but he believed it would be possible to unite the various groups into one cultural nation. “The common aim of the Roma movement”, he once wrote, “should be the organization, mobilization and eventual remobilization of Roma, based on pursuing the struggle against racism and discrimination”.

Nicolae was in a sense a bridge between Roma communities and the broader international community, underpinned by his impressive academic and language skills. He was one of the initiators behind the International Roma Contact Group, a short lived but important organization in the very first years of this millenium. Its main achievement was to initiate – with the support of the government of Finland – the creation of the European Roma and Traveller Forum (ERTF) under the auspices of Council of Europe.

Nicolae followed the developments of the Forum even after having resigned from it. In his late writings he felt that it was still too early to evaluate its merits but that it would be wise to continue to maintain friendly relation in supporting the organization “while retaining our critical faculties”. He wrote that ERTF should move beyond its cluster mentality and do more to set standards and create precedents for national Roma organisations so that it would strengthen its position as a role model. It should seek answers to such crucial questions as assimilation, integration and cultural separation.

In conclusion he wrote:

“As a former club member I now appear a heretic for challenging prevailing orthodoxy by suggesting a more genuine, credible and legitimate type of Roma representation. This is the form my activism takes nowadays – by reinventing myself and working at national level in Romania but drawing on my familiarity with European structures and developments over the past years in the belief that the ERTF can be a key factor in the development of Roma culture as a European level”.

It was a great loss that this man were not given more time to pursue the work for his vision about a European Roma cultural nation of united communities, integrated in the broader societies and having their rights and culture recognized and respected.

EU Parliament adopts important resolution on Roma rights – next is implementation

The European Parliament has with broad majority adopted a resolution proposed by Swedish MEP Soraya Post on Roma rights in Europe.

The text:

The European Parliament,

•having regard to the preamble of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), notably its second and its fourth to seventh indents,

•having regard to, amongst others, Article 2, Article 3, paragraph 3, second indent, and Articles 6 and 7 TEU,

•having regard to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union of 7 December 2000 (‘the Charter’), proclaimed on 12 December 2007 in Strasbourg, which entered into force with the Treaty of Lisbon in December 2009,

•having regard to the European Parliament resolution of 9 March 2011 on the EU strategy on Roma inclusion and the Communication from the Commission on An EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020  (COM 2011(0173)), the Commission Report on the ‘implementation of the EU framework for national Roma integration strategies’ (COM (2014)0209), and to the Council recommendation of 9 December 2013 on ‘Effective Roma integration measures in the Member States’,

•having regard to the outcomes of the 2011 Roma Pilot Survey conducted by the Agency for Fundamental Rights,

•having regard to the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,

•having regard to the Declaration of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on the Rise of Anti-Gypsyism and racist violence against Roma in Europe adopted on 1 February 2012,

•having regard to the General Policy Recommendation N°13 of the European Commission against Racism and Xenophobia (ECRI) on combating anti-Gypsyism and discrimination against Roma,

•having regard to the comprehensive Action Plan, adopted by OSCE participating States, including EU Member States and candidate countries, focusing on improving the situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE area, in which the States undertake inter alia to reinforce their efforts to ensure that Roma and Sinti people are able to play a full and equal part in our societies, and to eradicate discrimination against them,

•having regard to Rule 123(2) of its Rules of Procedure,

A.Whereas Roma, with an estimated population of 10 – 12 million in Europe, are the largest ethnic minority in Europe;

B.Whereas the word ‘Roma’ is used in this resolution as an umbrella term which includes different related groups throughout Europe, whether sedentary or not, such as Roma, Travellers, Sinti, Manouches, Kalés, Romanichels, Boyash, Ashkalis, Égyptiens, Yéniches, Doms, Loms that can be diverse in culture and lifestyles;

C.Whereas anti-Gypsyism, the special kind of racism that is directed towards Roma, is an ideology founded on racial superiority, a form of dehumanisation and institutional racism nurtured by historical discrimination, which is expressed, among others, by violence, hate speech, exploitation, stigmatisation and the most blatant kind of discrimination;

D.Whereas anti Gypsyism is one of the main causes of discrimination and marginalisation that the Roma people have suffered historically in many European countries;

E.Whereas many Roma still live under overwhelmingly poor conditions and face extreme levels of social exclusion and discrimination;

F.Whereas the situation of the European Roma, having historically been part of society in many European countries without a single kin-State and having contributed to it as its citizens, is distinct among national minorities in Europe which justifies specific measures at European level; and whereas Roma are part of Europe’s culture and European values;

