Faver Agyei (right), 32, comforts her friend Alima Mohamed, 22, at a camp in Tunisia near the Libyan border. Mohamed’s husband, also from Ghana, died along with 200 others after their ship capsized trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya on June 1, 2011.

© 2011 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

(Brussels) – The European Union and member governments proved unwilling to tackle human rights abuse at home during 2011, even as they proclaimed the issue’s importance in inspiring the Arab Spring, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012.

Human Rights Watch found worrying trends on human rights in the European Union region, highlighting events in nine member states and developments in the areas of migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, and counterterrorism policy.

A separate essay in the report analyses long-term trends on human rights in Europe. It concludes that declining respect for rights, weak enforcement when violations do occur, the growing influence of extremist parties, and the retreat from the idea that rights apply equally to everyone amount to a crisis that demands urgent action.

“Judging from the soaring rhetoric on the Arab Spring in 2011, human rights would seem to be a central concern of the EU,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The sad truth is that European Union governments too often set aside rights at home when they prove inconvenient, especially those of vulnerable minorities and migrants, and brush aside criticism of abuse.” 

In its 676-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. 

While the idea of a human rights crisis in Europe may seem far-fetched, a closer examination reveals deeply worrying trends, Human Rights Watch said. Four developments stand out: the erosion of rights under counterterrorism policy; growing intolerance and abusive policies toward minorities and migrants; the rise of populist extremist parties and their influence on mainstream politics; and the declining effectiveness of the institutions and tools that protect human rights.

Policy responses to migration from North Africa exemplified the EU’s negative approach in 2011. These included calls to limit free movement inside EU internal borders, disputes over the responsibility for rescuing boat migrants in peril, and a reluctance to resettle refugees from Libya.

Populist extremist parties remained strong across the EU region, corroding mainstream politics, especially on issues related to Roma, Muslims, and migrants. EU governments frequently responded by echoing these parties’ criticism of minorities and pursuing policies that infringed on human rights.

The European Commission failed to pursue vigorously its duty to act against measures that violate the Charter of Fundamental Rights and other EU laws. It accepted half-hearted amendments to a highly problematic media law in Hungary, dropped proceedings against France over its expulsion of Eastern European Roma despite ongoing abuses, and suspended proceedings against Greece even though it has done little to reform its deeply flawed asylum system and inhuman and degrading detention. On January 17, the Commission announced enforcement action against Hungary over judicial appointments, but it is unclear what effect the intervention will have on the government’s wider interference with the courts and media.

“For all its promises of zero-tolerance, the European Commission has proved reluctant to take on member states over their human rights records,” Ward said. “Unless the commission finds more courage, the downward slide on rights inside the EU looks set to continue.”

Key developments in 2011
Although hundreds of migrants died at sea in the Mediterranean fleeing Libya, the EU failed to take concerted action to improve coordination of efforts for rescues at sea or to help resettle significant numbers of recognized refugees from North Africa. While Italy and Malta rescued many boats, an alleged failure by warships to rescue a boat in distress in late March and early April led to 63 deaths. Disputes over where to disembark rescued migrants and asylum seekers endangered others.

Progress toward a common asylum system remained slow, with proposed amended directives on reception, procedures, and qualification all pending at year’s end. The EU’s approach emphasized migration control rather than access to protection for those who need it.

In a landmark January ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), a Council of Europe court whose decisions are binding on EU states, found that returns of asylum seekers to Greece from other EU countries violated their rights. The decision cited inhuman and degrading detention conditions and lack of meaningful access to asylum in Greece. The court remained a crucial instrument for human rights protection in the EU region, despite political attacks from some quarters in Europe, including by UK ministers.

The ECtHR ruling, and a similar one from the EU’s Court of Justice in December, underscored the problems with the EU’s “Dublin” regulation, which requires the first country of entry to process asylum claims, putting an unfair burden on countries at the EU’s external borders. Most states suspended returns to Greece but efforts to reform the rule remained stalled due to opposition from a majority of EU members.

Racist and xenophobic violence against migrants, asylum seekers, and Roma was a serious problem in several countries, including Greece, Italy, and Hungary, with inadequate response from those governments. The horrific terrorist attacks in Norway in July by a xenophobic extremist who killed 77 people highlighted the dangers of unchecked intolerance, while the Norwegian government decision to respond with “more openness, more democracy and more humanity” offered a positive example. New laws in France and Belgium banning full-face Muslim veils entered into force, in a year when UK and French leaders declared multiculturalism a failed policy.

Counterterrorism measures in European countries violated rights. Spain allows incommunicado detention for up to 13 days. Reforms of police custody rules in France left in place powers to interrogate terrorism suspects without a lawyer present, and to restrict access to a lawyer for up to 72 hours. Legislative proposals to limit abusive counterterrorism pre-charge detention and control orders in the UK were undermined by provisions allowing them to be restored in an emergency. 

Little progress was made toward accountability for complicity by European governments with US torture and secret detention. Lithuania shut down its investigation, there was slow progress in a similar investigation in Poland, and Romanian authorities issued repeated denials despite evidence that identified the location of a former CIA secret detention center in Bucharest. A German court dismissed a case against the German government for failing to pursue the extradition of US citizens allegedly involved in the rendition of a naturalized German citizen to Afghanistan in 2004.

“The net result of human rights developments in Europe causes great concern,” Ward said. “Without concerted government action, the next generation of Europeans may see human rights as an optional extra rather than a core value.”