Europe and Central Asia Regional Overview

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Europe And Central Asia 2023

Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Human rights and freedoms remained under profound and constant assault, fuelled by Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine which drove hardening authoritarianism across the region. Governments persecuted human rights defenders, suppressed dissent and often effectively criminalized the right to free expression and independent human rights information as “fake news” and attempts to “discredit” policies or institutions. Prospects for effective human rights promotion and protection were bleak.

War became a “new normal” in the region. Azerbaijan’s blockade of a key route into the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh created a humanitarian crisis endangering the lives of thousands of people and, following its military offensive, over 100,000 people were displaced to Armenia almost overnight.

Russia’s unceasing aggression against Ukraine grew into a war of attrition, with the list of war crimes and other crimes under international law constantly increasing. Civilians, including children, endured egregious suffering, through loss of life and injuries, destruction of homes and key infrastructure, continued mass displacement and environmental danger and destruction.

Efforts to establish international justice mechanisms prompted by the war in Ukraine and including on the crime of aggression, failed to deliver. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin but Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia were among non-ICC parties which hosted his visits.

Beyond the military conflicts, discrimination and reprisals against religious minorities were common. Torture and other ill-treatment remained endemic and those suspected of criminal responsibility enjoyed impunity. Violence against women and domestic violence persisted at high levels. Gender rights were in retreat. Air pollution, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, blighted human health in countries across the region.

Western, central and south-eastern Europe

In 2023 politicians in many European countries fomented social polarization on women’s and LGBTI rights, migration, climate justice, and the horrific events in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Israel/OPT). Many governments instrumentalized human rights to stigmatize various groups and enacted disproportionate restrictions on civic space, targeting climate protesters, people expressing dissenting views, particularly regarding solidarity with Palestinians, Muslims and other racialized individuals.

Systemic racism continued to violate rights and cost lives. States maintained policies of racialized exclusion towards people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia that resulted in deaths and harm being inflicted on people at sea and land borders. Governments did little to address the continued discrimination and segregation of Roma. The failure of states to implement anti-racism measures and the political exploitation of racism formed the backdrop to a spike in reports of antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism.

There was both progress and regression on gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive rights. The slide to surveillance societies continued. The most vulnerable, including people with disabilities, suffered inadequate social protection.

Double standards were evident in the rhetoric and policies of many states: towards Israel versus the simultaneous restrictions imposed on solidarity for Palestinian human rights; warm words at COP28 while continuing the use and production of fossil fuels and cracking down on protesters; and the complacency towards human rights backsliding within Europe but criticism of states outside the region.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression spiralled severely downwards as a growing palette of reprisals was deployed against critical voices, spanning accusations of “extremism”, “justification of terrorism”, “dissemination of knowingly false information” and LGBTI “propaganda”.

Russia reached new heights of wartime censorship, sparing none among dissenting voices. Thousands were penalized, and hundreds faced unfounded criminal prosecution, including opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, sentenced to 25 years for “state treason”.

Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan amongst others locked up scores of government critics. Kyrgyzstan’s draft media law forbade dissemination of “materials that harm the health and morality of the population”. In Turkmenistan, free information remained suppressed such that shortages of essential food items and forced labour were hidden from view.

Freedom of association

Throughout the region civil society was constrained or shut down, with Russia continuing to provide a vicious blueprint. There, an ever-growing number of individuals and civil society organizations were labelled “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations”, limiting their participation in public life. The criminal code was also amended to penalize “carrying out activities” of foreign NGOs without registered offices in Russia, effectively criminalizing any forms of cooperation with most civil society groups outside the country. Leading human rights organizations including the Moscow Helsinki Group, Sakharov Centre and Sova Centre were shut down.

Belarus closed prominent human rights group Viasna, among scores of other independent civil society organizations, and imprisoned its leading members for years. Kyrgyzstan plumbed new depths when a draft law “On Foreign Representatives”, modelled on Russia’s “foreign agents” law, moved toward adoption and threatened the closure of numerous NGOs. In Moldova, Shansa party members were arbitrarily denied the possibility of standing in local elections.