G.Whereas Roma women are often exposed to multiple and intersectional discrimination on grounds of gender and ethnic origin and have limited access to employment, education, health, social services and decision-making; whereas discrimination can occur within the mainstream society in a context of growing anti-Roma racism, but also within their communities by reason of their sex;

H.Whereas the 2011 Commission’s Communication on An EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies called on Member States to adopt or further develop a comprehensive approach to Roma integration and endorse a number of common goals; and whereas Council recommendation of 9 December 2013 invites Member States to take effective policy measures to ensure equal treatment of Roma people and the respect of their fundamental rights, including equal access to education, employment, healthcare and housing;

I.Whereas the date of 27 January, the day of liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp has been designated by the United Nations as the International Holocaust Memorial Day;

J.Whereas according to estimates, at least 500, 000 Roma were exterminated during World War II by the Nazi and other regimes and their allies, and that in some countries, more than 80 % of the Roma population were exterminated; Reminds that at least 23 000 Roma were gassed to death in the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp) of Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II. In one night, from 2 to 3 August 1944, 2 897 Roma, mostly women, children and elderly people, were killed in this camp. Therefore, 2 August has been chosen by Roma organisations, as the day to commemorate all Roma victims of this genocide;

K.Whereas the genocide of Roma by the Nazi and other regimes and their allies during World War II is a fact that is still largely ignored and is therefore, not acknowledged by the broad public and often not recognised or taught in schools, making Roma people part of the “ignored” victims of the genocide during World War II;

L.Whereas commemorating crimes against humanity and gross violations of human rights is crucial in order to pursue the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe; and whereas the genocide of the Roma in Europe deserves full recognition commensurate with the gravity of crimes by Nazi and other regimes designed to physically eliminate the Roma of Europe as well as Jews and other targeted groups;

M.Whereas recognising and commemorating the genocide of Roma during World War II it is important to provide the Roma people with restitution where appropriate for the atrocities that were committed towards them by the Nazi and other regimes and their allies during World War II;

N.Whereas the recognition of the genocide of Roma during World War II and the establishment of a dedicated European Memorial Day would thus constitute an important symbolic step in the fight against anti-Gypsyism and contribute towards the general knowledge of Roma history in Europe;

1.Expresses its deep concern over the rise of anti-Gypsyism manifested inter alia through anti-Roma rhetoric and violent attacks, including murders, against Roma in Europe, which are incompatible with the norms and values of the European Union and constitute a major obstacle to the successful social integration of Roma and full respect for their human rights;

2.Underlines that discrimination and marginalisation is never caused by an inert weakness of an individual or a group that suffers such discrimination and marginalisation but mainly by the failure of the mainstream society to recognise the rights of individuals and the failure to provide the necessary structures for individuals to invoke these rights;

3.Calls on the Member States to implement effectively the Council Directive 2000/43/EC of 29 June 2000 implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin in order to prevent and eliminate discrimination against Roma, in particular in employment, education and access to housing;

4.Calls on the need to combat anti-Gypsyism at every level and by every means and stresses that this phenomenon is an especially persistent, violent, recurrent and commonplace form of racism; Calls on Member States to further strengthen the fight against anti-Gypsyism as part of their National Roma Integration Strategies promoting best practices;

5.Welcomes the involvement of the Roma communities and NGOs in the implementation of the National Roma Integration Strategies, and calls for their further involvement in the design, monitoring, evaluation and implementation of the NRIS;

6.Ensure that specific measures for women’s rights and gender mainstreaming are included in the National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS), and that assessment and annual monitoring take into account a women’s rights and gender equality perspective in each section of the National Roma Integration Strategies;

7.Calls on the Member States and the Commission to consider children as a priority when implementing the EU Framework for National Roma strategies, reiterates the importance of promoting equal access to housing, healthcare, education and dignified living conditions for Roma children;

8.Calls on the Member States to implement effectively the Council Framework Decision 2008 / 913 / JHA of 28 November 2008 on combatting certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law in order to combat successfully anti-Gypsyism, anti Roma rhetoric and violent attacks against Roma, as well as condoning, denial and gross trivialisation of the genocide against Roma;

9.Recalls that Roma are part of Europe’s culture and shared values and therefore encourages Member State and other European countries to address the history of Roma people through dialogue with citizens and young people, in particular the genocide of Roma during World War II;

10.Condemns utterly and without equivocation all forms of racism and discrimination faced by the Roma and underlines the fact that anti-Gypsyism must be effectively addressed in order for measures in other fields to be effective;

