Europe and Central Asia 2019
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Europe and Central Asia 2019

In 2019 in the heart of Europe, some states actively sought to erode the independence of the judiciary to avoid state accountability.  The European Union continued to outsource border and migration control.  Grave human rights risks ensued:  tens of thousands of people remained exposed to conflict, violence, torture and an uncertain future in destitute conditions.  Those opposing these border and migration control policies frequently faced smear campaigns, harassment, and even administrative and criminal penalties.  Increasing numbers of human rights defenders, activists and independent media faced intimidation and prosecution. Expressions of dissent on the streets were often met with a range of restrictive measures and excessive use of force by police. Against this overall backdrop of intolerance and discrimination, minorities and those seeking to defend their rights were met with violence, increasing stigmatization of some communities.  Survivors of sexual violence, including rape, continued to face obstacles in accessing justice. While two countries held their first ever Pride parades, there was a roll-back in a number of others on law and policies related to the rights of LGBTI people.

In 2019, founding values of the European Union (EU) were directly challenged from within. The independence of the judiciary, an essential component of the rule of law, was threatened in Poland as the ruling party took bolder steps to control judges and courts. The process in Poland was a clear illustration of how values were changing across Europe, and concerns about the independence of the judiciary in Hungary, Romania and Turkey persisted. Symptoms surfaced all over Europe, from migration policies where protection of borders was considered more important than protection of human lives, to dealing with popular dissent and public protest, which often led to abuses by law enforcement agencies. Intolerance towards religious and ethnic minorities frequently took the form of violence and discrimination.

While 2019 shows that many states failed to guarantee rights for all within their borders, nonetheless there was no shortage of courageous people who dared to stand up whatever the personal cost, and worked to hold states accountable.  People took the streets in large numbers to claim their rights and campaign for a fairer and more just society.  Their clear call was for governments to face their responsibilities not only at home but also in light of global challenges such as climate change. Their mobilization around these issues was a ray of hope for the future.

Migration

In 2019, approximately 120,000 asylum-seekers and migrants arrived in Europe irregularly. Arrivals decreased on the central and western Mediterranean routes and increased on the eastern Mediterranean route.

The belief prevailed that migration and border control could best be managed by “outsourcing” to countries with questionable human rights records.  It appeared equally acceptable for EU countries to contain migrants and asylum-seekers in abysmal conditions at the periphery of the EU or just outside its borders.

Human rights abuses against asylum-seekers and migrants seeking to cross the central Mediterranean Sea reached new heights when renewed hostilities broke out in Libya in April.  In addition to torture and arbitrary detention, they also faced shelling and direct attacks by the warring factions, resulting in the deaths of dozens of migrants and asylum- seekers.  Despite the deteriorating security situation, and continuing evidence pointing at systematic human rights violations in Libya’s detention centres, European countries continued to cooperate with Libya to contain migrants and asylum-seekers there. In November, the Italian government extended its agreement with Libya on migration for a further three years.

Cooperation with Libya went hand in hand with the policy of “closed ports” established by the Italian government. Under this policy, NGO ships were denied a safe port after rescuing people at sea, and forced to wait for weeks while Mediterranean states argued amongst themselves about where to disembark them. The policy ended after a change of government in Italy, which created the conditions for a temporary agreement between France, Germany, Italy and Malta. The agreement– a small, tentative step forward –ensures minimum coordination between the four countries to disembark and relocate those rescued at sea.

Despite consistent condemnation by human rights organizations, the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal continued to shape the migration policy of the EU in the Eastern Mediterranean. Reports of grave human rights violations against asylum-seekers and refugees in Turkey did nothing to deter the continued use of Turkey as a partner on migration. Ahead of Turkey’s incursion into north-eastern Syria in October, Amnesty International conducted dozens of interviews which suggested hundreds of Syrians were likely forcibly deported from Turkey between May and September, under the guise of “voluntary returns”.

