Human rights offer hope for a Europe and Central Asia under threat
From the craggy Urals to the windswept Atlantic coastline, Europe is more than a geographical landmass. It is an idea, created over millennia: nourished by myriad cultures and traditions; refreshed by shifting populations; held together by shared values and a common history. With some notable exceptions, it has enjoyed unparalleled peace and prosperity in recent decades. But now Europe and Central Asia is facing an unrelenting attack on human rights from within.
The politics of blame and fear
The rise of intolerance, hatred and discrimination, within the context of a shrinking space for civil society, is causing an ever-widening rift in the region’s social fabric. The politics of fear is driving people apart as leaders peddle a toxic rhetoric, blaming groups of people for social or economic problems.
Human rights defenders, activists, the media and political opposition are harassed by authorities. They face unfounded criminal prosecutions; some are targeted by violent groups who act with impunity.
In much of Europe, the so-called refugee crisis – and the abject response to it – has been a key touchstone: a mirror reflecting some stark truths.
Asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants are turned away or left in squalor while acts of solidarity are progressively criminalized. Children are left to fend for themselves. Fragmented policies arising from an “each country for themselves” approach have left frontline states like Greece bearing the responsibility for tens of thousands of refugees and migrants. Dodgy deals to outsource responsibilities and reinforce “fortress Europe” are breaching international law.
And the so-called crisis, combined with austerity policies, have been seized upon by a rising cabal of opportunistic politicians. Calling themselves “anti-establishment”, they wield the politics of demonization to hound, scapegoat and dehumanize the most marginalized.
Hungary has become a standard-bearer of intolerance. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling party Fidesz have intensified the attack on human rights, proudly flaunting his violations of international law. The administration advanced a full-frontal assault on migrants and refugees, restricted the right to peaceful protest, criminalized homelessness and introduced draconian legislation that criminalizes lawful migration-related activities, threatening civil society’s existence.
In Poland, legislation restricting the right to protest as well as hundreds of unjust prosecutions of peaceful protesters, and expanded surveillance powers enjoyed by law enforcement agencies, are shrinking the space for dissent. The authorities have systematically attacked and undermined judicial independence and overturned mechanisms and guarantees for protecting human rights, subjecting the judiciary to political interference. Judges who criticized the government for these measures, or sought clarification about their compatibility with EU law from the Court of Justice of the European Union, have faced harassment and disciplinary proceedings.
Taner Kılıç, Amnesty Turkey Chair who was freed after 14 months behind bars
While in prison, these actions lifted my spirit and reminded me of the importance of international solidarity in the struggle for human rights
Climate of fear stifles dissent
Meanwhile, a climate of fear has descended upon some countries in the region. Since the 2016 failed coup in Turkey, tens of thousands of people including journalists, human rights defenders and activists have been arbitrarily detained for their real or perceived criticism of the authorities without evidence of any conduct that could reasonably constitute criminal offences. NGOs and newspapers have been shut down and more than 130,000 public sector workers arbitrarily dismissed under state of emergency decrees. Taner Kılıç, Honorary Chair of Amnesty International Turkey, spent over 14 months in prison. Released in August, he faces baseless criminal charges just because of his human rights work.
Across Europe, emboldened groups advocate hate and discrimination, levering themselves into mainstream politics. Meanwhile, established political parties are absorbing their ideas and parroting their hateful rhetoric. Fuelled by certain politicians and a divisive media, advocacy of hatred and intolerance is increasingly normalized.
European institutions and human rights
As key players withdraw from and even undermine international human rights mechanisms, the EU and its member states are challenged to step up their engagement with human rights in relation to their foreign policy. As it stands, though, the EU’s credibility is threatened by its own human rights failures at home.
There have been some positive steps, like the European Commission and European Parliament triggering Article 7 to bring proceedings regarding Hungary and Poland. These proceedings came in response to measures – introduced by both states – which undermine human rights. The EU has also made advances to support and protect individual human rights defenders in some countries, but progress needs to be expanded throughout the region. In relation to migration, Europe’s institutions have taken no decisive action and have even taken steps which have worsened the situation.
Callous immigration policies
The EU-Turkey deal, for example, has left thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in squalid and unsafe conditions on Greek islands. In the central Mediterranean, European governments are complicit in the suffering caused by their callous immigration policies which outsource border control to Libya. By supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings, impeding rescues, and taking people back to horrific detention centres in Libya, the EU has undermined search and rescue efforts and put people at real risk of torture.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights’ independence and authority is increasingly threatened. Some states have refused to implement the Court’s binding judgments, often for political gain, and have thus enabled serious systemic and structural problems at the national level which, in turn, perpetuate human rights violations.
Silencing dissenting voices
In countries such as Kazakhstan, Russia and Tajikistan, online freedom of expression is progressively threatened while, across the region, peaceful protests are met with a range of restrictive measures and excessive force by police. In Russia, where street protest is on the rise, heavy-handed policing has resulted in mass arrests. Even children are detained for attending peaceful demonstrations and journalists are being targeted for covering them. An unprecedented number of people have been prosecuted for posting or even re-posting critical material online.
Governments continue to enact counter-terrorism and “anti-extremism” measures, and abuse criminal justice systems to target government critics and dissenters.
In Russia and elsewhere, human rights defenders are prosecuted on fabricated criminal charges. In January, Oyub Titiev, head of the Grozny, Chechnya office of the human rights organization Memorial, was arrested on trumped-up drug-related charges. He faces years in prison. Others face violence from unidentified assailants with possible links to the authorities.
Forcible returns of refugees are increasing, with some countries like Azerbaijan exercising extraterritorial powers in attempts to detain and extradite human rights defenders who have fled their country for fear of being unjustly prosecuted.
In Ukraine, human rights defenders and critical civil society groups are increasingly targeted by violent groups who enjoy impunity, and by the authorities. Police in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan use violence to silence LGBTI activists.
In Crimea, any trace of opposition to the Russian occupation is brutally crushed. Ethnic Crimean Tatar human rights defenders and other activists face arbitrary prosecution and constant harassment by Russian security services.
“We are responsible not only for what we say but what we fail to say…”
And yet, against this backdrop of xenophobic rhetoric and repressive politics, optimism persists. Activism and protest are growing: a groundswell of ordinary people with extraordinary passion are speaking out for justice and equality. Their actions are helping to define the type of continent in which they want to live, and their courage is contagious.
They are journalists and academics, artists, judges, lawyers and ordinary citizens from all walks of life who are driven by compassion and indignation at injustice and suffering.
In repressive times, stepping up to defend human rights or speaking out to condemn injustice is more dangerous and yet more vital than ever.
Those who speak out become a symbol of hope to others. Unless we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them there will be no one left to stand up for what is right. And Europe’s leaders must be front and centre, showing support for them and calling out those who target them.
As the Turkish writer Aziz Nesin said, “we are responsible not only for what we say but what we fail to say by staying silent”. We cannot and will not stay silent.