Europa y Asia Central

Europe and Central Asia

Los derechos humanos región a región

Policemen ill-treating a political activist during a protest in Baku, Azerbaijan, 12 March 2011.

© Amnesty International

“I am very happy to be released. I am extremely grateful to Amnesty International, who have campaigned since the beginning. In my opinion you saved me. Thank you to all those who tweeted.”  Journalist and prisoner of conscience Eynulla Fatullayev in Baku, Azerbaijan

Early one spring morning in a small village in Serbia, one of Europe’s biggest manhunts came to an end. General Ratko Mladić, wanted among other things for the murder of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica, was finally set to face justice. Two months later  Croatian Serb Goran Hadžić, the last remaining suspect wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, was also detained in Serbia and subsequently transferred to The Hague.

These were landmark steps for the victims of the horrific crimes of the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia. The long-overdue arrests held out hope for the survivors that they would finally receive the truth, justice and redress. Many, many more across the region, however, were still waiting for their own chance to see justice done, not delayed.  

Freedom of expression

In a marked contrast to the hope and change unleashed across the Arab world, autocratic regimes in a number of the successor states to the Soviet Union strengthened their grip on power. They crushed protest, arrested opposition leaders and silenced dissenting voices. For many, the hope that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago must have seemed a distant memory.

In Belarus, protests following the alleged vote-rigging in 2010 were banned or dispersed, hundreds of protesters were arrested and fined and even more draconian restrictions on the freedom of assembly were introduced. Critical human rights NGOs were also targeted. In Azerbaijan, anti-government demonstrations were effectively outlawed, and attempts by a small number of government critics prompted a fresh wave of repression and intimidation. The demonstrations planned for March and April, to protest against corruption and call for greater civil and political freedoms, were unreasonably banned then violently dispersed despite their peaceful nature. As in Belarus, critical NGOs and reporters also felt the backlash, with five human rights organizations closed down and several journalists reporting instances of intimidation and harassment in the immediate aftermath of the protests.

In Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan continued to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression and association. Genuine opposition political parties continued to be denied registration, and social activists were rarely able to operate openly. Critical journalists and human rights defenders were routinely monitored and risked beatings, detention and unfair trials. In Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there were unfair trials and cases of harassment for government critics and those who exposed abuses by public officials.

The picture in Russia was mixed. As elsewhere in the region, human rights defenders and journalists were harassed, intimidated and beaten for exposing abuses. Anti-government demonstrations were frequently banned and their organizers and participants subjected to short periods of detention or fined. Typically for the region, most mainstream media and TV outlets remained under the strong influence of national and local authorities. Despite this, civic activism continued to grow, with a variety of causes garnering widespread popular support – including the environment and combating abuses by public officials. The internet remained relatively uncontrolled by the authorities and grew in importance as a rival source of information and forum for the exchange of opinion.

Against this backdrop, the largest demonstrations seen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union took place in December, sparked by widespread allegations, and numerous recorded instances, of electoral fraud in the parliamentary elections that returned Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to power with a significantly reduced share of the vote. Initial spontaneous demonstrations across Russia in the days immediately following the elections were routinely dispersed, with hundreds being sentenced to short periods of detention or fined. Demonstrations planned in Moscow in subsequent weeks became too big to ban – and passed off peacefully.

In Turkey, critical journalists, Kurdish political activists, and others risked unfair prosecution when speaking out on the situation of Kurds in Turkey, or criticizing the armed forces. Threats of violence against prominent outspoken individuals continued and in November new regulations came into force raising further concerns regarding the arbitrary restriction of websites.  

People on the move

Against the backdrop of political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, thousands of refugees and migrants attempted the dangerous sea crossing to Europe in search of safety and a secure future, often in overcrowded and un-seaworthy vessels. According to conservative estimates, at least 1,500 people, including pregnant women and children drowned while attempting this journey. Rather than taking measures to prevent such deaths at sea, including by increasing search and rescue operations, the EU’s response was to boost the ability of its external border agency, Frontex, to deter arrivals in Europe via the Mediterranean. There were reports that NATO failed to rescue people in distress at sea, despite the fact that the prevention of civilian casualties was being advanced as the primary justification for military intervention in Libya.