In a rare story of success, widespread public protest in Georgia against a draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence forced its withdrawal.

Freedom of peaceful assembly

Authorities across the region severely restricted peaceful street protest, already rare or non-existent in many countries, while large pro-government rallies were held in Russia and elsewhere. Unlawful use of force by law enforcement was a norm. Kyrgyzstan imposed a near blanket ban on peaceful demonstrations in the capital Bishkek and in some regions. Authorities in Belarus and Kazakhstan continued to identify and jail peaceful participants in past protests.

Police in Georgia deployed tear gas and water cannons to break up a largely peaceful protest in March. In Turkmenistan, police used unnecessary and disproportionate force to stop protests against bread shortages.

Authorities must stop using pretexts to repress dissent and prevent discussion of their human rights records. They must end the harassment and prosecution of critical voices, stop security forces using unlawful force during protests and repeal or amend legislation violating the right to peaceful assembly.

Freedom of religion and belief

Discrimination and reprisals against religious minorities were common across the region. Tajikistan continued with repressive practices against Ismailis including penalizing collective prayer in private homes. Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned for practising their faith in Russia and Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories, and law enforcement authorities targeted Catholic priests in Belarus and those of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (effectively subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church) in Ukraine. Devout Muslims in Uzbekistan continued to be prosecuted on overly broad and vaguely worded extremism-related charges.

Governments must take effective measures to implement legal and policy reforms to fully protect, promote and guarantee freedom of religion or belief without discrimination.

Torture and other ill-treatment

In many countries torture and other ill-treatment remained endemic and those suspected of criminal responsibility enjoyed impunity. In Belarus those imprisoned under politically motivated charges faced inhumane conditions, including incommunicado detention and lack of adequate healthcare. In Kazakhstan, five of the six officially acknowledged cases of death caused by torture following protests in January 2022 reached court by the end of 2023, while most others were dropped for alleged lack of evidence. In Moldova detainees continued to suffer overcrowding and unsanitary conditions and poor health provision. In Georgia former president Mikheil Saakashvili was denied release on humanitarian grounds despite severely deteriorating health and reported lack of adequate medical care. Aleksei Navalny in Russia was subjected to enforced disappearance and repeated arbitrary solitary confinement.

Governments must act urgently to end torture and other ill-treatment, bringing all those suspected of criminal responsibility to justice in fair trials.

Gender-based discrimination and violence

In Uzbekistan, domestic violence was criminalized for the first time. However, war and legislation entrenching “traditional” and “family” values framed increasing gender-based violence and violence against women in the region. In Ukraine, an all-time high of domestic violence was recorded amidst the raging war, and Kyrgyzstan saw widespread abuse and sexual violence against children with disabilities, including girls. Sexist, misogynist language against political opponents, especially by the ruling party, was on the rise in Georgia, while women in Azerbaijan faced various forms of gender-based violence, including being targeted as instruments of political revenge.

Governments must implement comprehensive policies to prevent gender-based violence against women and girls, including by tackling entrenched gender discrimination and harmful stereotypes, ensure access to protection and support for survivors and address impunity for related crimes.

Violations of international humanitarian law

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was marked by persistent war crimes. Indiscriminate attacks by Russian forces on populated areas and civilian energy and grain export infrastructure were common. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces used cluster munitions despite their inherently indiscriminate nature and lasting risks for civilians. Ukraine was estimated as the world’s most heavily mined country. Torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners of war in Russia and Russian occupied territories of Ukraine was widespread. A Moscow court upheld a 13-year sentence against Ukrainian human rights defender Maksym Butkevych for a purported war crime he could not have committed.

Further to Azerbaijan’s military takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, no progress was reported in investigating violations of international humanitarian law by either Azerbaijani or Armenian forces, including disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks and reports of torture and killings of captives in previous years in that region.

All allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity should be subject to impartial and independent investigations, including through the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Unfair trials

Judicial systems in many countries were deployed to crack down on rather than protect human rights.

In Russia, courts demonstrated a profound bias against defendants and trials on charges of terrorism, extremism and high treason were habitually closed to the public.

The Belarusian judiciary continued to be weaponized to crack down on all dissent including by lawyers and human rights defenders. Sviatlana Tsikhnouskaya, Pavel Latushka, Maria Maroz, Volha Kavalkova and Sharhei Dyleuski were sentenced in their absence to lengthy prison sentences on trumped-up charges, while Nasta Loika was sent to prison for seven years. In Kazakhstan, celebrated athlete Marat Zhylanbayev was sentenced to seven years in prison for peaceful dissent. The US Department of State sanctioned four Georgian judges for corruption for abusing their position and undermining the judicial system.

The UN expressed deep concern about the overly broad definition of terrorist organizations in Tajikistan which made possible the application of emergency measures and restrictions on due process. When Germany deported asylum seeker Abdullohi Shamsiddin to Tajikistan, he was forcibly disappeared before being sentenced to a seven-year term. In Uzbekistan dozens connected to the 2022 mass protests in Karakalpakstan were convicted in unfair trials on politically motivated charges.

Children’s and older people’s rights

While Russia’s war in Ukraine created acute suffering and deprivation for all Ukrainians, children and older people were made more vulnerable.

UN data in November indicated that at least 569 children killed and over 1,229 were injured since February 2022. Estimated numbers of children unlawfully transferred by occupying Russian authorities to Russian occupied territories or to Russia itself was in the hundreds and possibly thousands. In March the ICC issued arrest warrants for President Vladimir Putin and Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for their role in this war crime.

Older people were disproportionately affected by the conflict, killed and injured at higher rates than any other civilians. Those displaced struggled to access private housing independently, and temporary shelters typically remained physically inaccessible for older people, particularly those with disabilities.

Economic and social rights

Military conflict in the region continued to impact on economic and social rights. For nine months until its offensive in September, Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor, a road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, caused critical shortages of basic necessities including food, medicines and fuel resulting in a humanitarian crisis in the breakaway region.

In September, in a serious attempt to unlawfully indoctrinate school children, high school students across Russia as well as occupied territories of Ukraine were issued new “unified” history textbooks which sought to whitewash the historical human rights record of Russian and Soviet authorities. Children in Russian-occupied territories were forced to learn the Ukrainian curriculum “in hiding”, to avoid reprisals.

Governments must ensure the rights of everyone to an adequate standard of living, and access to quality education.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

People on the move continued to suffer across the region. Belarusian authorities violently forced migrants across EU borders where they faced pushbacks, and in Russia authorities used deception and pressure to recruit migrants into military service. The over 100,000 ethnic Armenians displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia faced economic hardship and uncertainty about the prospects of return.

Governments must ensure all those fleeing persecution and human rights violations have access to safety and international protection, and that no one is returned to face serious human rights abuses.

Right to a healthy environment

World War II-style military combat in Ukraine and countries who are major fossil fuel producers and emitters in the region spurred vast environmental destruction and pollution.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine produced severe air, water and land contamination, and unmanageable quantities of hazardous waste. The Kakhovka dam was destroyed in what appeared to be a deliberate military act widely believed to have been committed by Russian forces, resulting in waste contamination with long lasting ecological consequences beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Human health also suffered from air pollution, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. Such pollution was estimated to cause over 10,000 excess deaths annually in Kazakhstan, and 18% of deaths from stroke and ischaemic heart disease in Belarus. Kyrgyzstan’s capital was ranked one of the most polluted in the world.

