Europe And Central Asia
At the beginning of August 2008, two European states went to war for
the first time in almost a decade. Since the conflicts of the early
1990s, Europe had assumed a degree of stability in terms of its
economy, security and embedding the rule of law, but these events
showed how potentially fragile the security assumptions underpinning
post-Cold War Europe could be. And how – as so often – civilians and
their human rights pay the price when such assumptions fail.
The five-day conflict between Georgia and Russia over the disputed region of South Ossetia resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, thousands of injuries and, at its peak, the displacement of almost 200,000 people. Georgian-Russian hostilities and subsequent pillage and arson also caused extensive damage to civilian homes in South Ossetia and adjacent areas. Clustermunitions, devastating to civilians’ lives and livelihoods both at the time of their use and after hostilities, were used.
By the end of the year, the global economic crisis had also shown how the assumed stability of the region’s economic architecture was likewise subject to challenge. Several European states required interventions from the International Monetary Fund to support their economies, amid wider fears that the downturn would push more people – particularly those already made vulnerable from conflict, discrimination or insecurity – deeper into poverty.
Across Europe in 2008, those already in poverty continued to lack access to many basic needs. Despite the festering economic crisis, Europe was home to some of the wealthiest countries in the world in 2008. It also, however, housed serious failings in the implementation of its inhabitants’ rights to education, health care, secure housing and livelihoods. Across the region the divide between rich and poor remained gaping, and from either side of that divide, the experience of accessing human rights was markedly different. As it was for different groups within countries – in Tajikistan, for example, poverty and unemployment affected women disproportionately and made them more vulnerable to human rights abuses.
When external events or internal mismanagement led to shortages, it was the poorest who felt them first and keenest. In Albania, for example, people living below the national poverty line –more than 18 per cent of the population – suffered most acutely from the country’s already limited access to education, clean water, health and social care. One of the harshest winters to hit Central Asia in several decades beset vital infrastructure and left vast swathes of the region facing severe energy and food shortages, with the UN moved to launch emergency appeals for the inhabitants of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
As in previous years, the watchword of security was used to drive policies and practices that delivered the opposite – undermining human rights in the name of fighting terrorism, shrouding abuse with impunity, and fortifying barriers against those seeking to flee persecution, violence or poverty.
States such as Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, were prepared to allow unenforceable “diplomatic assurances” as a justification to deport terrorism suspects to countries where there was a real risk of torture and other ill-treatment. In Turkey convictions under antiterrorism laws were often based on insubstantial or unreliable evidence. Secrecy in the implementation of counter-terrorism measures in the UK led to unfair judicial proceedings.
In a landmark ruling in February, and an indication of the sort of leadership needed on other human rights concerns in the region, the European Court of Human Rights reaffirmed the absolute prohibition of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The ruling forbids states to send anyone – including those suspected of terrorism and/or those who are alleged to pose a risk to national security – to countries where there is reason to believe they would face such violations.
Victims of torture and other ill-treatment, often race- or identity based and frequently used to extract confessions, were likewise too often failed by justice systems which did not hold to account those charged with ensuring security and the rule of law. Obstacles to accountability included lack of prompt access to a lawyer, failure by prosecutors to vigorously pursue investigations, victims’ fear of reprisals, low penalties imposed on convicted police officers, and the absence of properly resourced and independent systems for monitoring complaints. In countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Kazakstan, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, such failures perpetuated a culture of impunity.
Across the region, women faced personal insecurity, as states failed to protect them from the violence they faced in the home and from intimate partners. This abuse remained pervasive across the region for all ages and social groups, and was manifested through women enduring a range of verbal and psychological attacks, physical and sexual violence, economic control and even murder. There were gaps in protection, existing laws against such violence were often not fully implemented, and resources including for shelters and training of relevant law enforcement officials often remained woefully inadequate. The Council of Europe decided in December to draft one or more treaties setting binding standards for the prevention, protection and prosecution of violence against women and domestic violence against women.