11.Calls in this regard on the Commission to effectively monitor and assess Member States compliance with the fundamental values of the EU; calls on the Commission to ensure that fundamental rights, democracy and rules of law are respected in all Member States, to effectively monitor and assess Members States’ compliance with these values, and to ensure that the Commission responds to any systemic breaches which may occur;

12.Recognises therefore solemnly the historical fact of the genocide of Roma that took place during World War II;

13.Calls on Member States to officially recognise this genocide and other forms of persecution against Roma such as deportation and internment that took place during World War II;

14.Declares that a European day should be dedicated to commemorate the victims of the genocide of the Roma during World War II and that this day should be called the European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day;

15.Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the governments and the parliaments of the Member States and the candidate countries, the Council of Europe and the OSCE and the United Nations.

Rights of persons with mental disability: landmark ruling by Strasbourg Court

The European Court of Human Rights has taken a decision which should affect positively the situation of persons with mental health problems all over the continent. The ruling means that no one should be totally deprived of his or her legal capacity.

The Court found that Stefan Stankov had been unlawfully detained in Bulgarian disability institutions for over 15 years, and had been subjected to degrading treatment. In 1999 Mr Stankov had been put under guardianship by his mother and ever since had lived in institutions, segregated from society and prohibited from authoring his own life.

In the institutions he shared a pool of clothes with other residents. The toilets and bathrooms were unsanitary and dilapidated, and for a decade – day in and day out – the food was “insufficient and of poor quality”. The Court noted that all of this would have created “a sense of inferiority” in Mr Stankov.

The main point is that in the institution his life was wasted: the State denied him the right to live in and contribute to his community like everyone else.

The Court awarded Mr Stankov 15,500 EUR and ordered the government to pay the non-governmental Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC) 6,000 EUR towards its legal costs during the legal process.

This case demonstrates the enormous importance of competent litigation by organisations such as MDAC, which researched and brought the case to the Strasbourg Court. Without these efforts Mr Stankov would not have been given a chance to start a real live again.

Persons with mental health problems and intellectual disablities are extremely vulnerable even in today’s societies. Their human rights are too often violated and they have in many cases few possibilities to complain. Therefore, this ruling is particuarly significant and certainly in total compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.

It sends a crucial message to all those states which still allow guardianship to mean deprivation of all individual rights.

Protection of Roma rights in Sweden and Europe – progress and failures

I was interviewed by Bernard Rorke for the blog of European Roma Rights Centre, headquartered in Budapest. Below are the questions and my answers.

1. When you published the report ‘Human rights of Roma and Travellers in Europe’ back in 2012, you hoped it would encourage constructive discussion on what must be done to put an end to discrimination and marginalisation. How do you see the situation two years later?

– Sadly, the trend is negative. The Roma population has been disproportionally affected by the economic crisis and the austerity policies. The growth of organized nationalistic and xenophobic political parties has caused severe set-backs. Roma communities have been targeted by extremists in several European countries. EU programs for Roma rights have not been effective.

2. One of your striking recommendations to combat anti-Gypsyism was that truth commissions be established in a number of European countries to put on record the history of mass atrocities against Roma people. Does the Swedish White Paper provide a practical example of how this might be done? Could you tell us a little about that, and about any good practices that emerged from the process?

– The Swedish White Paper, which covered the situation of Roma throughout the 20th century, exposed a shameful history of systematic discrimination based on racial prejudices. For years the official intention was to make life for the Roma population so unpleasant that they would prefer to leave the country. Not least children and their schooling were victims of this policy.
– Roma people in Sweden welcomed this report. At long last there was an official recognition of the persecution.
– This government paper is factual and relevant but it would in my opinion have been more appropriate have it prepared by an independent commission (even if the government had an advisory group of some Roma representatives).
– Lessons: 1) Very important that a procedure is set up to disclose and present the true history of how the Roma people have been treated; 2) This work should be impartial and with direct participation of Roma representatives; 3) There should be a follow-up on the facts presented – in schools and to the broader public through education materials, exhibitions and other information techniques; 4) When relevant, victims should be able to claim compensation.

3. In a recent blog you mentioned that following a study visit to Romania, you were deeply saddened by the continued misery among Roma communities. What were the particular situations that struck you on that visit?

– Most Roma in Romania live in deep poverty. In practice the social rights of many are denied, for instance regarding housing, education, health care and employment. There are of others in the country who are extremely poor, but the Roma are overrepresented among those in misery. The main reason is anti-gypsyism and marginalization. The poisonous prejudices against this minority is widespread in the country and too little is done to counter this mentality.