Those who survived the crossing often found Europe less than welcoming. Instead of a humanitarian response to a humanitarian crisis, the signature response of European states remained an approach focusing on policing borders and controlling migration flows. 

Thousands of those who made it onto the Italian island of Lampedusa endured appalling reception conditions, the result of a failure on the part of the Italian authorities to respond to the growing number of arrivals.

New arrivals on the island were often left stranded, with many of them having to sleep rough with limited or no access to sanitary and washing facilities. Nor was arriving on European shores a guarantee of protection: in April, following an agreement between the Italian government and the Tunisian authorities, Italy began summary and collective expulsions of Tunisians back to Tunisia.

Many European countries, including France and the UK, refused to resettle any refugees displaced by the armed conflict in Libya, despite having been parties to that conflict under the aegis of NATO.

Across the region, states continued to violate human rights through the interception, detention and expulsion of foreign nationals, including those eligible for international protection. Detention as a tool of deterrence and control was a widespread, rather than a last, legitimate, resort.

Asylum systems frequently failed those seeking protection, including because of the resort to expedited asylum determination procedures in countries such as Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK that offered inadequate safeguards against the risk of individuals being sent back to places where they faced human rights abuses. People were returned from Turkey and Ukraine without even being able to access the asylum systems there.

Following a landmark ruling in January by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the case M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, European states suspended the return of asylum-seekers to Greece under the Dublin II Regulation due to the country’s lack of a functioning asylum system. However, some states continued to send people back to countries such as Iraq and Eritrea, contrary to the advice of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and to forcibly return Roma to Kosovo despite the real risk of persecution and discrimination there.

Across the region, hundreds of thousands of people remained displaced by the conflicts that accompanied the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, often unable to return owing to their legal status – or lack of it – and discrimination in access to rights including property tenure.

While negotiating new EU asylum legislation, EU member states failed to address deficiencies in their asylum systems and in arrangements for transferring asylum-seekers back to the first EU country which they had entered.   


Although discrimination continued to affect the lives of millions of people across the region, governments failed to prioritize policies to combat it, citing other urgent needs. They quoted economic factors, in spite of many pointers that those already marginalized faced an increased risk of having the inequalities they already experienced further entrenched. Or they simply sought to walk away from their obligations, like the Dutch government, which publicly stated in July that it was the primary responsibility of citizens to free themselves from discrimination.

Instead of counteracting stereotypes and prejudices that fuel intolerance and hatred, some governments and public officials actually strengthened them. The equality body in Romania twice warned the President about anti-Roma statements on TV.

Gaps in both domestic and European anti-discrimination legislation persisted. In some cases the opportunity to bridge them was lost by reluctant public authorities or governmental coalitions concerned that offering enhanced protection might stir up political opposition. The inclusion of sexual orientation as a prohibited ground in a new anti-discrimination bill in Moldova was criticized, leading to a stalemate in its adoption. A new anti-discrimination bill in Spain failed to be adopted before the parliamentary elections in November. At the European level, the Council of the European Union pursued its discussion on the proposal for new EU-wide anti-discrimination legislation, proposed in 2008, although participants showed more interest in watering down the proposals or shelving it. In addition, existing legislation, such as the Race Directive or the Charter of Fundamental Rights, was not enforced by the European Commission, despite continuing breaches by member states.

Domestic and regional anti-discrimination standards were sometimes publicly criticized and had their legitimacy questioned. The European Court of Human Rights had played a key role in applying the discrimination prohibition enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and strengthening the prohibition to discriminate on specific grounds such as gender identity and sexual orientation. Past judgements of the Court, such as those finding segregation of Romani children in schools discriminatory, were not implemented in several countries such as the Czech Republic and Croatia.

Unanimous ratification of key regional human rights instruments, which would have enhanced protection, did not take place. For instance, no new country signed or ratified Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination. On a more positive note, in May the Council of Europe adopted a new Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and all forms of domestic violence, which was subsequently signed by 18 countries in the region.

