Europe and Central Asia Regional Overview

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Authoritarianism was on the march in Europe and Central Asia in 2021. A number of states demonstrated an unprecedented brazenness in their disregard for human rights, which threatened to make human rights commitments a dead letter and turn regional organizations into meaningless forums for empty “dialogue”. In some countries such tendencies were evidenced in continuing state overreach and the erosion of judicial independence, in clampdowns on freedoms and the muzzling of dissenting voices. Human rights defenders across the region faced restrictions, unjust prosecutions and intimidation.

Throughout the region xenophobic narratives about migration permeated public opinion, while policy hardened further. The fortification of the EU’s external frontiers continued apace, while many countries openly announced the number of illegal pushbacks at their borders. “Pushback” is an anodyne term for what were frequently horrifically violent practices. A full dozen countries in the EU called on the bloc’s executive to dilute refugee protection rules.

Racism against Black people, Muslims, Roma and Jewish people grew. Many countries witnessed a backlash against the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, fear of migration reinforced prejudices against Muslims, and Roma faced further social exclusion under the Covid-19 pandemic and Jewish people experienced a significant increase in verbal and physical attacks. It was difficult not to see racism in the vaccine and climate policies of European countries towards the rest of the world. By contrast within Europe vaccination rates were relatively high although numbers in some Eastern European and Central Asian countries remained persistently low.

Racism often went hand in hand with sexism and homophobia. While some countries marked progress in women’s rights, several continued their backsliding. The authoritarian turn was also marked by legislative initiatives stigmatizing and restricting the rights of LGBTI people. Authoritarian backsliding, combined with the impact of Covid-19 and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, may have set women’s and LGBTI rights back decades in some countries.

The internal backsliding was accompanied by more aggressive international relations. The aftermath of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to exact a deadly toll. At year’s end Russia had amassed troops on the border with Ukraine; war on the European continent seemed increasingly possible.

State overreach

State overreach and disregard for traditional checks and balances were part of the authoritarian trend. In Russia the country’s main opposition politician, Aleksei Navalny, received a lengthy prison sentence on politically motivated charges and Russia ignored orders by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to free him. In Belarus the government used a fake bomb threat to divert a civilian aircraft so it could arrest exiled journalist Raman Pratasevich who was on board.

A number of governments continued to overstep the limits of legitimate action under the smokescreen of Covid-19, migration “crises”, and combating terrorism/extremism. Thus, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia declared states of emergency which failed to meet international standards and severely limited media and NGO work at the border.

Governments deployed increasingly sophisticated technical means for use against critics. The Pegasus Project revealed that Hungary, Poland, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan used Pegasus spyware from surveillance company NSO Group against human rights defenders, journalists, and others, while the German government admitted that it had purchased the technology. Thousands of files were leaked showing widespread surveillance by Georgia’s state security services of journalists, civil activists, politicians, clerics and diplomats.

Some faced a reckoning for past practices. In North Macedonia, the former head of the secret police and others were convicted for unlawful wiretapping. The ECtHR ruled that UK bulk interception of communication powers lacked safeguards against abuse. At the same time, in Switzerland, a referendum approved a new counter-terrorism law providing police with far-reaching powers. The withdrawal from Afghanistan did not occasion any rethink of state overreach in surveillance or other abuses in combating terrorism.

Erosion of judicial independence

One key feature of state overreach was the erosion of judicial independence. Poland continued its defiance of attempts by European organizations to halt the destruction of the independence of the country’s judiciary, confronting the EU with its greatest rule of law crisis to date. In a series of judgments, the ECtHR and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) found that Poland’s judicial changes failed to meet fair trial requirements. In response, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that Polish law had primacy over EU law and that the right to a fair trial under the European Convention on human rights was incompatible with the constitution, prompting a rare inquiry by the Council of Europe Secretary General.

The situation was worse in Belarus, where authorities weaponized the justice system to punish victims of torture and witnesses of human rights violations. In Georgia, the arrest and degrading treatment in detention of prominent opposition leaders including former president Mikheil Saakashvili raised concerns about judicial independence. Multilateral organizations noted that a new constitution in Kyrgyzstan could encroach upon judicial independence.

Turkey took only cosmetic steps around the judiciary, but failed to address the deep flaws in the system. It resisted pressure to implement key judgments of the ECtHR and faced a rarely used infringement proceeding at the end of the year.