4. You spoke of feeling encouraged after having met “some officials both locally and in government circles who are prepared to contribute to sustainable solutions.” The Decade of Roma Inclusion is nearly over, and civil society and the European Commission’s basically agree that the current Romanian National Roma Integration Strategy is dismal. Do you have any hope that the Romanian authorities can come up with sustainable solutions proportionate to the problems of exclusion by 2020?

– Yes, I met also some officials who genuinely realize that something energetic must be done to break the vicious cycle and to protect and promote Roma rights. We outsiders should avoid painting all decision-makers in Romania in negative colors, this does not help.

5. What do you think of recent developments in France: incidents of anti-Roma violence, ever more harsh official rhetoric, mass evictions, and plans to use anti-terrorist measures as a cover to expel ‘undesirable’ EU citizens?

– When I was Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights the French government tried to have me dismissed after I had voiced criticism against its policy towards visiting Roma people from Romania and Bulgaria. That failed but the policy of evictions and expulsions have continued. The reports I have now received from France on this issue are deeply worrying.

6. What to do about anti-Roma hate speech online and offline? As you say, proper self-regulation has proven to be wanting in several countries. But how do we balance concerns about freedom of expression and protection against the kind of speech which amounts to incitement to hatred?

– True, this balance is the issue. Freedom of expression is very cardinal and must be protected. But this freedom is not unlimited, which is also recognized in the European Convention on Human Rights. Speech which incites to violence should never be allowed. When such violence targets minorities it is particularly important that there is a clear response from the justice system. My feeling is that the law enforcement structures not always take hate speech against Roma with the necessary seriousness. Some brutal hate crimes – for instance in Czech Republic and Hungary – have happened after a period of anti-Roma hate speeches.

7. You stated that the coordination on human rights between the Council of Europe and the EU has not worked well in spite of declarations on “European values” which have been strikingly similar. Could you tell us more about this?

– In the field of human rights there are a number of regional and international governmental actors. So also in relation to Roma rights in Europe which is, at least partly, covered by Council of Europe, EU, OSCE and branches of the United Nations. A considerable dynamics could be mobilized through coordination between these bodies. Having worked on the inside, I had to notice that this opportunity was often missed. This is a pity as all of them have limited resources.
– However, I think it is fair to say that a bigger problem is the lack of implementation of the governments in the member states on agreements they have once reached in defense of their citizens.

8. You wrote that “the original financial crisis turned into a broader economic crisis which in turn ended up in a political crisis – and a crisis of basic values.” What basic values are in crisis, and what do you think are the consequences of this crisis for European societies?

– The growth of authoritarian and xenophobic forces is a symptom of the crisis. Even more serious is that larger political parties too often strike deals with such groups or coopt their proposals. Such compromises may in the longer run undermine the very basis of our democracies. What is at stake are basic human rights for everyone in society and respect for those who are different from the majority or mainstream.
– The political rhetoric has been brutalized: the poor have themselves to blame; the unemployed are lazy and have not tried enough; the beggers should return instead of pestering us; if the immigrants do not like it here, they could go home; the minorities should accept our culture if they want to stay: we do not multiculturalism; etcetera.
– The intolerant and extreme nationalists are creating divisions while we need to build bridges. If they are able to gain more support our societies will change character – not to the better.

9. You have often stressed the importance of non-governmental groups and civil society initiatives as a counter-balance to authoritarian and xenophobic trends. Following Prime Minister Orban’s declaration of intent to build an illiberal democracy, how do you view the recent actions taken by the Hungarian Government against NGOs?

– Ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted non-governmental groups have played an absolutely crucial role in both protecting and promoting human rights. This is now endangered by imposed restrictions on these groups in a number of countries. They are forced to go through licensing procedures and made subject to harassments by fiscal police and other authorities. Government-controlled media launch negative campaigns against those who dares to voice criticism. This is serious.

10. You have been a driving force and for many an inspiration for many years as regards the rights of the child. In Poland, 2012 was the year of Janusz Korczak: 70 years after his execution by the Nazis and 100 years after he started working in an orphanage in Warsaw, you wrote that some of his ideas are still not fully understood and they are absolutely relevant in the work for children’s rights today. What needs to be understood better, and how much remains to be done to safeguard the fundamental rights of the child across Europe?