“I put up with his beatings for 14 years because that’s what’s expected here in armenia. In the armenian family the woman has to put up with everything, she has to keep silent.” - D.M., a survivor of domestic violence, Yerevan, Armenia, 2008.
Other marginalized groups also frequently found obstacles blocking their path to redress or to protection – as usual, it was groups such as Roma, migrants, women, those in poverty, who suffered the most insecurity.
Some people thrived on such insecurity, and made money in and across Europe by trafficking human beings. Feeding off those in poverty and exploiting corruption, lack of education and social breakdown, they forced men, women and children into domestic work, farming, manufacturing, construction, hospitality and sexual prostitution.
A major step forward in the protection of these individuals’ rights came when the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings entered into force in February. By the end of the year 20 of the 47 member states had ratified the treaty and 20 more had signed it. Now states must implement its requirements and protections, so that in years to come this ‘modern’ form of slavery becomes history.
Refugees and migrants
There remained a consistent pattern of human rights violations linked to the interception, detention, and expulsion by states of foreign nationals, including those seeking international protection. In some countries, people were denied the security of access to asylum procedures, and in others the level of protection given to Iraqi asylum seekers was reduced, with some deported. Russia Turkey and Ukraine, were among those that forcibly returned asylum-seekers to countries where they were at risk of serious human rights violations.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that 67,000 people made the perilous crossing by sea to Europe in 2008, with hundreds – the exact number is impossible to know – perishing along the way. Around 38,000 people arrived in Italy and Malta alone, mostly after transiting through Libya. The vast majority claimed asylum, and over half of those who did were granted international protection. Across the region, however, the signature response to the challenges of such large and mixed flows of irregular migration remained repressive.
In a deeply disappointing move, the European Union adopted a Directive on the return of irregular migrants. It instituted an excessive maximum period of detention for asylum-seekers and other irregular migrants of up to 18 months. The directive risks lowering existing standards in EU member states and setting a poor example to other regions in the world.
Exclusion and Discrimination
Many asylum-seekers and migrants were also subject to discrimination and exclusion from services and employment, and experienced extreme poverty. In some countries such as Switzerland, rejected asylum-seekers were excluded from the welfare system, resulting in marginalization and destitution. In Germany, migrants continued to suffer restricted access to health care and judicial remedies in cases of violation of their labour rights, and migrant children’s access to education was limited.
Many countries routinely detained migrants and asylum seekers, and in inappropriate conditions. The UN Human Rights Committee expressed its concern at conditions in French migration detention centres, which suffered from severe overcrowding and poor hygiene. In the Netherlands, alternatives to detention were used infrequently, even for unaccompanied minors and victims of trafficking or torture. Malta’s policy of systematically detaining all migrants and asylum-seekers was linked by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance with the rise of racism and intolerance on the island.
Others faced discrimination and exclusion on account of their legal status – or lack of it, including those displaced by conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union whose access to a range of rights was restricted or denied linked with issues of their registration and residency. The continuing use in some areas of the Soviet era system of propiska – registration in the place of permanent residence – was also a breeding ground for corruption and exploitation as many of its restrictive regulations could be overcome by paying bribes. The result of this was, of course, that those without the wealth to pay were excluded from the sinister system.
Many minority returnees to parts of the former Yugoslavia continued to face discrimination in accessing a number of services, finding employment – including in public institutions – and regaining their property or tenancy rights. In Turkmenistan the policy of checking people’s Turkmen origin up to the third generation continued, and restricted access by ethnic minorities to work and higher education. A climate of racism and intolerance in many countries helped to keep people excluded from society or government, and fostered further discrimination.
Migrants, Roma, Jews and Muslims were among those subjected to hate crimes by individuals or extremist groups. Often, a failure to acknowledge the gravity of raciallymotivated crimes and a lack of political will led to impunity for those responsible. Following the rise in anti-Roma sentiment and violent incidents in several European countries, such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, the UN Special Rapporteur on racism stated in November that “such actions reveal serious and deep-rooted problems of racism and discrimination against Roma at the heart of modern Europe that must be addressed in the most vigorous manner and through the rule of law.”
