Human Rights Commissioner: Europe’s leaders betray basic principles

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The EU is closing its doors ever tighter to immigrants and some of its leaders are betraying basic humanitarian principles, said Thomas Hammarberg, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, in an exclusive interview with EurActiv.

Prior to his appointment as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in 2005, Thomas Hammarberg spent several decades working for the advancement of human rights in Europe and worldwide.

He has previously been secretary-general of Amnesty International and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 on behalf of the London-based NGO.

He was speaking to EurActiv's Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Commissioner Hammarberg: In your recently published book 'Human rights in Europe: no grounds for complacency,' you say that what matters is results, and your work is not about naming 'good and bad governments'. However, there are situations like the present immigration row between France and Italy, with those immigrants coming mainly from Tunisia.

Isn't it time to name and shame countries which contravene basic standards of human rights?

My line is to criticise, "name and shame" if you want, actions of governments when they are in contradiction with either already agreed human rights standards or which if implemented have as a consequence human rights violations.

I do believe that we are facing a very unfortunate situation now when Europe is closing up even more and beginning to resurrect borders inside Europe in order to send negative signals about welcoming refugees and migrants from other parts of the world.

In contrast, countries like Tunisia themselves were quite generous dealing with arrivals…

In fact Tunisia has been a model for all refugee policies for the whole world. They are in a very difficult situation themselves. They've gone through a difficult political transition, widespread unemployment, an economic crisis much deeper than anywhere in Europe. Still they have received more than a quarter million refugees from Libya with open arms. They still continue to keep their border open.

In contrast, the 500 million Europeans are closing their doors, sending back boats and people coming there, treating those coming into Europe as if they were totally unwanted. I think this is very sad. It is proof that Europe is not living up to its own declarations about human rights.

Therefore Europe cannot be credible globally…

No, with this policy Europe will have very little credibility when we talk about human rights in international fora in the future.

Let's call a spade a spade. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has elections. 25,000 immigrants is not such a big number for the European Union, or even for France or Italy…

They are obviously thinking about reactions at home. My suggestion is instead of giving in to these kinds of xenophobic tendencies, the leading politicians should stand up and explain why we need to care about people in desperate need in other parts of the world and see this as a task of humanitarian value. But they don't. They back down and they betray the basic humanitarian principles which I thought Europe would honour.

Last year there was a sad episode of Roma expulsions from France. Do you think this story is over?

No, it's not over. And in fact there are Roma still moving. Some of them are back from Romania and in France again. So it was no solution to arrest them and send them back and treat them badly.

So the issue is still there. I think there is a need to clarify the principles: are Roma living in Europe and accepted as Europeans? And why not? Why should they not be accepted as having the same rights as everyone else within the EU area?

We cannot introduce special rules for them, and that is what happened in this case.

Has the European Commission been too lax on Hungary lately?

I think the impression given after the dialogue between the Commission in Brussels and the Hungarian government was that the EU accepted and even welcomed the final version of the media laws in Budapest.

And this in spite of the fact that there are still some serious problems when it comes to certain parts of these laws, such as the freedom of the media, protection of sources of information, etc.

That was, in my opinion, unfortunate.

By giving the green light to the amended media law, the Commission wasn't exactly helping you to do your work.

There were two activities going on at the same time. One was the negotiations between the Commission in Brussels and the government in Budapest. The other one was the Council of Europe and my own office as commissioner, where we analysed in detail the media laws and found serious flaws when it comes to human rights in these laws. We published a document but…

It was critical, but the Commission said the amended law was OK.

Yes. That was the impression that was given and the Hungarian government is referring to what they call a "blessing" from Brussels when it comes to the final version of the law, which was unfortunate.

Some say the Hungarian media law is only the tip of the iceberg. The media situation is deteriorating in many EU countries such as Italy or France. I won't mention Eastern Europe.

I think we have a difficult media situation today. I've had discussions with media experts in the UK and they repeatedly refer to some newspapers there – the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, etc. – and really signal that they are worried about the way they influence broader parts of the population towards more xenophobic reactions.

I really do think that there is a need to discuss, from a human rights point of view, the responsibility of the media. I say that with the greatest respect for freedom of expression. There is a dilemma there.

Something needs to be done so that media, as in many countries, are not turned into propaganda for the government, for the state authorities. There is a need for a much more enlightened discussion on that aspect.

Are you pessimistic about the trends in Europe? Maybe this is all due to the crisis? Do we have to pay the price of crisis also in terms of regression in basic human rights standards?

At the least I feel we are faced with a very serious challenge. For the responses from the leading politicians are not very constructive and positive. I think they are not backing down when it comes to the respect for basic values including human rights. They are legitimising activities by extremist groups rather than taking the debate and explaining why they are wrong in this.

And this multiculturalism debate, isn't it a fig leaf which obscures the real problems? We have three leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Sarkozy who have said 'multiculturalism has failed'. What does that mean?

By that I think they have redefined the very term. They now talk about multiculturalism as support for an isolationist Muslim community in those societies. They mainly focus on Islam in Europe.

Multiculturalism should mean respect for one another, diversity of societies, and respect for other cultures. It means the fact we can work together. To use it as a negative term is really is to create another type and much more negative discussion than we hoped for.

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