While failing to strengthen domestic or European mechanisms to tackle discrimination, some governments were also keen to uphold existing or promote new discriminatory tools. Legislation, policies and practices discriminating against Roma in the enjoyment of their right to housing remained on many statute books, and Roma communities continued to be forcibly evicted in several countries across the region including France, Italy and Serbia. Legislative proposals discriminating against individuals on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation were introduced in the Russian Federation and Lithuania.

The absence of comprehensive legal protection and a robust championing of rights by those in authority again led to adverse consequences in individual lives. Hostility and discrimination, often driven by radical-right populist parties, against ethnic and religious minorities, as well as people on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation, continued to be a matter of concern throughout the region. Lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people, and Roma, migrants and Muslims, among others, were targeted in hate-motivated attacks. Hate crimes continued to be inadequately tackled because of gaps in legislation, poor reporting systems, inadequate investigations, or flaws in criminal justice systems and lack of trust towards the police. Entrenched prejudices and stereotypes also resulted in racially motivated misconduct by law enforcement officials.

Discussions on general prohibitions of full face veils were pursued in many countries across the region. Legislation came into force at the national level in Belgium and France. The accompanying debates, often based on assumptions rather than reliable data, further stigmatized Muslims. Stereotypical views of symbols perceived to be Muslim, such as the headscarf, were advocated, rather than counteracted, by public officials. The wearing of specific forms of religious and cultural symbols and dress continued to lead to discrimination against Muslims, and in particular Muslim women, in employment and education.  

Counter-terror and security

European governments continued to stonewall in the face of concerted efforts to secure accountability for their alleged complicity in the CIA’s rendition and secret detention programmes. Some governments released new information regarding their involvement in these operations, or were accused yet again of such complicity upon the discovery of new evidence by NGOs or the media. Others terminated or only gave lip service to anaemic investigations, proposed inquiries that failed to meet even minimal human rights standards, or simply denied any involvement despite mounting evidence to the contrary. In March, the European Parliament approved a follow-up to its 2007 report on European complicity in these CIA-led operations, in order to ensure compliance with its earlier resolutions regarding the obligation to investigate allegations of fundamental human rights abuses.

Invoking technicalities and state secrecy, Lithuania abruptly closed its investigation in January into two secret detention facilities established on Lithuanian territory by the CIA. In October, the government refused to re-open the investigation, despite credible new evidence of a potential rendition flight from Morocco to Lithuania presented by NGOs to the authorities in September. The protocol for the “Detainee Inquiry”, issued by the UK government in June, met strong opposition from internationally recognized human rights experts, NGOs, and former detainees and their representatives due to concerns about government control over disclosure, secret hearings, and no provision for the meaningful participation of victims. Many groups and individuals vowed not to co-operate with the inquiry until changes had been implemented, but no modifications to the protocol had been made by the end of the year.

In August, the Polish authorities extended their investigation into the presence of a secret CIA site there, but continued to thwart access to information sought by the two named victims’ lawyers and failed to reveal any information about the investigation’s progress. Revelations by the media in December that the location of a secret CIA site in Bucharest had been identified evoked firm denials from the Romanian authorities. They continued to reject outright claims of any involvement in the CIA operations, despite compelling evidence that Romania was deeply and willingly incorporated into these programmes. 

The Finnish authorities released flight data in October and November indicating that rendition aircraft had landed on their territory and fielded calls for an independent inquiry into alleged complicity, but by the end of the year had made no decision to investigate. An investigation into alleged Danish complicity, announced in November, was limited to Greenland and would involve only a “paper review” of information previously compiled in the course of a parliamentary inquiry.

In the face of obstructions to investigations at the national level, some rendition victims submitted applications to the European Court of Human Rights, hoping for some measure of accountability there. Cases against Lithuania, Macedonia, and Poland were pending before the Court.

