Political Leadership Needed to Address Serious Abuses
January 31, 2013
It is striking that so many of the positive developments this year have stemmed from court decisions, rather than political leadership. If Europe is serious about exercising leadership on rights abroad, its governments need to start taking positive action to protect rights at home.
Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division

(Brussels) – National and European Union (EU) leaders failed to address serious human rights concerns in the region amid economic and political crisis in 2012, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. Human Rights Watch documented human rights concerns in the EU, highlighting events in 10 member states and EU-level developments in migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, and counterterrorism policy.

In the face of deteriorating rights in Hungary and elsewhere, EU institutions and member states largely failed to live up to the promise of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, especially when those negatively affected were marginalized or unpopular groups, such as Roma, migrants, and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch found. Stronger responses came from European and domestic courts as well as the Council of Europe, the regional human rights watchdog. In a December report on fundamental rights in the EU, the European Parliament urged stronger EU action on abuses inside its borders, including greater use of infringement proceedings by the European Commission.

“It is striking that so many of the positive developments this year have stemmed from court decisions, rather than political leadership,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. “If Europe is serious about exercising leadership on rights abroad, its governments need to start taking positive action to protect rights at home.”

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab Spring gives birth to genuine democracy or simply spawns authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

Syrians fleeing violence at home faced a protection lottery in Europe, Human Rights Watch found, with Germany granting temporary protection to Syrians while Greece detained and sometimes deported them. There was modest progress toward ensuring and improving the common European asylum rules, but asylum seekers including unaccompanied children faced obstacles to applying for asylum, poor reception conditions, and routine detention and summary returns in some EU countries, particularly Greece, Human Rights Watch said.

Countries including the United Kingdom sometimes set aside rights in the name of countering terrorism. Countries complicit in overseas torture or implicated in CIA abuses, including the UK, Romania, Poland, and Lithuania, remained reluctant to hold their officials to account.

Intolerance is a serious concern, with Council of Europe experts warning in May that economic downturn and austerity were feeding violence against immigrants. A Neo-Nazi party entered the Greek parliament in June, although extremist parties fared less well in other countries. Police and the courts in Greece, Italy, Hungary, and elsewhere often failed to respond in a robust manner to violence against migrants and minorities, including Europe’s largest minority, the Roma, who faced persistent discrimination across the region.

“The relationship between the economic crisis, intolerance, and support for extremist parties is complex,” Ward said. “But combatting violence and discrimination is crucial to help stop the social fabric from fraying further.”

Key Developments in 2012
The deteriorating state of human rights in Hungary illustrates the weak response of EU institutions to abuses within its borders. Throughout the year, the Hungarian government repeatedly flouted EU and Council of Europe recommendations in areas that included media freedom and the independence of the judiciary. It ignored a ruling by the EU Court of Justice on forced retirement of judges. But aside from the court ruling, the EU failed to use the political and legal tools at its disposal even when it was clear that Hungary was unwilling to act on its recommendations.

Though boat migration decreased compared with 2011 – a record year for crossings and deaths at sea – over 300 migrants and asylum seekers, including Syrians, had died at sea trying to reach European shores by the year’s end. EU member states failed to act on recommendations from the Council of Europe in a report published in April denouncing a “catalogue of failures” that led to the deaths of 63 boat migrants in April 2011 in the midst of the conflict in Libya and a heavy NATO presence in the Mediterranean.

Following rulings by the EU Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), EU member states agreed to reform the Dublin II Regulation (part of the EU’s asylum rules) to block transfers to an EU country if an asylum seeker risks inhuman or degrading treatment there. But the reforms left intact the general rule that the first EU country of entry is responsible for examining asylum claims, placing an unfair burden on countries at EU external borders, notably Greece, which despite efforts at reform has chronic deficiencies in its asylum system and inhuman and degrading immigration detention conditions.

A survey by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency demonstrated continuing destitution and social exclusion among Roma in the region, with migrant Roma facing serial evictions from informal camps in Italy and France. A summer campaign in France to evict and deport migrant Roma drew condemnation from UN experts on housing, migrants’ rights, minority rights, and racism, while the European Commission stated only that it continued to monitor the situation. Romania carried out forced evictions of Roma, without providing adequate alternative housing. Several hundred Roma face imminent eviction from informal settlements in the city of Baia Mare alone.

The use of ethnic profiling by police and border guards caused concern in a number of EU countries, including France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. In October, an administrative appeals court in Germany overturned a lower court’s ruling justifying the use of racial profiling to conduct checks for irregular migrants. The French government backtracked on a pledge to tackle abuses during identity checks, including ethnic profiling, and proposed unsatisfactory reforms.

Progress toward accountability for counterterrorism abuses came from the courts rather than governments, with the ECtHR ruling in December that Macedonia was responsible for the unlawful detention, torture, and illegal transfer to CIA custody in 2003 of Khaled El Masri, a German national rendered to Afghanistan. In September, Italy’s highest criminal court upheld in absentia convictions of 23 US citizens for the 2003 abduction and rendition to Egypt of Abu Omar, an Egyptian, and ordered the retrial of five Italian intelligence officers, whom lower courts had acquitted, citing state secrecy.

In January, the UK government halted an inquiry into UK complicity in overseas torture and rendition that had been widely criticized as lacking the necessary independence and authority, citing new criminal investigations into complicity in rendition and torture to Libya. It is unclear whether a promised second inquiry will have the necessary powers to establish the truth. Inquiries in Poland, Romania, and Lithuania into collusion with the CIA’s rendition program dragged on with little progress, with the European Parliament adopting a resolution in September condemning the lack of transparency and the use of state secrecy to impede public accountability.