Freedom of expression, assembly and association

Freedom of expression

Many governments sought to silence criticism, muzzle civil society organizations that could aggregate grievances, and deter protests on the streets. In some countries the primary dangers to media freedom were smear campaigns, online harassment of journalists, especially women, and threats. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, journalists faced almost 300 defamation suits, mostly from politicians, while the total for Croatia was over 900. In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, the authorities encroached on public service media.

In Poland, women’s and LGBTI rights activists continued to face harassment and criminalization. In Romania, reporters investigating corruption were questioned by law enforcement simply for their journalistic work. In Kosovo, an Austrian energy company dropped intimidatory lawsuits against environmental activists who spoke publicly about the impact of construction of hydropower plants on the country’s rivers.

Further to the east, numerous civil society activists and journalists who sought to express dissenting views were criminally prosecuted for legitimate activities, and insulting public figures was also criminalized in more countries. Kazakhstan and Russia increasingly used anti-extremism legislation to repress dissent.

In Belarus, the authorities continued to imprison activists and journalists, all but eliminating any vestige of independent expression and peaceful dissent. Allegations repeatedly suggested that the Belarusian authorities pursued dissenting voices in exile: evidence proposed that the murder of journalist Pavlo Sheremets was planned by these authorities, while Belarusian exile Vital Shyshou was found hanged in a park in the Ukrainian capital following his complaints of threats from Belarusian security services. Some Turkmenistani internet users reported they were forced to swear on the Qur’an that they would not use virtual private networks to access the internet.

Freedom of assembly

Many countries enacted or maintained disproportionate restrictions on peaceful assemblies, while police often engaged in unlawful use of force or discriminatory policing against protesters. Greece continued to use the pandemic as a smokescreen to unduly restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, including by introducing a third blanket ban on public outdoor assemblies and dispersing several peaceful demonstrations. Cyprus also maintained a blanket ban. The Turkish authorities continued to arbitrarily restrict freedom of peaceful assembly, arbitrarily detaining hundreds of people, subjecting them to unlawful use of force, and prosecuting them for simply exercising their rights.

In Belarus the right to peaceful protest effectively ceased to exist, and thousands fled the country in fear of reprisals. In Russia even individuals mounting single-person pickets were routinely prosecuted, and in Moscow facial recognition was reportedly used to identify and punish peaceful protesters. In Kazakhstan restrictive legislation led to frequent denials of requests to hold peaceful demonstrations.

There was no progress in criminal complaints by 40 people in Serbia injured by police during a demonstration in 2020. In the UK, prosecutors decided not to prosecute Black Lives Matter protesters and in Northern Ireland, police took steps to refund fines to 72 protesters. However, a controversial draft police bill envisaged drastically expanding police powers to unduly restrict protests and foresaw draconian penalties for violations.

At the end of 2021, Covid-19-related restrictions sparked large protests in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Italy, and the Netherlands. Some demonstrations were marked by violence and led to dozens of arrests and injuries among protesters and law enforcement.

Freedom of association

Freedom of association continued to be under threat across the region. A law imposing arbitrary restrictions on NGOs was repealed in Hungary, but replacement legislation raised new concerns and the CJEU found another piece of legislation criminalizing assistance to migrants in breach of EU law. In Greece, restrictive regulations on the registration of NGOs working with migrants and refugees remained in place. The Turkish authorities used the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force as a smokescreen for new legislation facilitating harassment of NGOs.

In the east, authorities increasingly linked civil society activity to political activities, and made the violation of restrictive freedom of association rules punishable by imprisonment. Russia systematically deployed “foreign agent” and “undesirable organization” legislation to cripple or ban large numbers of civil society and media organizations, and liquidated Memorial, one of the country’s most respected human rights organizations, allegedly due to violations of the “foreign agent” law.

By year’s end in Belarus over 270 civil society organizations had been arbitrarily dissolved or were being forcibly closed. In a BBC interview Alyaksandr Lukashenka conflated NGOs with the political opposition, promising to “massacre all the scum that you [the West] have been financing”. In Uzbekistan violation of restrictive rules on “unlawful formation of a public association or religious organization” remained punishable by imprisonment.

Human rights defenders

States continued to breach their obligation to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders. Defenders of people on the move faced administrative restrictions, criminal prosecutions and police harassment. Women’s and LGBTI rights defenders faced harassment, unjust prosecution, threats and smear campaigns.

