Political Will, Collective Action Needed to Address Serious Abuses
January 21, 2014
Respect for human rights is measured in deeds, not words. Ordinary people, from the homeless in Hungary, to black and Arab teenagers constantly stopped by the police in France, to Syrian asylum seekers in Greece, are paying the price for the lack of robust rights enforcement.
Judith Sunderland, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher

(Brussels) – European Union (EU) leaders in 2013 acknowledged problems of rising intolerance and persistent human rights violations across the EU, but failed to take concerted action, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014. Human Rights Watch documented EU-level developments in migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, and counterterrorism, highlighting events in 11 member states, including a new member, Croatia.

In June, interior ministers gathering at a Justice and Home Affairs Council recognized the needed for a stronger response to human rights violations within EU borders. But the European Commission and member states showed little appetite for improving existing tools to address everyday abuses, preferring to focus on a new mechanism to respond to exceptional rule-of-law crises.

“Respect for human rights is measured in deeds, not words,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ordinary people, from the homeless in Hungary, to black and Arab teenagers constantly stopped by the police in France, to Syrian asylum seekers in Greece, are paying the price for the lack of robust rights enforcement.”

In the 667-page world report, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

In EU countries, events in 2013 confirmed that even when EU institutions do tackle rights concerns, problems often persist even after they are deemed solved. Examples are the European Commission’s enforcement actions to address Hungary’s efforts to undermine the rule of law and human rights, and France’s abusive expulsions of Roma.

Racism and homophobia remained serious problems in the EU, prompting calls from the European Parliament and the Council of Europe for more efforts to counter extreme forms of intolerance. Roma, migrants, and asylum seekers are particularly marginalized, while Europe’s Muslims face discrimination in many spheres, including in the exercise of religious freedom.

The EU took further steps toward a common asylum system with the adoption in June of revised rules on procedures and reception conditions. Yet in practice, asylum seekers face protection gaps in numerous EU countries. This is especially true also for people fleeing the conflict in Syria, with the failure of EU countries to adopt a common approach to the Syria refugee crisis.

The death of over 360 migrants and asylum seekers in a single shipwreck in October focused Europe’s attention on boat migration, but policy responses concentrated on surveillance and deterrence with few new measures to help prevent loss of life by prompt rescue, to assess and provide for protection needs, or to ensure swift and safe disembarkation.

Accountability for complicity in US renditions and torture of terrorism suspects lurched forward with the European Court of Human Rights’ first ruling on the issue, in December 2012, against Macedonia; cases against Poland, Lithuania, and Romania are pending in the same court. With the exception of Italy, there was no progress toward accountability at the domestic level.

Despite a commitment to put human rights “at the heart” of its foreign policy, the EU appeared to lack any policy to secure improvements in countries with systematic rights repression, deployed sometimes inconsistent approaches to human rights concerns in countries around the world, and failed to adopt a common message on strategic partners such as Russia and China.