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Events of 2021

Protestors demanding the dismantling of far-right extremist groups, hold up signs with the faces of the victims of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) at a gathering in Munich, Germany.

© 2021 Alexander Pohl/Sipa via AP Images

Right-wing extremism, antisemitism, and racism appeared to be on the rise. Media freedom, which deteriorated during the Covid-19 pandemic, was further affected by new surveillance laws. Following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, Germany halted repatriations of Afghans, but largely failed to evacuate at-risk Afghans in time. A new law obligates large companies to address human rights risks in their direct supply chains. Germany apologized for the 1904-1908 genocide in Namibia.

Discrimination and Intolerance

Official statistics published in May showed an increase in politically motivated crimes in 2020, particularly hate crimes carried out by right-wing extremists. Anti-immigrant and antisemitic crimes increased by 72 and almost 16 percent, respectively, over the previous year. In August, Germany's Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency published figures showing a 78 percent increase in calls reporting a racist incident in 2020.

Tareq Alaows, a Syrian human rights activist and the first refugee in Germany to run for parliament, withdrew in March citing racist attacks and personal threats.

There were several high-profile criminal cases. In January, a Neo-Nazi was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting pro-refugee politician Walter Lübcke in 2019.

In May, a German army officer with alleged right-wing affinities was put on trial for planning to murder at least one politician in 2017 using the fake identity of a Syrian asylum seeker to provoke anti-migrant sentiment.

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency put the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party under formal surveillance for potential extremist links in February 2021. The agency’s chief identified far-right extremism as the biggest threat to democracy in Germany.

Authorities took steps against far-right infiltration in security forces. A special police unit in Frankfurt was disbanded after an investigation found in June 2021 that some of its officers had been involved in far-right extremist chat groups.

In February, illegal weapons, ammunition, and explosives were found in a house of a soldier from an elite army unit, commando special forces (KSK), prompting the Defense Ministry to suggest a change in the law for quicker dismissal of soldiers in the event of serious offenses. The defense minister had dissolved part of the controversial KSK unit in 2020 over right-wing extremism in its ranks.

In June, Germany decided to repatriate a Bundeswehr army platoon stationed in Lithuania due to concerns of antisemitism and right-wing extremism.

German President Steinmeier condemned an increase in attacks on Jewish institutions in German cities following the escalation in conflict between Israel and Palestine in May.

An April report commissioned by the European Commission found a considerable increase in online antisemitic hate speech during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the first two months of 2021 alone, the study recorded a thirteen-fold increase in antisemitic comments in German compared to the same period in 2020.

The June report by an independent commission set up by the German Bundestag in 2019 found that the effects of the Nazi genocide and the failure to counter anti-Roma racism are still evident today with discrimination in public spheres including education, social services, and policing.

A new law entered into force in September 2021 making private hate-motivated insults a criminal offense punishable as incitement to racial hatred.

Parliament rejected bills to reform the onerous procedure for transgender people to modify their registered name and gender.

For the first time, people with disabilities who had previously been denied the right to vote due to court-imposed restrictions on their rights voted in the September federal elections, as per a 2019 Constitutional Court ruling finding their exclusion from voting unconstitutional.

International Justice

In the first known trial dealing with state-sponsored torture in Syria, and making use of Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws, a Koblenz court sentenced in February 2021 a former Syrian intelligence officer to four-and-a-half years in prison for his role in the torture of protestors in Syria in 2011. A verdict in the ongoing trial of a second defendant, also an alleged former Syrian intelligence officer charged with crimes against humanity, was expected by the end of 2021.

Progress was also made in other cases brought under Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws. In March, German authorities arrested a former Gambian “death squad” member suspected of crimes against humanity in the 2000s. In July, German prosecutors filed torture and murder charges against a suspected Syrian military intelligence agent accused of torturing an inmate in a prison where he worked as a doctor.

In August, another Syrian man was arrested in Berlin on war crime charges for firing a tank grenade into a crowd of people awaiting food distribution in Damascus in 2014, killing at least seven.

Using Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) filed a lawsuit in March with a German prosecutor against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his aides for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. RSF claims that the killing constitutes a crime against humanity and that Saudi officials are responsible for “widespread and systematic” persecution of journalists in the kingdom. At time of writing, the prosecutor had not decided whether to open an investigation.

In May, Germany acknowledged and apologized for the 1904-1908 genocide in today’s Namibia, where the German colonial government killed 80,000 Herero and Nama people. Some groups argued that Herero and Nama people were not consulted enough in the negotiation and that US$1.34 billion that Germany committed for social projects in Namibia is not same as paying reparations directly to the families.

Business and Human Rights

In January, a new law entered into force granting better protections to foreign workers in the meat processing industry. The law was adopted after Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants in 2020 exposed horrific working conditions in the industry.

In June, parliament adopted a new law on supply chains requiring large companies to identify and address human rights and environmental risks in their direct supply chains. Though a step forward, the law does not incorporate the highest international standards.

Also in June, the Federation of German Industries urged local companies to monitor for forced labor when doing business with companies in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where about one million Turkic Muslims have been detained in “political reeducation” labor camps.

Migrants and Asylum Seekers

In the first eight months of 2021, 85,230 people applied for asylum in Germany, an increase of 33.2 percent compared to the same period last year. Most applicants came from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. By the end of August, 75,579 applications were pending.

Undocumented migrants in Germany had difficulties accessing Covid vaccines according to Doctors of the World Germany because of a lack of a national plan. Federal states applied different rules in some cases creating risk of deportation for undocumented people because of a lack of a firewall between social welfare and healthcare services and law enforcement.

In April, Germany ended the program, set up in 2020, to relocate asylum seekers from Greek islands through which more than 2,700 people were transferred to Germany.