Migrants’ rights defenders continued to face criminalization, including in Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy and Malta. Court cases continued against individuals and NGOs in Italy and Greece. 2021 also saw acquittals of some migrants’ rights defenders, for example in the Stansted case in the UK.

Authorities in Poland appealed against the acquittal of three women defenders who had been charged for “offending religious beliefs” for posters depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo. Women defenders advocating access to safe and legal abortion care faced smear campaigns and death threats.

In Turkey, human rights defenders faced baseless investigations, prosecutions and convictions. The most emblematic case was that of Osman Kavala, who remained in detention after four years facing new charges despite an ECtHR ruling calling for his immediate release.

In Russia reprisals against human rights defenders were widespread and egregious. When human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov was arbitrarily charged with “divulging the results of a preliminary investigation” he left Russia and was placed on a “wanted” list. The ECtHR held that the authorities failed to properly investigate the abduction and murder of Natalia Estemirova. In Belarus activists from all sectors of society were persecuted. At year’s end seven members of Viasna, the country’s leading human rights organization, had been arbitrarily detained and dealt lengthy criminal sentences or were awaiting sentences. Azerbaijani government critic Huseyn Abdullayev remained in prison although the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention deemed his detention arbitrary and called for his release.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

2021 saw new border fences built, the erosion of the protection regime, and widespread acceptance of death and torture at the borders as a deterrent to irregular migration.

Greece designated Turkey a safe country for asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Somalia, and other countries. The efforts of Denmark to rescind the residence permits of Syrian refugees and return them to Syria marked a new low. A number of countries returned Afghan asylum seekers until shortly before the takeover by the Taliban.

Belarus authorities facilitated the creation of new migration routes through Belarus to the EU, violently pushing migrants and refugees towards the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which abrogated the right to seek asylum at the border and legalized pushbacks. By year’s end numerous people were stuck at the borders, while several died. “Older” migration routes from Turkey to Greece, the Central Mediterranean to Italy, and Morocco to Spain continued to feature violent pushbacks, while those saved at sea faced long delays before disembarkation.

Many countries openly announced the number of people “prevented” from entry, which often meant summary returns without assessing protection needs. The numbers announced in Turkey and Hungary reached the tens of thousands, while those at Belarus’ borders with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania surpassed 40,000.

Many other countries engaged in summary, unlawful, forcible transfers of refugees and migrants without consideration of their individual circumstances, then denied doing so, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, and North Macedonia. Ethnic Kazakhs fleeing Xinjiang in China faced prosecution for crossing the Kazakhstani border illegally.

Some courts recognized the illegality of such actions. The constitutional courts of Serbia and Croatia ruled that police had violated the rights of people in pushbacks. The ECtHR ruled that Croatia violated the rights of an Afghan girl who was killed by a train after being pushed back to Serbia in 2017. Courts in Italy and Austria found that chain expulsions of asylum seekers to Slovenia and Croatia were in breach of international law. Despite these rulings, however, accountability for pushbacks or ill-treatment was rare.

The EU and Italy remained complicit in funding “pullbacks” by the Libyan coastguard to Libya, where migrants faced serious rights violations. By October more than 27,000 refugees and migrants had been captured in the Central Mediterranean and returned to Libya by Libyan coastguards.


Racism and discrimination against Black people, Muslims, Roma and Jewish people became more overt in many contexts. In the UK, a government report dismissed concerns about institutional racism, while a new police bill augured more discrimination against Black, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The Danish authorities removed references to “ghettos” from legislation, but continued to enforce social housing limits on residents of “non-Western background.” In moves justified to counter radicalization and terrorism, Austria and France stepped up surveillance of Muslim communities, raided mosques and/or shut down organizations monitoring Islamophobia. In Germany, there were 1,850 antisemitism and other hate crimes against Jewish people officially reported up to 5 November 2021 – the highest number since 2018 – while steep spikes in reported similar incidents were also recorded in, Austria, France, Italy and the UK.


Roma continued to experience harassment and discrimination, including segregation in education, housing and employment. Roma communities remained over-policed and under-schooled. Two high profile fatalities of Roma at the hands of police in the Czech Republic and Greece echoed the death of George Floyd in the USA.

After years of campaigning by activists, the Czech senate voted for a bill to compensate thousands of Roma women who were unlawfully sterilized by the authorities between 1966 and 2012. The government of Slovakia officially apologized for the forced sterilization of thousands of Roma women, but had yet to put in place an effective compensation mechanism.

