The latest report by the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner warns against the consequences of austerity policies on the most vulnerable parts of society. In an interview with EurActiv, Nils Muižnieks also discussed the crackdown on Roma populations and the rise of extreme parties at the next European elections.
Nils Muižnieks is the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, which has 47 member states, 28 of which are members of the European Union. He responded to questions from EurActiv’s Tanja Milevska.
The report paints an alarming picture of the state of human rights across Europe. Your recommendation to the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund is to “systematically monitor human rights when conducting annual economic evaluations”. Is “monitoring” enough?
My main message to the governments and also to the international and European institutions is that human rights norms have to be respected in economic decision making as well, including in national and international responses to the crisis. Austerity measures, international loans and rescue packages should not go against human rights obligations: their impact on the enjoyment of rights and equality has to be assessed.
EU institutions are bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights in their actions. The EU is also a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities the implementation of which has been put into question by austerity measures. The human rights framework agreed within the Council of Europe and the UN is relevant to austerity and governments’ economic and social policies must function within it. Minimum core obligations must always be observed and vulnerable groups need protection.
All resourcing alternatives should be considered to seek alternatives to austerity: for example, there is a need to address tax evasion. Austerity measures should remain temporary covering only the period of the crisis. Governments should seek the independent advice of ombudsmen, human rights commissions and equality bodies on the impact of austerity measures on human rights and equality.
An important question the report touches upon is the growing racism and discrimination against foreigners since the crisis has hit. What do you recommend to EU leaders and institutions on this particular issue?
The rise of racism and discrimination against foreigners – including migrants – is a worrying phenomenon which is topical in all countries across Europe. It is also worrying that fear and hatred of migrants is often fuelled by the discourse of politicians, who legitimise thus racist manifestations in the broader society.
Within the EU, part of this rhetoric concerns the supposed threat posed by an imminent invasion of Roma from Romania and Bulgaria. This is simply unacceptable and this discriminatory rhetoric should stop. States have to ensure the protection of human rights, including those of migrants, irrespective of their country of origin.
Another very worrying issue is the treatment of Roma across Europe, both in the West and the East. Three Roma children have been taken away from their families because of the colour of their skin; government officials in all EU countries regularly say very disturbing things on the Roma minority. Yet, we are at the end of the Decade of Roma Inclusion and it seems they have never been as ill-treated as this since the Second World War. Where did it go wrong and how do we make it right?
One of the root causes for the limited impact of policies addressing the situation of the Roma is the fact that they mostly lack an anti-racist component, even though deeply rooted racism, rejection and prejudices lie at the heart of many of the persisting difficulties facing the Roma. Not only such an emphasis is lacking in most public policies, but politicians increasingly scapegoat the Roma for all the problems of society, as has been done over centuries.
The other major gap, which is connected to prevailing prejudices, is the lack of real involvement of the Roma themselves in most policies and practices concerning them, as well as their low participation in wider public affairs. There are enough standards elaborated by Council of Europe and European Union as well as good practices in many of the member states that can be used as guidelines. Funding is available for EU member states but remains under-used as many of the objectives stated in the national Strategies for Roma 2020 lack the required funding allocations.
What is really needed is a strong political will and courage to tackle inequalities and discrimination which Roma are confronted with in the long-term and to reaffirm publicly that Roma are equal citizens in the countries where they live. Public discourse is very important to overcome the current situation. Many of the projects and plans being implemented are likely to lead to failures if the dominant discourse remains one of scapegoating Roma, triggering prejudices and, in a growing number of cases, inciting hatred against them.
Eurosceptic and far-right parties are joining forces for the next European elections. Is that a concern to you? What will the next European Parliament look like?
Extremist organisations undermine the rule of law and erode human rights to which democratic states adhere. European states should revise their legislation to effectively penalise participation in racist extremist groups. In my report on Greece, published earlier this year, I mentioned that the imposition of effective and proportionate sanctions on individuals and the prohibition, if necessary, of political parties such as “Golden Dawn”, could be considered compatible with norms contained in international law, including the ECHR, which prohibits hate speech and the abuse of right to free association.
It is deeply worrying that the European community and national political leaders appear not to be fully aware of the serious threat that extremist organisations pose to the rule of law and human rights. It is necessary to elaborate policies and practice to prevent and combat institutional racism and any institutional culture which promotes impunity for those who promote discrimination and racist hatred. Mainstream parties should be more aware of the dangers posed by radicalisation in society and should refrain from instrumentalising vulnerable minorities.
Photo: Sandro Weltin/©Council of Europe