– The writings of Janusz Korczak define what the rights of the child are really about. We adults ought to see the child as an individual with rights now, not only after having grown up. We should learn to listen to children and never meet their views and actions with any form of violence. One key word is respect. As a small example, Korczak asked us never spy into the diary of a child, she has the right to keep her secrets for herself. That deeper understanding is still missing among many of us.

Serious new facts have surfaced about UK torture in Northern Ireland in early seventies

I led an Amnesty International delegation to Belfast in 1971 to investigate allegations we had received of internees subjected to brutal physical interrogation methods combined with measures of ‘sensory deprivation’. Those were evidently troubled times and the UK authorities were clearly not interested in any independent investigation. They had themselves issued whitewash reports and Prime Minister Heath was reported to have dismissed Amnesty International in private meetings as a “disreputable organization”.

We were however determined to find the truth regardless of whether the facts would please the authorities or not. I do still remember that trip in the bleak, tense winter of December 1971. Among those who gave testimonies to there were also a number of ex-internees who one by one described what they had gone through. They had been severely beaten during arrest and transport. Some of them had still bruises on their bodies, one of them was black and blue over his buttock and one thigh which our medical expert found consistent with his complaint about repeated, brutal beatings. Moreover, several of those arrested had gone through a treatment which brought them to a mental breakdown.

The breakdowns had come through the combination of being forced to stand spread-eagled against a wall for many long hours, being hooded and thereby unprepared for the sudden beatings, forced to hear one hissing noise which drowned all other sounds, be deprived of food and water and prevented from sleeping.

It was evident to us that these were very grave human rights violations, indeed amounting to torture. And that is what our report and statements set out. We documented the use of the now infamous ‘five techniques’ which were combined with physical assaults and death threats to the men.

The Irish government took a bold and unprecedented step at the time and complained to the European Commission of Human Rights that the UK’s actions amounted to torture. I was deeply disappointed when the European Court of Human Rights concluded eventually in 1978 that the treatment of detainees in Northern Ireland under emergency internment powers did not amount to torture. Similar methods have since then been used against detainees the world over, for instance in the “enhanced interrogation” during the US ‘war on terror’. In other words, the ruling of the European Court had serious consequences.

Imagine my surprise when I learned recently that Irish television RTÉ had broadcast a programme which had uncovered documents strongly suggesting that the UK government had in fact misled the Strasbourg Court. The RTÉ programme — an exemplary piece of public service investigative broadcasting — found documents showing that the British government knew that its core argument, that the effects of techniques used on the “hooded men” were not severe or long-lasting, was untrue.

In fact it suggests that the UK government knew then of the severe, long-term psychological and physical effects of the ‘five techniques’, and in fact considered them as ‘torture’. RTÉ has also unearthed a previously unseen letter which shows that UK cabinet ministers took a ‘political decision’ to permit the use of the ‘five techniques’ in Northern Ireland.

If substantiated, this was a grave, additional injustice to the victims and also promoted impunity then – and for those who have used such methods in other situations in the last four decades.

The UK government, as a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, must ensure that facts be clarified in this critical case and remedial action be taken.

In the years since then, I have served in a number of other posts traveling the length and breadth of Europe to investigate and document human rights violations. When I served as Commissioner of Human Rights for the Council of Europe it became apparent that European states had cooperated with the CIA in its rendition and secret detention programme. I argued then that the entire European system of human rights protection was undermined by allowing the truth about torture to remain in the dark.

That holds certainly true for the case of hooded men. If there is one thing I have learned, time does not heal all wounds if the truth doesn’t come out and justice is denied.

Family reunification is a human right

A restrictive refugee policy in European countries has undermined the principle that separated families should be allowed to reunify. Where refugees already reside in a country, governments try to limit the arrival of their close relatives. The result is unnecessary human suffering especially in those cases where dependent family members have been kept apart. This policy violates the right to family reunification stipulated in international human rights standards.

In a number of declarations, the world community has agreed that the family is the fundamental group unit in society. From this follows the right to family unity which in turn places certain obligations on state authorities. For refugees, this right is particularly crucial since they are often forced to leave family members behind when fleeing.

Prolonged separation from close family members can cause severe stress and prevent a normal life for both those who have left and those who remain at home. Indeed, many refugees and other migrants live isolated lives, cut off from normal social relationships and, as a consequence, they face even more difficulties in integrating into their new environment. Those left behind – often women and children – tend to be vulnerable emotionally, economically and often physically.