Across the region, those seeking to protect the environment themselves suffered severe reprisals. Activists opposing a gold mining project in Armenia faced lawsuits seeking excessive financial compensation for the supposed harm to business caused by their environmental criticism. In Russia two major environmental NGOs were designated as “undesirable” and banned from the country.

Governments must take immediate measures to protect individuals and communities against the risks and impacts of climate change and extreme weather conditions, including by seeking international assistance and cooperation to take sufficient climate adaptation and mitigation measures.

LGBTI people’s rights

In Ukraine, a draft law on civil partnerships, including for same-sex couples, was registered in March, though it did not address the prohibition on child adoption by same-sex couples.

Russia, however, adopted new transphobic legislation and effectively outlawed any public LGBTI people’s rights-related activity by labelling as “extremist” an undefined “international public LGBT movement”. In Central Asia and beyond, gender rights were in retreat, with Kyrgyzstan proposing legislative amendments to prohibit information that “denies family values” and promotes “non-traditional sexual relationships”, while in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan consensual same-sex sexual relations remained a crime.

Governments should repeal laws, policies and practices that discriminate against LGBTI people, including by decriminalizing consensual same-sex sexual relations and removing legal obstacles to same-sex marriage.

Western, central and south-eastern Europe

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

EU member states maintained deadly policies of racialized exclusion and externalization, and made little progress on responsibility-sharing within the EU. Negotiations on EU asylum reforms pointed to a compromise that would reduce safeguards and increase suffering for people seeking safety. States failed to establish safe and legal routes, instead subjecting people to abuse and unnecessary danger at land and sea borders. More than 600 racialized people including children died in a shipwreck off Pylos in Greece in one such incident alone, and hundreds of others from Africa, the Middle East and Asia were subjected to abuse and violence throughout the year as unlawful, summary forced returns remained a daily occurrence at borders across Europe.

The European Commission failed to trigger infringement proceedings against Latvia and Lithuania after they introduced the possibility of summary returns into domestic legislation. Impunity for violations at borders persisted: Spain failed to investigate effectively the 2022 deaths, torture and unlawful expulsions between Melilla and Morocco.

Some European countries failed to ensure the rights of Afghans to seek safety. In Germany, a humanitarian admission programme meant to admit 1,000 Afghan people per month benefited less than 100. Denmark, Finland and Sweden took positive steps to grant prima facie recognition of refugee status to Afghan women and girls.

Refugees and migrants faced attacks in the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Germany and Greece. Many politicians engaged in discriminatory and racist rhetoric which targeted refugee and migrant communities, including in Türkiye in the context of elections.

European states continued to externalize border control, disregarding human rights. More countries sought agreements on offshore processing of asylum seekers, such as Italy with Albania, while advancing an EU deal with Tunisia that risked rights violations. Cooperation with Türkiye, where thousands of people were subjected to refoulement, continued. Despite losing legal challenges, the UK government seemed intent on implementing its plan to transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing of their asylum applications.

Governments must put an end to policies of racialized exclusion. They must instead ensure that policies and practices protect, respect and fulfil the right to life of refugees and migrants, establish safe and legal routes and uphold peoples right to asylum at borders. 

Women’s and girls’ rights

Latvia ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, while North Macedonia harmonized its laws with the treaty. Croatia announced that femicide would be a separate offence. Switzerland adopted a consent-based definition of rape and the Netherlands marked progress towards adopting such a definition.

Many countries, however, reported high figures for gender-based violence against women and girls against a backdrop of inadequate state actions to tackle it. Monitors in Albania, Austria, Greece, Italy, Serbia, Spain and Türkiye each reported dozens, if not hundreds, of femicides. The live-streaming of a killing in Bosnia and Herzegovina sparked protests, as did the mild punishment of a perpetrator in Bulgaria.

