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Human rights is a marathon (part II)


Interview with Nils Muižnieks


International Human Rights Day 2020

Part II

By Silan Celebi and Felisa Tibbitts

The first part of the Human Rights Here interview with Nils Muižnieks, the Regional Director for Europe of Amnesty International, was published on International Human Rights Day, December 10th, 2020. In this second part of the interview, he presents his opinions on current human rights issues in Europe.

Source: The London Free Press


Women’s Rights

Considering the Polish constitutional tribunal’s recent decision to prohibit abortion, what is your opinion on the status of women’s rights in Poland right now? How do you see the role and importance of the mass protests organized by women in Poland against this decision, and are there lessons that can be learned from this example by other human rights movements?

I think the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s decision on abortion is an abomination in so many ways.  For one, the Tribunal is no longer independent and should not be adjudicating on any issue, let alone such a controversial one.  Secondly, for more than a decade, Poland has not implemented three European Court of Human Rights judgments pertaining to abortion, so this decision goes in precisely the wrong direction.  Third, it is the latest step in an ongoing attack on women’s rights by the current Polish government, which has harassed women’s rights defenders, encouraged right wing extremists to attack them, limited access to contraception, and threatens to limit the accessibility of sexuality education as well as withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.  

The mass protests are a signal that many have had enough, that street action is seen as the only way to protect their rights.  I admire these brave women and think they deserve our solidarity and support. One lesson here is that women’s rights are often the first to be attacked by authoritarian champions of patriarchy. Rule of law crises are often intertwined with attempts to undermine progress towards gender equality. Sometimes, words, votes, petitions are not enough – you need to get people out on the street showing peers, colleagues, neighbours and the world that you mean business.

Asylum Seekers

In relation to the European Ombudsman Office’s decision to open an inquiry, what is your opinion on the European Commission’s response towards the Croatian authorities’ violence against asylum seekers? How can the fundamental rights of asylum seekers be better protected in relation to border management operations?

Until now the European Commission has been either blind or complicit to the violations taking place at Croatian borders.  They are blind, because so many different players – the ombudsman, NGOs, others – have been ringing alarm bells, but the Commission has done nothing.  They are complicit because a lot of EU funding has gone to Croatia for migration management and that funding had to be spent in line with EU law, including the relevant human rights safeguards.  It was not. The Croatian authorities have been engaging in mass, violent pushbacks of migrants and collective expulsions of aliens, sometimes from deep within the country.

                                             Source: Business Insider, Australia

For the rights of asylum-seekers to be better protected, there needs to be systematic monitoring of the external borders by FRONTEX, by ombudspersons, by NGOs.  FRONTEX itself has been complicit in some of the bad behavior of member states at their borders, and its complaints mechanism and incident reporting mechanism do not function the way they should.  Ideally, the EU will accede to the European Convention on Human Rights and it and FRONTEX will be accountable before the Court. Ombudspersons often do not get access to borders and facilities, or in the worst case, do not want it, because then they would have more conflictual relations with governments.  NGOs have had an increasingly difficult time monitoring the situation, as in many countries, those rescuing or assisting migrants have been criminalized by governments. So the way forward is making FRONTEX accountable, empowering ombudspersons, and decriminalizing NGO migrant work.    

How do you see the situation in Greece (especially the Greek islands) with regards to the refugee camps – including the Moria camp that witnessed a large fire recently –, the reactions it received in host communities throughout Europe, and the prospects of long-term resettlement solutions and the so-called “burden-sharing” within the EU? 

The camps on the Greeks isles are a human rights disaster.  Unless people are transferred to the mainland in a rapid and orderly fashion, more tragedy is predictable.  There will be more fires, more mass infections by COVID, more riots, and more of a reaction from locals, who have also been made to suffer an intolerable situation.  Keeping people in awful, overcrowded camps is part and parcel of the widespread and failed policy of deterrence – trying to send a signal to migrants not to come because they will otherwise be subjected to hellish conditions.  As we have seen, deterrence does not work in Greece or anywhere else and the human cost is enormous.

Some sort of burden or “responsibility-sharing” must be found, because the Mediterranean Sea is not a Greek, Italian, Maltese and Spanish Sea, but a European Sea.  Putting the entire burden on front-line states is not sustainable.  Since voluntary responsibility sharing has not worked, some kind of obligatory solidarity is the only solution.  I think it is interesting that the Commission is no longer trying to impose relocation on all states, which did not work, but is trying to get states to contribute something – money, assistance in returns, etc.

The migratory flow will continue regardless, the only issue is to what extent it will be managed humanely, in line with human rights standards.  I am not particularly optimistic.  The way forward in my view is resettlement, family reunification and community sponsorship.

Judicial Independence

What does the continued detention of Osman Kavala reveal about Turkey’s justice system and the impartiality of the judges? Do you think the ECtHR judgment will ever be implemented by Turkey?

 The independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary has been seriously degraded in the last four years, at least.  I am surprised that the European Court of Human Rights continues to view the Constitutional Court as an effective domestic remedy.  Osman Kavala has spent several years in detention on completely trumped up charges, first, for allegedly being a so-called Gulenist, then for allegedly master-minding the Gezi protests.  At one point, I even said that the Turkish authorities’ action reminded me of Stalin’s henchman Beria, who reportedly said, “show me the man, I will find the crime.” The brazenness with which the Turkish authorities spin fantastic yarns about his alleged crimes and spit in the face of 46 other governments in refusing to release him from unjustified detention is surprising to me.  Apparently, they feel there is little political, judicial or economic cost in doing so.  So we must raise the cost.  The judgment will be implemented, the question is “when?”