Europe And Central Asia 2022
2022 will be remembered in Europe and Central Asia as the year Russia led a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, committing war crimes and potential crimes against humanity, and sparking the biggest movement of refugees in Europe since World War II. Russia’s use of unlawful siege tactics, attacks on energy infrastructure and civilian property left thousands of civilians killed, injured and suffering severe privation.
Almost 7 million people were displaced within Ukraine, 5 million fled to Europe and 2.8 million left for Russia and Belarus. The welcome shown to those arriving in the EU was striking, but discriminatory at times, as it did not include some categories of people fleeing Ukraine such as Black people, non-nationals with temporary residency permits, and some Roma people, who faced particular obstacles accessing protection. Generous reception of most people from Ukraine stood in sharp contrast to the often violent rejection and abuse of refugees and migrants at Europe’s external borders. This double standard revealed the racism inherent in EU external border policy and practice. Many European countries also introduced severe travel restrictions against Russian citizens, many of whom sought to flee mobilization.
The socio-economic impact of the war reverberated worldwide, with many in the Global South hit hard by disruption of grain and fertilizer exports. European countries saw huge spikes in energy prices. By the end of the year, many European countries had cost of living crises and record inflation, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable. Moldova saw inflation rise above 30%, and Türkiye, above 64%. Moves to tackle the climate crisis were blunted by efforts to avoid dependence on Russia’s oil and gas.
The war fostered the reconfiguration of politics in the broader region. Belarus largely aligned its foreign and military policy with Moscow and shared responsibility for Russia’s act of aggression. There and in Russia, the war meant more repression, increasing hardship, and more international isolation, symbolized by Russia’s expulsion from the Council of Europe and suspension from the UN Human Rights Council. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict flared up anew as Russia’s peacemaker role waned.
The war and Russia’s policy also destabilized the Western Balkans, as Serbia’s conflict with Kosovo threatened to escalate. An indirect consequence was a shift in EU enlargement policy, with the EU granting “conditional” candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite its failure to meet accession criteria. The EU also gave the nod to Ukraine and Moldova to begin accession negotiations, but not to Georgia, where reforms stalled or regressed.
With regard to international and regional human rights mechanisms, Russia’s veto powers often paralysed the OSCE and also the UN Security Council and relegated these organizations to the role of helpless observers of the conflict. The ICC however acted with unprecedented swiftness, announcing an investigation into the situation in Ukraine on 2 March.
Overall, Russia’s war in Ukraine exacerbated the negative human rights trends of previous years by fuelling insecurity and inequality; this in turn gave a fillip to authoritarian forces and provided a pretext for further clampdowns on basic freedoms. These same forces were emboldened to articulate and often implement racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and homophobic agendas. Vicious crackdowns on protesters in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan were emblematic of authorities’ continuing use of excessive force.
Violations of international humanitarian law
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered an extensive human rights, humanitarian and displacement crisis.
Investigators documented thousands of possible war crimes and potential crimes against humanity committed by Russian forces, including extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, forced population transfers, the use of banned weapons, sexual violence and the targeting of schools and hospitals. Russia’s use of siege tactics against civilians, indiscriminate attacks and the targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure during winter seemed aimed at maximizing civilian suffering. Prisoners of war held by both sides in the conflict were subjected to ill-treatment and possible extrajudicial execution.
No progress was made in investigating violations of international humanitarian law during the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict or in bringing suspected perpetrators to justice. People continued to be killed by mines planted by Armenian forces in territories ceded to Azerbaijan, and tensions flared at the year’s end when Azerbaijani protesters blocked the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, disrupting the provision of essential goods and services. Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region saw no progress on impunity for past abuses.
All allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity should be subject to impartial and independent investigations, including through the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights
The region received record numbers of people on the move. People fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constituted the biggest single case of displacement on the continent since World War II. The largest numbers of such people were recorded in Poland (1.53 million), Germany (1.02 million) and the Czech Republic (468,000). The EU activated the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time, providing people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine with quick access to accommodation, the labour market, and education. The reception shown to people seeking protection from the war in Ukraine set a new benchmark in Europe and showed that EU member states have the capacity to give dignified protection to millions if there is the political will to do so. For example, a state emergency law was passed in the Netherlands for municipalities to ensure that 60,000 Ukrainians had access to accommodation and other services. In Switzerland, refugees from Ukraine received rapid support, although projects aimed at improving conditions in asylum centres were postponed.