Though states must be able to retain their right to regulate and control the entry of non-nationals, there has been a progressive development in international law as regards the right to family reunification across borders. Nowadays, respect of the right to family life requires not only that states refrain from direct action which would split families, but also that measures be taken to reunite separated family members when they are unable to enjoy the right to family unity somewhere else.

This development started when the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted. The diplomatic conference stated in a final act that the unity of the family was an “essential right” and recommended that governments take the necessary measures to protect the refugee’s family especially to:

• ensure that the unity of the refugee’s family is maintained, particularly in cases where the head of the family has fulfilled the necessary conditions for admission to a particular country; and

• protect refugees who are minors, in particular unaccompanied children and girls with special reference to guardianship and adoption.

The Executive Committee of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has since adopted several authoritative statements promoting family reunification as both a human right and as a humanitarian principle. The agency has encouraged governments to adopt legislation to implement “a right to family unity for all refugees, taking into account the human rights of the refugees and their families”.

In the Council of Europe, both the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly have used similar language to the UNHCR in several recommendations and resolutions. Notions of “family” and “family reunification” also enjoy protection under the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that children should not be separated from their parents against their will (Article 9), and that governments should deal with cases of family reunification across borders “in a positive, humane and expeditious manner” (Article 10).

However, in practice, government policies have not always been positive, humane and expeditious – either for children or for adults. A number of governments have chosen to interpret their obligations narrowly, and increasingly so. Several define “family” as including only parents and their immediate children. This ignores the obvious fact that the shape of the core family differs depending on different traditions and situations.

In war-torn and HIV-affected areas, for instance, it is not unusual for orphaned children to be cared for by other relatives. Elsewhere, it is often grandparents, or other members of the extended family, who depend on younger family members. A positive and humane policy should consider the family pattern in each specific case.

Some governments argue that family unity could be achieved if the newcomers would go back to their family members in the country of origin: the implied message is that the family separation is self-inflicted. However, many cannot go back home for the very same reasons which forced them to flee. This inability to return applies not only to those granted asylum, but also to those seeking such status, and indeed to many of those with temporary or subsidiary protection. Again, a positive and humane policy would allow for individual cases to be considered on their own merits.

Other obstacles are frequently placed in the way of family reunification. For example, reunification is sometimes refused because of strict requirements imposed on individuals to be financially self-supporting, and those receiving social assistance are often barred from acting as sponsors. Yet this policy ignores the reality in many cases. It certainly ignores the fact that – as family unification is a human right – the poverty of the resident family member should not hinder an application.

Official attitudes to requests for family reunification across borders have been strikingly negative. The response has often been marked by suspicion – as if applicants want to deceive the authorities and to obtain undeserved favours. There have, of course, been cases where people have provided inaccurate information in order to secure entry for others, but it is a great mistake to allow such cases to dictate overall policy.

Significantly, DNA testing has been introduced in several countries as a key means of assisting government decision-making. The purpose is to verify whether the applicant really is either the child or the parent of the resident family member. By definition, this method excludes consideration being given to any other relations, for instance adopted children. Nor is this procedure adjusted to reflect the actual family pattern in those cultures from which many refugees fleeing to Europe come.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has also rightly warned that DNA testing can have serious implications for the right to privacy. Though voluntary testing can be acceptable in certain circumstances in order to prevent fraud, this should be carefully regulated, and the sharing of any data thus obtained should be bound by principles of confidentiality. When testing is considered necessary, the costs should be borne by the requesting authorities.

Some governments have adopted even more restrictive rules in response to the popular public perception that foreigners constitute a danger. Some years ago a decision was taken in Denmark that a person must be a citizen of the country for 28 years before obtaining the right for his or her foreign partner to secure a residence permit. This clearly discriminates against those who have not lived in the country since childhood. At that time the Danish Government also introduced a “points system” to the effect that less educated relatives would be further disadvantaged when seeking family reunification.

The administrative processing of applications is far from “expeditious” in many countries. In fact, the process is often both extremely slow and unnecessarily bureaucratic. Some countries require that applications be made at the embassies or consulates in the country of origin which is not always easy or even possible. In other cases, the authorities request documents or information offering hard proof of various facts which can be very difficult for applicants to obtain from the authorities in their countries of origin. Requirements to provide evidentiary proof of family relationships for the purpose of reunification have therefore to be realistic.

Those who have seen the pain suffered by separated families realise how much of a mistake it is to deny the right to family unity – for the refugees, for the family members left behind, and indeed for the host country. Facilitating family reunification helps to ensure the physical care, protection, emotional well-being and often also the economic self-sufficiency of refugee communities. This is in the interests of everyone.