Perhaps the most profound illustration of systematic discrimination in the region was against Roma, who remained largely excluded from public life in all countries. Roma families were unable to enjoy full access to housing, education, employment and health services. Many lived in what amounted to segregated ghettos, physically isolated from other parts of the community, and often with limited or no water or electrical supplies, sanitation systems, paved roads or other basic infrastructure. Unlawful forced evictions of Roma in places such as Italy drove them deeper into poverty. Some Roma remained displaced in camps in northern Kosovo where their health was seriously affected by lead contamination.
“I know that there are more Romani children who think the special school is very, very easy; some of them are very intelligent, but for some reason they are still there... I didn’t like it because I didn’t learn a lot there. In grade 7 of the special school I learned the same things that I learned in grade 3 of the mainstream school.” - A 14-year-old Romani boy who spent six months at the special school of Pavlovce nad Uhom, because of an “administrative” error.
In some countries, the authorities failed to integrate Romani children fully into the education system, tolerating or promoting Roma-only schools, and placing Roma in special schools or classes for pupils with mental disabilities where a reduced curriculum was taught. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to the international NGO Save the Children, only 20 to 30 per cent of Romani children attended primary education, and only 0.5 to 3 per cent attended pre-school education.
Poor housing conditions, physical and cultural isolation, poverty and lack of transport also hindered Romani children’s ability to attend school. Negative stereotyping likewise blighted their future prospects and led to further denial of rights.
The Albanian authorities again failed to implement legislation providing priority access to housing for orphans completing secondary education or reaching adulthood. Around 300 adults who were orphaned as children continued to share rooms in dilapidated and inadequate housing – conditions which aggravated their social exclusion. With few qualifications, they were often unemployed or undertook casual labour for low wages, surviving on minimal state assistance.
Recognizing the ongoing discrimination faced by many in the region, the European Union proposed in July to upgrade its anti-discrimination legislation.
VoiceIn many ways, large areas of the region have traditionally been a beacon for free speech and participatory government. Human rights defenders, NGOs and local community activists have achieved many successes in Europe and Central Asia over the decades. But in 2008, in countries where the space for dissent was already small, those seeking to publicize abuses, articulate alternative views, or hold governments and others to account, remained unheard. Or repressed. Freedoms of expression and association remained under attack – as did human rights defenders themselves.
In Turkey, dissenting views were still met with prosecution and intimidation. The work of human rights defenders was hampered by unjustified prosecutions, some high-profile human rights defenders were subjected to regular criminal investigations, and others were threatened by unknown individuals or groups as a result of their work. Human rights NGOs also faced excessive administrative scrutiny of their work, and courts acted disproportionately when shutting down websites. Some demonstrations were banned without legitimate reason and those held without permission, particularly in the Kurdish-populated south-eastern region of Turkey – one of the poorest areas in the region – were dispersed with excessive force, often before peaceful methods had been tried.
In Belarus, the government continued to exert excessive control over civil society, denying freedom of association and expression. State control over the media increased, and restrictions on independent media continued. Some public events were banned; peaceful demonstrators were subjected to fines and to short periods of detention; and civil society activists and journalists were harassed.
There was little improvement in freedoms of expression and assembly in Uzbekistan. Human rights defenders, activists and independent journalists continued to be targeted for their work, despite claims to the contrary by the authorities. At least 10 human rights defenders remained in prison there in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions, having been sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials. They had limited access to relatives and legal representatives, and reportedly they had been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Some were reported to be gravely ill in prison.
“Unfortunately, my release from prison doesn’t show progress... In Uzbekistan. Five days after my release the journalist and human rights activist [Salidzhon Abdarakhmonov] was detained. A month later another colleague, Agzam Turgunov, was also arrested. Both of them were sentenced to 10 years in october. I am sure the number of victims of the regime... Is far more.” - Mutabar Tadzhibaeva, released from prison on 2 June, accepting the 2008 Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders, November 2008.
The authorities in Turkmenistan launched a new wave of repression against independent civil society activists and journalists. Independent journalists andmedia outlets in Armenia and Azerbaijan that covered opposition activities were harassed.