EU countries also marked the largest number since 2016 of asylum requests from people from other countries around the world seeking safety and a rise in people using the Western Balkan, Central and East Mediterranean routes to arrive. Throughout the year Europe’s borders remained a place of racialized exclusion, danger and abuse for many people also seeking protection coming from other parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. At both land and sea borders, states subjected refugees and migrants to forcible, often violent, summary returns without examination of their individual circumstances. Many refugees and migrants endured the consequences of racist border policies at the hands of the officials enforcing them. Spanish authorities continued to deny responsibility for serious human rights violations during operations by their border police in Melilla in 2021 which resulted in the death of 37 people from sub-Saharan Africa, injuries to scores of others and the summary return of at least 470 people to Morocco.
State actors patrolling sea borders prevented refugees and migrants arriving by boat from disembarking. Border officials and police arbitrarily detained, often for long periods, others who managed to reach EU territory and summarily returned, often violently, thousands of people from Bulgaria and Greece to Türkiye; Türkiye to Iran and Syria; Cyprus to Lebanon; Spain to Morocco; France to Italy; Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina; Hungary to Serbia; and Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to Belarus.
Countries reacted differently to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. Denmark began to review cases of rejected Afghan asylum seekers, but Belgium resumed refusals of international protection for Afghans. While Germany resettled significant numbers of at-risk Afghans, a new programme launched to approve admission of 1,000 people per month prompted concerns over fairness and transparency of the process.
In the east of the region, Tajikistan detained and deported Afghan refugees. Russia’s war in Ukraine prompted the large-scale migration of Russians to Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan proposed legislative amendments which could force many to return to Russia. Belarus continued to violently force refugees and migrants to cross its borders towards EU countries, subjecting them to torture and other ill-treatment.
Governments must ensure that everyone has their right to international protection respected, protected and upheld without discrimination or being returned to persecution or other human rights violations.
Women’s and girls’ rights
The rights of women saw both progress and setbacks. In Poland, a harmful constitutional court ruling from 2021 continued to limit access to abortion, while NGOs supported 44,000 people to access abortion services (mostly abroad) at great risk due to the appalling criminalization of the provision of help. Hungary adopted new rules requiring people seeking an abortion to show a clinician’s report confirming that they had listened to the “fetal heartbeat”. Political forces in Slovakia introduced legislation to limit access to abortion.
Several countries began removing restrictions on accessing abortion. The Netherlands abolished the mandatory waiting period of five days for an abortion, while Germany repealed a provision criminalizing doctors for “advertising abortion”. In Spain, parliament passed a bill to remove the requirement of parental consent for 16- and 17-year-olds seeking an abortion, mandatory counselling and reflection periods. Malta began to discuss the possibility of termination if the woman’s life and health are at risk.
Violence against women and domestic violence persisted at high levels across the region. This was the case in Kyrgyzstan, where gender-based violence remained systemic and under-reported, and in Georgia, where concerns mounted about growing levels of femicide. Several countries moved towards reforming rape laws and enshrining the principle of consent. New laws entered into force in Belgium, Finland and Spain, while legislators in the Netherlands continued to discuss such amendments.
Ukraine and the UK ratified the landmark Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). Although the EU had not made progress towards ratifying the Istanbul Convention, the European Commission proposed a new directive to combat violence against women and domestic violence.
UN Women reported that more than a third of female-headed households in war-affected areas in Ukraine struggled to secure sufficient food, and Russian strikes on healthcare facilities contributed to greatly reduced maternal health services. In April in Turkmenistan, demonstrating a new move to impose “traditional” values, police began preventing women from sitting in the front passenger seat of a car under new rules lacking legal clarity.
Governments must urgently combat all forms of gender-based violence that disproportionately affect women and girls and address its root causes.
Right to privacy
Following earlier revelations about Pegasus spyware, 2022 saw revelations that Spain had targeted journalists and opposition politicians. During the year, there were also independently confirmed cases of journalists and politicians targeted with spyware in Poland and Greece.
A number of governments continued dangerous expansions of law enforcement and intelligence service powers. In Serbia, the government sought to introduce legislation facilitating biometric surveillance and data processing. In Switzerland and Ireland, NGOs raised concerns about draft legislation expanding the powers of intelligence services in the former and introducing facial recognition technology in law enforcement in the latter. In Georgia, legislative amendments gave law enforcement authorities increased scope to conduct covert surveillance. Turkmenistani activists were targeted abroad, for example in Istanbul where Turkmenistani consulate staff attacked peaceful activists trying to deliver a human rights petition.