While a law in Finland entered into force allowing abortion on request in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and Spain passed a bill to allow abortions for 16-17-year-olds without parental consent, several countries retained restrictions on abortion. In Poland at least one woman died as a consequence of being denied abortion services. In Croatia, Ireland, Italy and Northern Ireland, health personnel frequently invoked conscience clauses. Some Austrian regions excluded abortion from the health system, while the Czech Republic saw care refused to non-Czech EU citizens. Legislation banning abortion in Malta was amended but access remained highly restricted. Andorra was the only country with a total ban.

Governments must urgently combat all forms of gender-based violence and address their root causes.

Right to privacy

Several cities and cantons in Switzerland adopted bans on facial recognition in public spaces. In France, however, a new law authorized mass biometric surveillance for the 2024 Olympics.

Amnesty International revealed that the Intellexa Alliance of companies traded Predator spyware to many countries, including Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, and uncovered Predator use against a Berlin news site, European institutions, and researchers. In Spain, at least 65 people, mostly in Catalonia, were targeted by Pegasus spyware.

Right to a fair trial and erosion of judicial independence

Hungary, Poland and Türkiye continued to undermine judicial independence. Hungary took steps to limit the powers of the judiciary. In Poland, the government targeted critical judges. In Türkiye, the Court of Cassation refused to implement a Constitutional Court ruling, accusing its judges of overreach.

Governments must stop the slide to surveillance societies, respect the right to a fair trial, and end the erosion of judicial independence.

Freedom of expression

Attacks against journalists were recorded in countries across the region. Türkiye continued to arrest or detain many journalists for bogus terrorism-related offences.

Politicians and businesses used strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP) suits to silence journalists or activists in Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, North Macedonia and Serbia. While Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina criminalized defamation, Bulgaria reduced fines for defamation against public officials and Croatia adopted a plan envisaging the early dismissal of SLAPPs.

With few exceptions, states across the region proposed or adopted measures to disproportionately restrict views, including online, critical of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza and in support of Palestinian human rights.

Freedom of assembly

As the climate emergency deepened, peaceful protests increased, prompting harsh responses by authorities. Climate protesters engaging in peaceful acts of civil disobedience faced mass arrests, prosecution for harsh crimes and smear campaigns.

Many countries enacted disproportionate restrictions on assemblies. In the Netherlands, police used unlawful ID checks as a surveillance tool against protesters. In France, Italy, Serbia and Türkiye, among others, law enforcement often engaged in unlawful use of force as well as discriminatory policing.

Many governments imposed unlawful restrictions on protests in solidarity with Palestinians. Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland and others pre-emptively banned such protests, citing vague risks to public order or national security. Media and politicians frequently used rhetoric that dehumanized Palestinians, spread racist stereotypes and conflated Muslims with terrorists.

France invoked counterterrorism legislation to ban peaceful protests and carried out arbitrary arrests. During the Prides, Turkish police implemented blanket bans, used unnecessary force, and arrested 224 people. The UK passed a bill expanding police powers, creating protest banning orders and allowing civil injunctions.

Freedom of association

France continued to pursue the dissolution of several NGOs without due process. Türkiye intensified the use of intrusive NGO audits. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska passed a law creating a registry of foreign-funded NGOs. In Hungary the government introduced a new law to limit foreign funding for NGOs.

The space for all to exercise the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly must be protected from state overreach.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders working on women’s or migrants’ rights were frequent targets of repression. In Andorra, an activist faced steep fines after speaking out against the abortion ban. In Poland, Justyna Wydrzynska received eight months of community service for assisting a woman to access abortion pills. In Greece, migrants’ rights defenders Sarah Mardini and Séan Binder were indicted for four felonies. Latvian authorities opened criminal proceedings against two defenders for humanitarian work at the Belarus border. Türkiye upheld the conviction of Osman Kavala, defying judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

Governments should protect human rights defenders and recognize their crucial role, rather than stigmatizing and criminalizing their activities.

Racial discrimination

Racial profiling by law enforcement remained common. The French Council of State acknowledged discriminatory police checks but proposed no action. The Netherlands border police were found guilty of racial profiling. In the UK, a report flagged institutional discrimination in London’s Metropolitan Police.