Libel and slander laws and legislation combating extremism were used in Russia to stifle dissent and to silence journalists and human rights activists. Independent journalists, media and NGOs were targeted by the authorities for reporting human rights violations in the volatile North Caucasus region. In a climate of growing intolerance towards independent views, several human rights defenders and supporters of opposition groups faced criminal charges for expressing dissenting views or criticizing government authorities.
Representatives of religious groups or confessions outside officially endorsed structures, or from non-traditional groups, continued to be harassed in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
“What this pride did was to drive bulgarian LGBT into the public agenda for the whole week. It opened debate about the... Meaning of ‘acceptance’... The proclamation of fear and hatred from the nationalists, the threats that they will kill us, they have prepared bombs with nails against us... Nevertheless, the fear, the feeling of community, of solidarity, the media, who were everywhere... Was unforgettable..” - Aksinia Gencheva, Director of Bulgarian LGBT organization BGO Gemini, June 2008.
Authorities in a number of countries continued to foster a climate of intolerance against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities, making it harder for their voices to be heard and their rights to be protected. Authorities obstructed public events, failed to provide adequate protection to participants, and in some cases highly placed politicians used openly homophobic language. Public events in support of LGBT communities were banned in Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova and Russia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina the first such event closed earlier than planned owing to death threats against the organizers and physical attacks on participants. The festival had been surrounded by an atmosphere of intimidation as some politicians and media outlets ran a homophobic campaign. In Turkey discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity persisted, as did allegations of violence by law enforcement officials against transgender people. A court there also ordered the closure of an organization that supports LGBT rights, on the grounds that its objectives were “against moral values and family structure”.
Despite worrying developments hindering the full realization of human rights for all Europe and Central Asia’s people, 2008 saw some positive steps that must be built on in the coming years. In a continuing positive trend, Uzbekistan joined its neighbours in abolishing the death penalty – leaving Belarus as the lone, last executioner – not just in Europe, but now across the Central Asia region as well.
In the first such statement of its kind, the Turkish Justice Minister apologized in October to the family of a man who had died in custody, and acknowledged that the death may have been due to torture. A step towards accountability and redress that must be replicated by others. Many abusers across the region continued to evade justice, but the arrest and transfer of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić to the institutions of international justice was a significant step in tackling impunity for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. The challenge now is to replicate this at the local level, where insufficient or partial efforts by domestic courts were too often the cause or reason for continuing impunity in the successor Balkan states.
Europe too often lacked political leadership to ensure the protection of human rights in the region, with many of its states also lacking the political will to live up to their obligations.
Accountability systems must ensure effective protection of human rights. Together with the Council of Europe, the European Union must shoulder its responsibility in fighting against discrimination, poverty and insecurity.
The year ended on a high for accountability: it proved how individual struggles to be heard, to be counted, and to be included, can achieve success. On 25 December, the government ofMontenegro officially recognized its responsibility for the “deportation” of Bosniak refugees in 1992.
The relatives of these refugees had filed lawsuits against the government, seeking compensation for the enforced disappearance of their loved ones, but the government had appealed against each decision by the courts to award compensation to the relatives. In effect it blocked the victims’ right to access to redress and reparations. However, in December the government informed the lawyers representing the families that they would provide reparations for all 193 people affected by the enforced disappearances. They include nine survivors of the Bosnian Serb army concentration camp at Foča, 28 of their family members and 156 women and children, and the parents and siblings of 83 men who were killed after their enforced disappearance by the Montenegrin police, into the hands of Bosnian Serb military forces.
In a letter to Amnesty International, Dragan and Tea Prelevic, the lawyers who represent the families of 45 victims, said: “All families feel relieved from an enormous burden of a 16-year-long state denial, and they indeed finally feel some justice. A milestone has been moved and we expect it to have a positive effect on all victims of war crimes in Montenegro and the region…We aremuch aware that all those brave and devastated women, children and men would not have reached this day without your support.”
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