Erosion of judicial independence and the right to a fair trial
In June the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission noted that in Georgia the speed and scope of 2021 amendments to the law on common courts may create a “chilling effect on judges’ freedom of expression and internal judicial independence” with a perceived aim to “control and silence” them. In Belarus legislation expanded the use of investigations and trials in absentia and the justice system continued to persecute government critics. The governments in Hungary and Poland continued to target judges and prosecutors with abusive disciplinary proceedings and suspensions and to disregard international criticism in this area. In Türkiye, the government’s grip on the judiciary has eviscerated judicial independence over a number of years, resulting in human rights defenders, activists and political opponents facing baseless investigations, prosecutions and convictions.
Governments must stop the slide to surveillance societies, respect the right to a fair trial, and end the erosion of judicial independence.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Russia’s war in Ukraine was accompanied by systematic torture and other ill-treatment. Prisoners of war were subjected to ill-treatment and possible extrajudicial execution. The Russian “filtration” process subjected some civilians in Ukraine to electroshocks, execution threats, the denial of food and water, and the separation of children from their parents. Elsewhere in the east of the region, ill treatment was commonly deployed in detention centres. In Kazakhstan electric shocks and burning with steam irons were reported and according to official figures six individuals died from “unlawful interrogation methods”. Torture and other ill-treatment was rampant in Tajikistan to intimidate and extract confessions. In Belarus, those convicted under politically motivated charges were held in inhuman conditions in solitary confinement. Kazakhstan fully abolished the death penalty in law, while Belarus executed at least one person.
Border guards and police at the EU’s external borders continued to subject refugees and migrants to ill-treatment, frequently amounting to torture, and in Italy court cases relating to torture in prisons continued.
Governments must act urgently to end torture and other ill-treatment, bringing perpetrators to justice.
State overreach and freedom of expression
Governments used various “crises” to arrogate new powers. The authorities in Hungary used the pretext of the war in Ukraine to give themselves new powers to declare a state of emergency. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland continued their states of emergency at the border with Belarus, unjustifiably restricting access of journalists, NGOs and humanitarian actors.
Türkiye continued to detain and prosecute dozens of journalists, activists and opposition politicians on spurious terrorism-related charges. Parliament passed a new disinformation law enhancing government powers over social media.
In the Western Balkans, authorities pressured, harassed and threatened journalists, especially those reporting on organized crime, corruption and war crimes. Monitors recorded physical attacks against journalists in Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPPs), abusive lawsuits that targeted journalists and environmental activists, were increasingly common. The use of SLAPPs was concerning in Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Greece, but frighteningly common in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. The European Commission proposed an anti-SLAPP directive, which was under negotiation.
In the east, freedom of expression remained under severe assault. Government restrictions left Russians with few independent sources of information. In March, new legislation penalizing “discreditation” of and spreading “deliberately false information” about the Russian Armed Forces effectively barred critical mention of the war in Ukraine. Thousands of administrative and criminal prosecutions ensued. People criticizing the war were arrested, heavily fined or sentenced to detention or prison. Many high-profile critics of the war were declared “foreign agents”. Dozens of independent media were closed, thousands of websites were blocked, and Meta was declared an “extremist organization”. Belarus also prosecuted hundreds who expressed support for Ukraine or criticized the government, arrested 40 more independent journalists and brought new charges against those already imprisoned. Hundreds were prosecuted for association with “extremist” content.
The Tajikistani authorities aggressively targeted independent media and human rights defenders in response to new protests in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), and shut down the internet completely there in the first months of the year. Turkmenistan reportedly blocked 1.2 billion IP addresses to prevent access to information from abroad, and Azerbaijan adopted a new media law to create a single official register of journalists and mandated media to distribute “objective” information only.
Freedom of assembly
In the western part of the region, several countries imposed arbitrary or disproportionate bans on peaceful protests. In Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities banned protests commemorating the 30th anniversary of wartime persecution. Türkiye repeatedly placed bans on Prides and demonstrations commemorating victims of enforced disappearances. More often, the authorities resorted to other measures, such as preventive detention (Sweden), excessive use of force against protesters (Serbia), severe fines (Slovenia), arbitrary arrests (Greece) and unfair dismissals of protest participants (Hungary).
Many governments continued efforts to prevent or punish acts of civil disobedience, especially by environmental protesters. Governments cracked down using various means, including unlawful dispersals in Finland and charging protesters with severe crimes such as sabotage in Sweden. The UK passed legislation granting police new powers to implement restrictions on the grounds of noise and nuisance. Setting a precedent, the Federal Administrative Court in Germany ruled that protest camps are protected by constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly.
