Interview with Nils Muižnieks
International Human Rights Day 2020
By Silan Celebi and Felisa Tibbitts
The current Regional Director for Europe of Amnesty International, Nils Muižnieks, joins Human Rights Here in an insightful interview for Human Rights Day. He has a message for human rights academics and workers everywhere: “keep learning, get out of your comfort zone, take care of your health – human rights is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Nils Muižnieks is a Latvian-American political scientist and human rights expert. He lives an inspired life with numerous milestones to share, from being elected as the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, to becoming the Regional Director of Amnesty International. Muižnieks has over twenty-five years of experience in various intergovernmental organizations, government and academia. For Nils, working for human rights is the most meaningful thing you can do in your professional life, “I always like myself best when I am doing human rights work, it is the best me.”
When did you first realize that you wanted to work in the human rights field and what was the basis of your decision?
I grew up in the Latvian exile community in the US and I was inculcated with a sense of mission that I had to speak up for Latvians who could not do so themselves in the Soviet Union. So that was probably the seed – this consciousness of injustice and my personal responsibility to do something about it. But initially I was on an academic career path in political science, not human rights. My intellectual entry point to human rights came during the writing of my dissertation, which was on the Baltic independence movements and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. I began to grapple with issues such as the interplay of democratization and ethnicity, which led me to contemplate issues such as minority rights, tolerance, discrimination, etc. My emotional entry into human rights came after moving to post-Soviet Latvia on a post-doctoral fellowship, when I encountered many Soviet-type bureaucrats, who treated me like dirt. I got angry and said to them, “You can’t do that! I have rights!” They laughed and dismissed me, and I went away to learn about my rights and how to defend them.
What are the benefits and also the challenges of a life working in human rights? Do you have any advice for young human rights academics, practitioners, and activists at the start of their career/road?
The benefits are many – you will never be bored, you will meet so many people from so many different walks of life. You will also see how powerful and beautiful human dignity is. After you have done a certain amount of human rights work, you will be able to look back, compare it with other work you have done, and I guarantee you that your human rights work will be among the most meaningful thing you have done professionally. I always like myself best when I am doing human rights work, it is the best me.
Source: Human Rights First
The challenges are also tough. The work can be very emotionally trying, especially when you see misery or pain and can do little to help. It can be very stressful, because there is always more to do. It can be frustrating, so you need to cultivate patience. You will often be alone or in a small, besieged minority, so you need a thick skin. The trend globally and in Europe for human rights is bad – are you ready for that?
My advice is to change jobs a few times at regular points in your career. I see people who have been working for the same organization for 20 or 30 years and I think that they missed out, that they became too comfortable or afraid to change. In Latvian there is a good saying that “one person is not a fighter.” You can manage by yourself for a while, but you need a team, a group of people with similar values and goals to help you through the tough times. It may be trite, but it is true: keep learning, get out of your comfort zone, take care of your health – human rights is a marathon, not a sprint.
What was one especially important lesson you learned about how human rights are negotiated and practiced in “real life”? What is an observation that would surprise outsiders about the politics of human rights?
You can be positive. People yearn for something positive. Listen very closely to all the players, to their needs, their constraints, try to understand their trauma. Just being heard can give people hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. Then see if you can bring some positive energy to a situation through clear language, a clear way forward. You might want to criticize a government, but sometimes it is better to do so indirectly, by challenging your interlocutor to be more ambitious, by appealing to their knowledge that they can do better and they know it.
I also learned that acknowledging that a situation is not always black and white helps. I have often engaged governments on issues pertaining to migration. Migration is a field where everybody has a big incentive to lie. Migrants often lie about the circumstances in their home countries, the route they took, their age, etc. Sometimes somebody who was initially a victim of trafficking becomes a trafficker him or herself en route. Authorities often lie about what they are doing at borders, how they are treating people, what kind of assistance they have provided people. Politicians often lie about how many people they will actually be able to return to the country of origin. So, there are many shades of gray in this field. I would often acknowledge to Ministers of Interior that the situation was not black and white, but that my job was to push him (usually the minister was male) towards a lighter shade of gray. And they liked that, they were more ready to engage with me.
Source: The London Free Press
What are your thoughts on the measures States have adopted to respond to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and their compatibility with human rights law? Would you hold that a number of them serve ulterior purposes, in bad faith?
It is a mixed bag. Some states have implemented lockdowns and restricted freedom of movement, assembly and other rights as part of public health strategies in temporary, necessary and proportionate ways. Thus, the German Constitutional Court ruled that a blanket ban on protests was unconstitutional and in Denmark special provision was made for “opinion-forming assemblies”. In other countries, such as Poland and Hungary, the governments used the pandemic as a smoke screen for power grabs or to pursue other agendas, especially sexist and homophobic agendas. Several countries (e.g., Greece, Malta, Switzerland) used the pandemic as an excuse to suspend asylum procedures. States generally have a lot of leeway in public health emergencies, but we have seen a lot of state overreach, securitization, and bad faith as well.
If you could fix/change a single structural/societal issue that would have a domino effect and trigger substantial improvement of human rights realization and a culture of human rights, what would it be?
I think addressing socio-economic inequality within countries in an effective way would have a huge beneficial impact. Growing inequality has been incredibly corrosive of public trust in government, of solidarity and social cohesion, and of hope in a better future. Without trust, solidarity and hope, a culture of human rights will be unattainable. What is more, inequality has also been a major contributing factor to one of the biggest threats to human rights in recent years, which is nationalist populism. The human rights toolkit of anti-discrimination law and advocating for an adequate standard of living and other social and economic rights has been ineffective in narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots. Human rights experts need to sit down and think together with progressive economists and social scientists about innovative ways to address this core structural issue.
Bearing in mind the critique human rights have been receiving on effectiveness to affect state behavior and offer real protection, what strategic direction do you think human rights practice, advocacy and academia should take? What – in your opinion – would be now, in December 2020, the best strategy to strengthen the “standing” and power of human rights in a world rebuilding after a devastating pandemic, economic crisis, and divisive nativist & populist politics?
I think we need a multi-pronged strategy. First, we have to retell the human rights story in a new compelling way. The old story was that human rights were created to prevent dictatorship, genocide and war. People are less concerned about these threats, and more concerned about migration, terrorism, economic uncertainty and whether they will get access to health care. In this new context, human rights must be seen to provide security and some measure of certainty, while speaking to urgent social and economic concerns. Human rights cannot be seen to belong to only certain marginalized or vulnerable groups, but to all.
Source: Environmental Rights Initiative
We need to take social and economic rights seriously, and the pandemic is a great opportunity in that regard. We need to talk about the accessibility and affordability of health care, the status of health workers, the accountability of governments for preventable deaths, the availability of vaccines, etc. For many years, governments said they could not ensure basic social and economic rights because that would break the budget. Under COVID we have seen the old economic orthodoxy thrown out the window, governments borrowing a lot, and the role of the state changing quite quickly. While pushing hard on social and economic rights, we also need to take on board environmental rights, as time is short, and our right to health, life, and more are at stake.
The second part of the interview with Nils Muižnieks will present his opinions on current human rights issues in Europe, including women’s rights, asylum seekers, judicial independence and freedom of assembly. This blog will be published later in December.