Meanwhile in Greece, mid-2019 saw the biggest increase in sea arrivals since 2016. This led to unprecedented overcrowding in the camps on the Aegean islands. More than 38,000 people were held in facilities with a capacity of little more than 6,000.  Confronted with the ever-growing protection needs for asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants in- country, in November Greece’s newly installed government rushed to introduce new legislation featuring accelerated asylum procedures, increased detention and returns to Turkey. These followed trends in Austria, Finland, and Germany which have restricted the rights of asylum-seekers and placed greater focus on detention and deportations.

Land arrivals via the Greece-Turkey land border increased, accompanied by serious and consistent allegations of pushbacks and violence on the Greek side. Those who managed to avoid pushbacks continued their journey through the Balkan peninsula, amid reports that more than 30,000 people transited along this route after leaving Greece and Bulgaria.  Over 10,000 remain stranded in squalid camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, unable to continue their journeys due to persistent and systemic collective expulsions and violence by the Croatian police. In October, despite overwhelming evidence of human rights violations at the Croatian border, the European Commission recommended Croatia’s full integration into the Schengen Border Area.

Human Rights Defenders

Individuals and civil society organizations continued to oppose these anti-migration policies as human rights defenders, providing concrete support and solidarity to migrants and asylum-seekers. They rescued people at sea and in the mountains, providing transport, food and medicines to those in need all over the continent.

The response of many European states to these acts of humanity was to criticize, intimidate, harass, fine and even prosecute human rights defenders. In Greece, Italy and France, governments often treated rescue activities as smuggling and the actions of human rights defenders were considered as threats to national security, prompting the adoption of supposedly urgent, more restrictive laws.

The lack of clarity in relevant EU legislation left ample room for states to make draconian interpretations of this legislation at domestic level, resulting in a chilling effect on the work of human rights defenders. Many individuals and NGOs became increasingly reluctant to initiate solidarity actions.

In Turkey, dozens of human rights defenders faced criminal investigations and prosecutions and were held in police custody or imprisoned for their human rights work. Amongst them, the trials of of Taner Kılıç and İdil Eser, Honorary Chair and former Director of Amnesty International Turkey respectively, and nine other human rights defenders, continued throughout 2019. The trial of Osman Kavala and 15 civil society figures also continued.

Freedom of Expression

Human rights defenders were not alone in facing challenges to their work.  In many parts of the region, journalists who investigated corruption, organized crime and war crimes continued to be subjected to threats, smear campaigns, intimidation and in some cases physical violence as was the case in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.  While too often the authorities failed to condemn such attacks or undertake effective investigations, in Bulgaria it was the authorities themselves who brought charges against investigative journalists who had exposed corruption scandals potentially implicating senior government officials. In Albania, a controversial legislative package threatened the freedom of online media.   

Freedom of Assembly

Major protests took place in numerous countries across Europe including France, Austria, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and Hungary. People protested against austerity measures and about social justice, but also against corruption and about the independence of the judiciary. Protests and strikes urging governments to take measures against climate change became a regular occurrence in major European cities.

In response many states often opted for measures that breached the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. In France, Austria and Spain, hundreds of people were injured during protests. Police resorted to unlawful use of force in France and violently disrupted peaceful gatherings in Turkey, where blanket bans were often used to deny the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. States failed to hold their security forces accountable for violence perpetrated during the protests. Some states also provided police with heightened powers, as in Germany, where measures like assigned residency or communication surveillance can now be imposed on “future perpetrators of crimes”. In response, some courts played a critical role in safeguarding individual freedoms by annulling blanket bans on protests or, as in Poland, by upholding the rights of protesters who expressed their opposition to nationalism and racism. This however came at a price:  some judges adjudicating in these cases were harassed or demoted by the Polish authorities striving to undermine the independence of the judiciary. 

Independence of the judiciary

In Poland, Hungary, Romania and Turkey, legislative and administrative initiatives threatened the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law and as a result the right to a fair trial.

This clash was most visible in Poland, where the government and parliament tried to implement legal and policy changes to force the judiciary to comply with its political direction.