To the east, peaceful protesters met with excessive force from the authorities in several countries, leading to death, torture and injury. January saw a sudden explosion of mass protest in Kazakhstan calling for reform. The response was over 10,000 arrested, use of live ammunition and rubber bullets, labelling protesters “terrorists”, ill-treatment and detention in inhuman conditions, and the death of at least 219 protesters and 19 law enforcement officers. At the year’s end most incidents had not been investigated.
Tajikistan saw a brutal crackdown on protest in the GBAO. An “anti-terrorist operation” saw tens of Pamiri protesters killed and over 200 people, including activists, poets and journalists, arbitrarily arrested.
In Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, protests erupted in July in response to proposed constitutional amendments around the status of the territory. Security forces were deployed, leading to at least 21 deaths, more than 250 injured, hundreds arbitrarily detained and scores subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.
Belarus saw police brutally disperse peaceful protests against Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and the sentencing of many protesters to detention or fines after closed trials. Authorities in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, restricted locations where public assemblies could be held. In Russia, the authorities viciously persecuted not just protest participants but also those who monitored protests.
Freedom of association
In the west of the region, Türkiye and France stood out as countries restricting freedom of association by seeking to dissolve associations. The former applied counter-terrorist provisions in an overly broad manner, targeting a platform against femicide, a community group, and one of the main opposition parties (the HDP). The latter abused the provisions of a new law on “republican values”, targeting an anti-fascist group, two pro-Palestinian groups, and an environmental rights collective.
Uzbekistan’s government cemented control of civil society when it issued a decree requiring NGOs to obtain “national partners” – chosen by the government – to implement foreign grants. Kyrgyzstan introduced new requirements for NGOs to report on foreign funds, and Belarus cited “extremism” and “terrorism” charges to shut down over two hundred organizations.
The space for all to exercise the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly must be protected from state overreach under various pretexts.
Human rights defenders
Türkiye continued its assault on human rights defenders. At year’s end, Öztürk Türkdoğan faced three different spurious prosecutions for “membership of a terrorist organization,” “insulting a public official,” and “denigrating the Turkish nation”. Similarly, human rights lawyer Eren Keskin and Şebnem Korur Fincancı, a prominent forensic specialist, both faced baseless terrorism-related charges. Turkish authorities refused to implement a binding decision from the European Court of Human Rights in the case of human rights defender Osman Kavala despite infringement proceedings. The Court of Cassation overturned charges against former Amnesty Türkiye chair Taner Kılıç.
Greece, Italy and Türkiye all persecuted human rights defenders working on migrants’ and refugees’ rights. Women’s rights defenders faced persecution in several countries. In Andorra, Vanessa Mendoza Cortés faced a huge defamation fine after criticizing the harmful impact of the country’s ban on abortion. In Poland, Justyna Wydrzynska faced trial for supporting a pregnant woman’s efforts to seek an abortion.
In the east, defenders were subjected to arbitrary detention, violence and intimidation. In Belarus, the human rights organization Viasna was a singular target, with Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatski and colleagues imprisoned and facing trumped-up charges; Marfa Rabkova and Andrey Chapyuk were sentenced in a closed trial to 15 and six years’ imprisonment respectively. Nasta Loika was falsely charged with “petty hooliganism” and denied medicines, warm clothes and drinking water in administrative detention, and then pressed with false criminal charges. In Russia, human rights defenders were under unceasing pressure under the “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” legislation, forcing many to leave the country. In April, the Ministry of Justice withdrew the registration of over a dozen foreign foundations and NGOs including Amnesty International, forcing the closure of their offices in Russia. In occupied Crimea, Crimean Tatar rights activists and lawyers continued to face severe reprisals.
Governments should protect human rights defenders and recognize their crucial role, rather than stigmatizing and criminalizing their activities.
A number of countries saw record reports of antisemitism. In both Germany and the UK, monitors recorded a serious increase in antisemitic hate crimes. In Slovakia, the suspect in the murder of two LGBTI people was found to have written virulently antisemitic propaganda. The Latvian parliament passed a restitution law granting compensation to the Jewish community for properties seized during the Nazi and Soviet occupations.
Several countries continued to reinforce or pass new measures targeting Muslim women. Andorra passed a law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols which prevents Muslim women from wearing the headscarf. In France, local authorities banned a protest by women footballers against an attempt to codify a discriminatory ruling which prevents Muslim women who wear headscarves from participating in competitive sports. The highest administrative tribunal upheld a ban on wearing “burkinis” in Grenoble. In Switzerland, following a 2021 referendum, parliament considered a draft law to ban face coverings. The discussion of these measures was rife with negative stereotypes and mired in anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Monitors in both Belgium and Switzerland found strong evidence of structural racism against people of African descent. In the UK, police stop-and-search practices continued to disproportionately affect Black people. An investigation found that over a two-year period 650 children had been strip searched, with 58% of them Black. In Denmark, a housing company evicted numerous people to avoid categorization as a “ghetto” under laws which prohibit the concentration of people of “non-Western background”. In Germany, the National Discrimination and Racism Monitor found that racism was part of everyday life in the country.