LGBTI people’s rights

LGBTI people continued to suffer discrimination and violence across the region. A number of countries discussed or adopted legislation stigmatizing or discriminating against LGBTI persons, including Poland and Hungary. In Serbia, the president declined to sign a law on civil partnerships. Some politicians engaged in homophobic speech or actions, including in Bulgaria and Turkey.

Consensual sex between men was a criminal offence in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Russia’s “gay propaganda” law fuelled discrimination against LGBTI people, and in Georgia a journalist died when a mob attacked Tbilisi Pride offices.

Women’s rights

Sexual and reproductive rights

Access to safe and legal abortion continued to be a central human rights issue in Andorra, Malta, Poland, San Marino and elsewhere. In Poland a Constitutional Tribunal ruling that abortion on the ground of serious fetal impairment was unconstitutional entered into force. In the year following the ruling, 34,000 women contacted the NGO Abortion without Borders, which facilitates travel abroad for abortion care and advice.

In Andorra defamation charges remained ongoing against a defender who had raised concerns about the country’s total ban on abortion before the UN. In a positive development, a popular vote in San Marino legalized abortion.

Violence against women and girls

The picture remained mixed with regard to violence against women. While Turkey withdrew from a landmark treaty on combating violence against women, the Istanbul Convention, Moldova and Liechtenstein both ratified it. Further, Slovenia reformed its rape law to make it consent-based, and rape legislation reforms were also underway in the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

Violence against women remained widespread, however. The Russian Women’s NGO Consortium found that 66% of women murdered from 2011-2019 had been victims of domestic violence. Uzbekistan’s interior ministry rejected a request from the NGO NeMolchi about prosecutions for violence against women, stating it was “to no purpose”. In Azerbaijan women’s rights activists and journalists were blackmailed and subjected to gender specific smear campaigns, while women’s rallies on domestic violence were violently dispersed. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan strengthened efforts in Central Asia to promote “traditional” values. In Ukraine homophobic attacks continued and there were reports of lack of services for survivors of domestic violence in the non-government controlled areas of Donbas.

Rights to health and social security

The Covid-19 pandemic continued to have a significant impact lessened to some extent by high rates of vaccination of many countries in the region, especially in the EU. The pandemic put immense pressure on underfunded and overstretched health systems.

Some states derogated from the European Convention on Human Rights, and several declared extended medical emergencies and imposed new lockdowns and other restrictions, as further waves of infections and new mutations emerged.

Vaccine inequality within the region became more pronounced, often because of high levels of vaccine hesitancy. Thus, in Iceland, Malta, Portugal and Spain more than 80% of the population was vaccinated, while in Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine less than 30% was vaccinated. In some cases, undocumented migrants and people from groups historically facing discrimination faced challenges in accessing vaccines. Deaths continued to disproportionately affect older people.

Europe made considerable pledges for vaccine donations, but global vaccine inequality was exacerbated by the EU, Norway, Switzerland and the UK continuing to block a waiver on intellectual property rights (TRIPS) that would greatly increase the numbers of vaccines being produced, particularly in the global south.

In Donbas in Ukraine local medical facilities were reportedly overwhelmed with patients while lacking sufficient medical personnel and supplies, including vaccines. In Turkmenistan authorities continued to deny Covid-19 cases but in July introduced mandatory vaccination for adults.

Covid-19 pushed more and more workers into precarity in the absence of comprehensive social protection schemes. Especially vulnerable were women and migrant workers. In Austria, migrant women live-in care workers experienced abuse, discriminatory and unfair wages and excessive working hours. In Italy, health and care home workers who raised concerns about unsafe working conditions in care homes or sought to unionize were subject to disciplinary measures and reprisals. In Armenia the pandemic exacerbated the heavy burden of unpaid care work on women and girls.

Human rights in conflict zones

Little change in conflict zones in countries of the former Soviet Union meant that development remained impeded, and freedom of movement and the right to health were heavily impacted for residents on both sides of lines of contact.

The 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict saw over 100 people killed or injured during the year by mines planted by Armenian forces in areas ceded to Azerbaijan. There was no accountability or justice for victims of war crimes committed during that conflict, and over 40 ethnic Armenians captured after the ceasefire remained in captivity, reportedly in inhumane conditions. The majority of 40,000 Azerbaijani civilians displaced during the 2020 conflict returned to their homes but mines, destruction of infrastructure and lost livelihoods prevented the return of over 650,000 displaced during the 1990s. Some 36,000 ethnic Armenians remained internally displaced.

The conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine continued as the government and the Russian-backed separatists accused each other of ceasefire violations, and the UN monitoring mission reported at least nine new cases of arbitrary detention by Ukraine’s secret security service. At year’s end Russia had assembled large troop numbers on its border with Ukraine, sparking fears of a possible invasion.

Movement was restricted in and out of government-controlled territory in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region. Torture and other ill-treatment continued: there was no effective investigation into the 2020 death in custody of Inal Dzhabiev in South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region; and Anri Ateiba died following detention in Abkhazia.

Failure to tackle climate crisis

Europe has a special responsibility to the rest of the world to tackle the climate crisis due to its role in global emissions to date and its wealth. Nevertheless, European countries and the European Union continued to fail to adopt emission reduction targets, including fossil fuel phase-out policies, aligned with their level of responsibility and with the imperative of keeping the rise of global temperatures within 1.5°C. At the annual UN climate change negotiations (COP26), European countries also opposed the establishment of a global financial facility to provide financial support to developing countries facing loss and damage as the result of the climate crisis. However, Scotland and the Belgian region of Wallonia committed dedicated funding for loss and damage.

Activists used litigation to compel governments to curb emissions and combat climate change with legal victories in Belgium, France and Germany. In a landmark case brought by civil society organizations, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030 compared with 2019 levels, anchoring its decision, among other arguments, in the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights. In Georgia construction of a hydropower plant was cancelled following protest around environmental safety concerns.

Human rights at home and in the world

The authoritarian turn was accompanied by increasing disengagement from multilateral organizations. The OSCE seemed powerless to halt the slide towards conflict, while major countries ignored its advice and dismissed its monitoring, if they allowed it to take place at all. The Council of Europe was unable to compel member states to implement ECtHR judgments and fulfil their obligations. The EU was paralysed by rule of law crises and unwilling to enforce its own rules on the rights of migrants and refugees.

Russia and China continued to build and wield influence, particularly in the east. The two countries undermined the international human rights framework and Russia backed Belarus’s crackdown against its own population. Economic and political sanctions applied by the EU against Russia and Belarus failed to stem the unrelenting tide of repression.

In the UK, legislation was adopted which could facilitate impunity for crimes committed abroad. The Overseas Operation Act introduced restrictions on legal proceedings related to overseas military operations, including time limits for civil claims and a presumption against prosecution for most offences committed over five years ago.

However, some positive initiatives were adopted. In March, the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on measures against the trade in goods used for the death penalty, torture and other ill-treatment. Some countries took steps to curb irresponsible arms transfers. Germany prolonged an arms export moratorium to Saudi Arabia – but not to others involved in the conflict in Yemen. In France, NGOs launched legal proceedings to ensure transparency of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Switzerland adopted a law regulating the export of arms, prohibiting transfer to states in internal conflict or at risk of serious or systematic human rights violations.


The foregoing should be a wake-up call for governments to recommit to human rights and collectively enforce states’ obligations. Thus far, a sense of urgency has been shown primarily by climate activists and human rights defenders, but both are under strong pressures from governments and corporations. The cause of human rights needs more champions now, or the gains of recent decades risk being destroyed.

Governments should recognize the crucial role played by human rights defenders, rather than stigmatizing and criminalizing their activities. 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. States must stop the slide to surveillance societies, respect the rule of law, and end the erosion of judicial independence.

Governments must also redouble their efforts to prevent discrimination against Black people, Muslims, Roma and Jewish people and ensure that state actors refrain from mainstreaming stigmatizing rhetoric and implementing policies that target these communities. 

In the face of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic equal access to vaccines within and across countries both in the region and beyond is urgent, and cooperation between states imperative, to ensure that treatment and vaccines are acceptable, affordable, accessible and available to all.

As people fleeing conflict and poverty continue to die on land and sea attempting to reach safety, governments must expand the provision of safe and regular pathways of migration, particularly for people in need to come to Europe, including humanitarian visas, resettlement, community sponsorship and family reunification.

Governments must urgently combat the frequently hidden emergency of violence against women and girls, prioritizing the elimination of gender-based violence and addressing its root causes. More steps are also needed to eliminate all forms of discrimination, in law and practice.

Governments must increase their emission reduction targets and 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 in lower-income countries.