Germany reported record rates of hate crimes. The ECtHR again condemned Bosnia and Herzegovina for discriminatory electoral rules. In Latvia and Lithuania, some citizens of Russia faced the loss of residence permits.

Roma faced discrimination, segregation and social exclusion. The European Committee on Social Rights found Italy had violated Roma housing rights, while courts in Slovakia found that segregated classes for Roma pupils were discriminatory. The Bulgarian equality body investigated denial of entry for Roma to swimming pools. In North Macedonia, a Roma man died after being denied treatment due to the lack of an ID card; in Romania, a pregnant deaf Roma woman was denied medical care at a hospital and gave birth on the pavement.

In France, Muslim women were especially targeted for restrictions in sport and education. Antisemitic and anti-Muslim discriminatory speech and hate crimes spiked across the region as horrific events unfolded in Israel/OPT.

In the aftermath of the February earthquakes in Türkiye, civilians and state actors targeted migrants and refugees helping search and rescue with racist abuse.

LGBTI people’s rights

Latvia recognized civil partnerships, while Lithuania failed to do so. The ECtHR condemned Bulgaria and Romania for failing to recognize same-sex couples.

Discrimination persisted against LGBTI people. In Croatia and North Macedonia, Prides faced threats and discriminatory speech from both public officials and private individuals. Norwegian police found LGBTI meeting places to be at ongoing risk of violent attacks. In Türkiye, politicians used discriminatory rhetoric against LGBTI people.

Although Hungary faced legal action in the Court of Justice of the EU for its propaganda law, the authorities fined a bookstore for violating this legislation and the Media Council barred a TV advertisement on Pride. The ECtHR condemned Lithuania for censorship of a book depicting same-sex relationships.

Transgender rights saw progress and setbacks. Germany abolished the discriminatory exclusion of transgender people, gay and bisexual men from blood donations. A new Self-Determination Act was discussed in parliament, which would enable self-determination for transgender, non-binary and intersex people on the basis of a simple declaration at the registry office. In Finland such recognition became available to adults upon application. In Spain a new law guaranteed access to health services and gender self-determination. However, Bulgaria ended legal gender recognition for transgender people and the UK government blocked the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Act.

Governments should meaningfully address systemic discrimination including against Jewish people, Muslim people, Black people, Roma and LGBTI people.

Economic, social and cultural rights

In Finland, the government announced plans to cut public healthcare and raise user fees and taxes on medicines, which will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. The European Social Committee deemed admissible a complaint against Greece regarding austerity cuts to healthcare. Slovenia passed a Long-Term Care Act, but faced a shortage of doctors.

Denmark and Finland announced cuts to social assistance. France, Ireland and Portugal had record levels of homelessness. Spain adopted a housing rights law, but failed to protect economically vulnerable people from evictions. In Serbia, the new semi-automated social welfare system resulted in possibly thousands of people losing access to vital social assistance and disproportionately affected Roma and people with disabilities.

The response of the Turkish government after the February earthquakes was inadequate in protecting people with disabilities.

Governments must take immediate action to guarantee all people’s economic and social rights, free from discrimination, including by assigning adequate resources and ensuring universal and comprehensive social protection.

Right to a healthy environment

In positive moves a Cyprus court recognized an environmental NGO’s right to file public interest claims, NGOs in Ireland litigated against the failure to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and young people in Portugal brought a case against 33 countries at the ECtHR for insufficient action on climate change. The Council of Europe recognized politically the right to a healthy environment, but failed to adopt a binding legal instrument on this right.

Many countries, however, continued fossil fuel use. Bulgaria and Romania planned gas exploration in the Black Sea, Greece and Slovakia planned LNG terminals, Malta supported a major gas pipeline, Norway provided tax incentives for oil and gas fields and Germany approved finance for fossil fuel projects. French banks were among the biggest funders of fossil fuel extraction.

Governments should phase 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.