Judges and prosecutors found themselves at risk of disciplinary proceedings for speaking out in defence of the judiciary and risked becoming victims of human rights violations themselves. Smear campaigns on state and social media also targeted and intimidated individual judges.

In Hungary, the erosion of checks and balances in ordinary courts continued to undermine the independence of the judiciary.  In May the European Commission warned Romania that it should address issues including interference with the rule of law by the executive, or face the triggering of a procedure under which certain rights can be suspended from a member state for persistent breach of the EU’s founding values.

While EU institutions promptly escalated their response to the situation in Poland, their interventions had not led to significant improvements by the end of the year.

Outside the European Union, the judiciary was under threat in Turkey. Following the crackdown after the 2016 coup attempt, in 2018 new legislation was introduced, allowing dismissal of officials from public service for alleged links to “terrorist organizations”.

Hate crimes and discrimination

Evidence of a downward trend, intolerance and discrimination often turned violent in 2019.  The violence was targeted at those who spoke out in favour of minorities, tolerance and inclusion.

At least two officials paid the highest price for upholding these values. In January, in Poland the mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, a supporter of LGBTI and migrant rights, was fatally stabbed during a charity event. In June, the acting administrative president of the German town of Kassel, Walter Lübcke, was killed by a shot in the head for his support of policies welcoming refugees. 

Two people were killed in the German city of Halle/Saale in October after a suspected far-right gunman tried to attack a synagogue during Yom Kippur prayers and afterwards attacked a local food outlet. Assaults on mosques were also reported in France; a man attempted to burn a mosque in Bayonne in October and fired shots at two men, seriously injuring them. 

Across Europe attacks on and discrimination against Roma communities continued.  In Bulgaria, Roma in Vojvodinovo and Gabrovo were subject to forced evictions and demolition of their houses. Local authorities and mobs were responsible for these incidents, and as a result hundreds of people were forcibly evicted and their houses torched or demolished. Authorities in Giugliano, Italy, evicted a community of around 450 Roma, including families with children, and offered them no alternative accommodation. Forced evictions of Roma also occurred in Sweden and France.  

Women’s rights

In a long-awaited development and following a Belfast High Court decision, abortion in Northern Ireland was decriminalized and all pending criminal proceedings were dropped. In Slovakia, attempts in parliament to further restrict access to and criminalize abortion continued, triggering protests of rights organizations and prompting the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner to call on parliament to withdraw the law.

Survivors of sexual violence, including rape, continued to face obstacles in accessing justice. Legal definitions of rape in most European countries remained based on force, at odds with human rights laws and standards, which recognize that sex without consent is rape.  In countries including Denmark, Spain and the UK, there were systemic failures in sexual violence prevention, investigation and prosecution. Survivors of sexual violence and women’s rights activists challenged these failings and demanded justice. 

In Spain, widespread protests in reaction to judgments in the “Wolf Pack” case led the government to announce that the legal definition of rape would be amended to make clear that sex without consent is rape.  Spanish courts had previously acquitted the five men known as the “Wolf Pack” of rape, even while recognizing that the woman concerned had not consented, and had instead convicted them for the lesser offence of sexual abuse as violence or intimidation was not found. The rulings were eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, and the men were sentenced in June to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Survivors’ and campaigners’ efforts in Greece helped to change the legal definition of rape to one based on consent.

LGBTI Rights

Pride week events were explicitly banned in several Turkish provinces. A blanket and indefinite ban in place in Ankara since November 2017 was finally lifted in April. However, bans subsequently imposed on individual events maintained the unlawful restrictions on LGBTI rights. Those who challenged the bans faced police violence, investigations and prosecutions.  In Poland, up to 64 local councils adopted resolutions opposing “LGBT ideology”.

On a more positive note, two countries held their first Pride parades:  North Macedonia in June, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in September. Despite alarming signs of potential violence and high security measures, both events enjoyed the support and endorsement of the national authorities and took place in a festive atmosphere with no violence.