Roma faced derogatory speech and systemic discrimination in housing, education, policing and other realms of life. Roma continued to be subjected to segregation in education for example in Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Slovakia. Racist policing, statelessness and the lack of personal documentation continued to hinder efforts at Roma empowerment. The continuing vicious crackdown on human rights in Belarus also targeted national minorities, including Poles and Lithuanians, as well as proponents of Belarusian language and culture. The government barred two schools from teaching in Polish in the west of the country where many Poles live, closed a Lithuanian school in Hrodna region and shut down Belarusian book shops.
LGBTI people’s rights
Discrimination and violence against LGBTI people in some countries was accompanied by judicial or legislative progress in others. One of the most serious violent incidents took place in Slovakia when two people died and one was injured in a shooting outside a gay bar. Attacks and/or threats against LGBTI leaders took place in Montenegro, North Macedonia and Poland.
Judiciaries in some countries issued decisions that upheld the rights of LGBTI people. Courts in Croatia confirmed that same-sex couples should be able to adopt children under the same conditions as others. The Constitutional Court in Slovenia declared bans on gay marriage and adoption as unconstitutional. Following a Supreme Court decision in Latvia, administrative courts started recognizing same-sex couples. In Switzerland, new regulations to legalize civil marriage and adoption for same-sex couples entered into force. The Spanish parliament passed a landmark bill that recognizes trans people’s right to gender self-determination. The governments in Finland and Germany proposed progressive legislation on legal gender recognition.
In contrast, the government in Hungary organized a referendum based on a 2021 anti-LGBTI law. In Poland, numerous local governments still declared themselves to be “LGBT-free zones” and activists faced SLAPP suits and arbitrary detention.
In the east, some progress was seen. President Volodymyr Zelensky promised legislation on civil partnerships in Ukraine. Moldova held its largest-ever Pride march notwithstanding threats from the mayor in the capital, Chisinau, that he would ban it. Elsewhere, however, LGBTI rights continued to be severely repressed. Russia extended the prohibition of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations, paedophilia and gender reassignment” from minors to all age groups. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan continued to criminalize consensual sexual relations between men, and a discriminatory draft law was submitted in Uzbekistan allowing police to conduct mandatory testing for men who have sex with men.
Governments must redouble their efforts to prevent discrimination including against Jews, Muslims, Black people, Roma and LGBTI people.
Economic, social and cultural rights
Countries with close economic ties to Russia were profoundly impacted by the war in Ukraine. In Russia itself, overall poverty levels increased. Within Ukraine, the World Bank reported that poverty levels increased tenfold as nearly half a million children were plunged into poverty.
By the end of the year, most countries in the region had cost of living crises and record inflation. Seventeen EU member states had inflation greater than 10%. As usual, across the region the poorest and most vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, pensioners and children, were disproportionately affected and suffered inadequate social protection.
Governments must take immediate action to address ongoing socio-economic hardships, by assigning adequate resources including through comprehensive social protection to ensure that everybody can enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights.
Failure to tackle climate crisis
The climate crisis was brought home to many by unprecedented summer heatwaves, with temperatures exceeding 40˚C in places. Some 25,000 excess deaths were recorded due to the heat, which also resulted in dried up rivers, a glacier collapse in Italy, severe drought affecting most of Portugal and fires destroying vast territories in Spain. The urgency of taking climate action was counteracted by the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In Ukraine military activities polluted the air, water and soil with toxic substances and Russia’s conduct of hostilities raised the risk of a nuclear accident around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The need to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas led to a scramble to ensure alternative sources of fossil fuels, decisions to extend the life of coal and nuclear plants, and temporary reductions in fuel taxes. Turkmenistan continued to be one of the highest methane gas emitters globally and women in rural areas there were disproportionately impacted by climate change.
After some equivocation before COP 27, the EU supported the creation of a Loss and Damage fund, raising some hopes for climate solidarity. However, European countries failed to align 2030 emission reduction targets to achieve the global target of limiting temperature increase to 1.5˚C.
Governments must increase their emission reduction targets in a way that reflects their responsibility for the climate crisis. They should implement adequate and human rights-consistent policies, including phasing out the use and production of fossil fuel through a just transition. They should also urgently scale up climate finance to lower-income countries and commit to providing additional dedicated funding for loss and damage.