Counter-terrorism policies and practices across the region continued to undermine human rights protections. The use of unreliable diplomatic assurances to deport people considered a risk to national security proliferated across the region, including in Belgium, Germany, Italy and the UK. In November, the UN criticized Germany for collaborating with intelligence agencies that routinely employed forms of coercion in interrogations. Control orders and other forms of social control amounting to a deprivation of liberty were used in a number of countries, most notably the UK, as proxies for full criminal trials and the safeguards normally attendant on them.

In Turkey a vast number of cases were brought under flawed anti-terrorism laws which routinely contravened fair trial standards. Many of those prosecuted were political activists, among them students, journalists, writers, lawyers and academics. They were routinely interrogated about activities which were protected by the right to freedom of expression.

The security situation in Russia’s North Caucasus remained volatile and uneven. Armed groups continued to target law enforcement and other officials, with civilians caught in the crossfire and, on occasion, deliberately attacked. Security operations across the region were often accompanied by serious human rights violations. There were reports of witnesses being intimidated and journalists, human rights activists and lawyers being harassed and killed.

The armed Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna announced the end of its armed struggle. In Turkey bombings by both the army and armed groups claimed the lives of civilians. 

Impunity in post-conflict situations

In spite of the arrests of the two final suspects indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, progress was slow in tackling impunity for crimes committed during the wars of the 1990s. There was a lack of capacity and commitment, and some retrograde steps. In Croatia, some efforts were undertaken by the President and the judicial authorities to deal with the war-time past, but there was little action by the government. Instead, key political figures engaged in attacks on international justice, and the parliament passed a law which breached Croatia’s obligation to co-operate with Serbia in criminal matters. Regional co-operation was also hampered, in the failure to dismantle legal barriers to extradition of war crimes suspects between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro.

Ten years after the 2001 armed conflict in Macedonia, prosecutions for war crimes cases returned from the Tribunal were annulled after parliament adopted a new interpretation of the Amnesty Law, effectively ensuring immunity from prosecution in domestic courts. 

In Kyrgyzstan, despite facilitating two independent commissions of inquiry, the authorities failed to fairly and effectively investigate the violence of June 2010 and its aftermath.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Victims of torture and other ill-treatment were likewise too often failed by justice systems that did not hold those responsible to account. Obstacles to accountability included lack of prompt access to a lawyer, failure by prosecutors to vigorously pursue investigations, fear of reprisals, low penalties imposed on convicted police officers, and the absence of properly independent systems for monitoring complaints and investigating serious police misconduct.

Pockets of entrenched impunity persisted. In Uzbekistan, despite assertions by the authorities that the practice of torture had significantly decreased, and the introduction of new legislation to improve the treatment of detainees, dozens of reports of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners emerged throughout the year. In Turkey the ground-breaking decision issued in 2010, which, for the first time in legal history, convicted state officials to long prison terms for causing death through torture, was overturned on appeal. Incidents of torture remained widely reported in Ukraine and in Russia, despite superficial police reforms in the latter.

Elsewhere, there were allegations of excessive use of force and ill-treatment as police sought to disperse protests against anti-austerity measures, such as in Greece and Spain.

The death penalty

Belarus remained the region’s last executioner, putting to death two men within a flawed criminal justice system which continued to shroud the process in secrecy. The executions were carried out despite a formal request by the UN Human Rights Committee for a stay so it could consider the two men’s cases.


The arrests of Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić sent out a powerful message not only to those affected, but across the wider region. It was a message of hope in the face of long years of waiting, but also a message of warning to all those who thought that influential friends, powerful neighbours or opaque vested interests would – or could – protect them from the reach of justice. It was a testament to what could be achieved when individuals, civil society, governments and the international community were committed to upholding universal human rights.

However, too many people across the region still fell through the gap between the rhetoric of human rights and the reality of their implementation. Robust support for human rights was too often seen as incompatible with supporting state security or energy supply. There were challenges to the independence and authority of the European Court of Human Rights; the EU too often showed itself a toothless tiger in the face of violations committed by its member states. And individual states still failed in their primary obligation to uphold all human rights for all.

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