The Reichstag Building in Berlin where the German parliament meets, on December 27, 2009.

© 2009 Deutscher Bundestag/studio kohlmeier

(Berlin) – The political parties of the German Bundestag have markedly different priorities regarding human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today. The differences are especially marked on issues of EU asylum policy, relations with Russia, and internet freedom. Prior to the September 22, 2013 Bundestag elections, Human Rights Watch asked the parties about their positions on a range of human rights issues.

“The parties’ answers regarding key human rights issues provide important insights into how German human rights policy could take shape after the elections,” said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch. “We hope this information will be helpful to voters in deciding which party to support.”

The questionnaire was sent to the five parties of the German Bundestag, and all five responded. The questions related to domestic, European, and foreign policy topics: the banning of the headscarf in German schools, the repatriation of members of the Roma minority to Kosovo, EU asylum policy, human rights violations in the EU, Syria, Russia, and China, international criminal jurisdiction, internet freedom, as well as human rights in development policy. The complete results of the questionnaire can be found on the Human Rights Watch German website.

“Following the elections, we will work to make sure that the parties keep any promises they have made that would improve human rights protection,” Michalski said. “If we take issue with their responses, we will discuss the issues with the parties.”

Highlights from the responses:

  • EU asylum policy: Do you support a reform of the Dublin Regulation requiring asylum seekers to submit an application for asylum in the EU member state that they first enter? The current situation unfairly burdens member countries on external EU borders, such as Greece.

The Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) said the Dublin Regulation procedures have proven successful. A clear majority of EU member states have also voiced their support for this regulation. Beyond this, Greece has benefited from extensive EU support.

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) would advance a policy on refugees in the EU that complies with human rights, including a balanced distribution of burdens and responsibilities based on EU solidarity. However, further technical discussions would be necessary to finalize the system’s specific design.

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) said it promotes a Europe-wide humane regulation concerning the fundamental right to seek asylum, as well as a European allocation formula for asylum seekers and recognized refugees. The party said the aim should not be to find the lowest common denominator.

The Greens said they want a fundamental adjustment of European asylum policy oriented toward the needs of refugees. In their view, the Dublin system was the cause of the current crisis of European asylum policy as it shifts responsibility for asylum procedures onto countries along EU external borders.

The Left emphasized that the current structure of the Dublin system forces member states with substantial external borders to assume primary responsibility for the reception and care of refugees. Furthermore, it creates “incentives” for countries such as Greece, Italy, Malta and Cyprus to seal their borders as effectively as possible. The Left wants a fundamental realignment of the EU asylum system.

  • Russia: Do you agree that Germany should take a leading role within the EU on the topic of human rights in Russia and adopt a more critical stance in the bilateral relations with Russia?

CDU/CSU said that the European Union should increasingly speak with one voice on foreign policy. If the EU is to maintain its weight in the eyes of the world it needs a coordinated foreign policy and the capability of acting on it. This also applies to external human rights policy, in particular with regard to strong countries such as Russia. A CDU-led federal government would continue to work toward achieving this goal and would clearly address human rights deficits in Russia.

The SPD said that Germany plays a central role in shaping EU policy towards Russia, because of Germany’s traditionally close relations with Russia. In 2010, the EU and Russia had agreed on a “modernization partnership” inspired by the former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The SPD criticized the increased repression of the opposition in President Vladimir Putin’s third term in office. A possible way of strengthening human contacts and the cooperation between German and Russian organizations in this difficult phase would be to liberalize restrictive visa arrangements.

The FDP said that Germany is already intensively engaged within the EU in a critical analysis of the human rights situation in Russia. At the same time, the federal government seeks dialogue with Russian representatives on different levels, and clearly demands observance of civil and human rights in Russia. In spite of all the justified criticism of Russia’s domestic policy, the FDP said, Germany and the EU have an interest in a close cooperation with Russia, rather than in isolating Russia.

The Greens emphasized their unambiguous support for people fighting for democracy, rule of law, and plurality of opinion, and they want the EU and Germany to increasingly support those aiming to promote Russia’s modernisation. However, at this time, the Russian leadership is not meeting the preconditions for an effective “strategic partnership” for this purpose. The current Russian leadership does not represent a partner for modernisation. Rather than courting this leadership, the Greens advocate a clear rejection of its authoritarian political trajectory. To support democratization, the EU should foster exchange between the EU’s and Russia’s civil society and facilitate visa waiver programs.  

The Left said that whether Germany should take a “leading role” with Russia is only a secondary question. It is crucial for Germany and the EU to support victims of political justice and torture in Russia, and to criticize human rights violations clearly. Germany has been blocking the visa liberalization between Russia and the EU, but it should take a leading role instead.

  • Freedom of the Internet: How will the EU and Germany contribute to monitoring and regulating the export of monitoring technology to authoritarian regimes?

The CDU replied that evaluating technology critically and constantly and making decisions on a case-by-case basis already accords with the German political position for export controls of monitoring software. The CDU regards it as essential to cooperate on the international level as well, if answers and solutions concerning monitoring technologies are to be developed. It should not be overlooked, however, that monitoring software – if used according to the rule of law – can contribute to protecting citizens against serious crime and terrorism.

The SPD also wants to regulate the export of monitoring and censoring technology, similar to the way the export of military equipment is regulated. Otherwise, opponents of abusive governments and human rights defenders would be seriously threatened. The current system for regulating the export of surveillance technology and software has substantial shortcomings.

The FDP said it regards monitoring technology as a dual-use product – a product that can be used both for civilian and military purposes – which is subject to restrictive control in Germany. The federal government, of which the FDP is a part, pursues a policy of restrictive export controls. The legal foundation for the control of export, transfer, procurement, and transit of dual-use items is the Council Regulation (EC) on dual-use items of 2009. The regulation is complemented by national regulations of the Foreign Trade and Payments Act and the Foreign Trade and Payments Ordinance.

The Greens said that  while the Merkel coalition repeatedly praises the democratic effects of new media, it  turns a blind eye when it comes to exports of monitoring technology by German and European companies, and  even supports them in many ways, going so far as to grant export credit guarantees within the Hermes Program. The Greens have long fought to make export controls more effective. They want theMerkel coalition to ensure that the controls are strengthened on the European level, as well as in Germany, either by including technology and software in the dual-use items list, or by creating a mechanism to control exports that corresponds to the current system for dual-use products.

The Left said that, due to the lack of political will, hardly any measures have been taken to limit or ban the export of monitoring software and technology. The [arms] export regulations and enforcement mechanisms, which are insufficient at all levels, hinder effective control over export of these items. The EU dual-use regulations do provide starting points, but nothing beyond that. The first and most important step would be to include monitoring technology in the export list of the Foreign Trade and Payments Act.