A Berlin court ruled in June that Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) had violated the rights of an asylum seeker by demanding access to her cell phone data early in her application and unnecessarily storing the information obtained during the search. The ruling could set a precedent for similar cases pending in German courts and have an important impact on efforts to abolish the problematic 2017 law that permits authorities to analyze asylum seekers’ phone data.

In July, a court in North Rhine-Westphalia ruled that Germany should take responsibility for the asylum applications of two men even though they had first entered the European Union via Italy because they could face inhumane and degrading treatment if returned to Italy under EU rules.

The Federal Ministry of the Interior reported one attack per week on centers housing asylum seekers and refugees in the first half of 2021. While fewer than in the previous year, the attacks were more violent.

After initially signing a letter with five other EU member states in early August arguing that forced returns to Afghanistan should continue, Germany suspended repatriations of Afghan migrants following the Taliban takeover in that country.

Surveillance and Freedom of Media

In June, parliament adopted a law allowing federal police and intelligence services to use spyware to hack devices and access encrypted data, raising privacy concerns.

In May, parliament amended the controversial Network Search Act (NetzDG) to better counter hate speech online but the amendments still fail to address concerns regarding the impact of the law on freedom of expression.

In 2021, Germany fell two points in the Reporters Without Border’s ranking of press freedom. The organization recorded attacks on journalists by protesters during protests against Covid-19 restrictions—including in Stuttgart and Kassel, and a brutal attack on the manager of the journalists’ union DJU during the protest in Berlin—and cited a climate of mistrust fomented by populist politicians.

Women’s Rights

According to a May report commissioned by the European Parliament, the Covid-19 crisis could exacerbate already-existing gender inequalities in Germany because women engage more than men in unpaid care, are over-represented in part-time work, and experience lower salaries, increasing the likelihood of female poverty.

In May, a court fined a gynecologist €3,000 ($3,650) for providing factual information on his abortion services on his website under a law that criminalizes “advertising abortion.”

Climate Change Policy and Impacts

As the EU’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, Germany is contributing to the climate crisis which is taking a growing toll on human rights around the globe. In 2021, the constitutional court held that the 2019 climate change law does not adequately regulate emission reductions and violates the government’s obligation to protect rights. Since the ruling, the government pledged to reduce emissions by 65 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and reach net zero by 2045. According to the Climate Action Tracker, this commitment is not sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement goal to stay below 1.5°C of warming, necessary to limit the most catastrophic climate outcomes.

Continued government support for fossil fuels will make it difficult to meet these new targets. From January 2020 through March 3, 2021, 38 percent of the almost $70 billion Covid-19 recovery were subsidies for fossil fuels. Germany is still among the world’s top 10 coal producers and has only committed to a phase out by 2038.

Germany is experiencing increasingly frequent and extreme heat events that threaten human health. Record-breaking floods linked to climate change in July resulted in the deaths of at least 189 people, including 12 people with disabilities living in a group home.

Foreign Policy

In its Action Plan for Human Rights 2021/22, the German government pledged to mainstream human rights in all its policy areas. Germany’s foreign policy should be measured against this principle.

Germany stepped up its engagement at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, leading or supporting action on countries such as Belarus, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Russia—except for Israel where Germany with other Western states opposed a commission of inquiry in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel. The German government was also a driving force on several thematic issues in the council, such as the right to privacy in a digital age and climate change and environmental issues.

In March, the German government pledged to do more to uphold the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people abroad through its Inclusion Strategy, a multifaceted scheme for foreign policy and development cooperation.

Within the EU, Germany strongly condemned legislation against the rights of LGBT people in Hungary and discrimination against LGBT people in Poland. It also supported continued scrutiny under Article 7—the EU mechanism to deal with EU governments putting the union's values at risk—to address rule of law concerns in both address rule of law concerns in both countries.

On China, Germany was amongst the few states willing to use diverse opportunities at the United Nations to call out the country for human rights violations. In New York, it played a central role in organizing a high-level virtual event on Xinjiang in May 2021. Outside the UN, however, German policy supporting human rights in China appeared compromised, particularly in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strong support for an EU-China investment deal ignoring the problem of forced labor in Xinjiang.

Germany was a strong supporter of human rights defenders and critics in Russia and Belarus. Chancellor Merkel continued to stand up for the imprisoned Russian opposition politician Alexej Navalny. The Foreign Ministry launched an action plan for civil society in Belarus including supporting access to humanitarian visas for government critics and the documentation of abuses in the country.

In Afghanistan, Germany widely ignored the needs of human rights defenders, journalists, and local employees to leave the country ahead of the withdrawal of international troops. Shifting responsibilities between government authorities, lack of attention, and wrong assessments put many Afghans at risk. While the German government pledged to evacuate local staff after the Taliban took over, it avoided any general commitment for the resettlement of Afghan refugees.

While being a strong voice in the fight against impunity in the international arena, Germany’s engagement in specific countries could have been more active. In Libya, the Foreign Office continued its important mediation efforts for a political settlement but could have done more to publicly address widespread impunity; in Sudan, much needed support for economic development and political cooperation trumped a stronger focus on accountability.

In the international effort to curb Covid-19, Germany strongly supported the international vaccine platform COVAX, and pledged to donate millions of vaccine doses; they also pledged to donate other diagnostic tools and medicine worldwide and provided funds for vaccine production in the Global South. Yet, the German government was one of the main opponents of waiving some intellectual property and trade rules to speed up the production of Covid-19 vaccines and other health products.

The Human Rights Committee in Parliament scrutinized the German government’s human rights performance and prominently raised human rights violations in Xinjiang, China. The Human Rights Commissioner was an important voice for civil society and human rights defenders worldwide.