Fighting the good fight

  • 2012-02-29
  • Interview by Emi Pastor

Nils Muiznieks has been one of the most important voices in the field of Human Rights and Racism around the Baltics. Comming off an important political career as the chair of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), now he has taken one more step – on Jan. 24 he was elected the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in Strasbourg (France). Over a non-renewable period of six years, he will defend human rights and minorities in a European environment marked by economic austerity.  Since he was elected, Nils has worked on preparing for his new responsibility, reviewing the recommendations of his predecessor, Thomas Hammarberg, and addressing the media.
After his appointment to the post, Nils sat down to answer a few questions for The Baltic Times.

First of all, congratulations for the choice. You were Latvia’s candidate in 2005, but it is now your time.
I think that back then I started the campaign very late, and also I think I wasn’t nearly as well prepared as I was this year. For the last six years I’ve been a member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), for the last two years I’ve been in Germany, so the ambassadors know me and a lot of people know me much better this time around, and I have started much earlier with the campaign.
And, as for the competition, I think that [this time] there wasn’t as much competition as there was then: there were nine candidates last time and this time there were five.

But now you have to face a more difficult situation in Europe
I think that the big change now is the economic crisis, which has an impact on Human Rights issues, first of all… I think that (this period) it will be a very big challenge.

You will take up your functions on the 1st of April. Which disadvantaged groups of people do you have in the spotlight?
I think that the Commissioner’s job is not to duplicate others mechanisms. We have the Council of Europe and the Convention of Human Rights of National Minorities. So the minorities are covered by these mechanisms. The European Social Charter is for social rights, and so on. I shouldn’t duplicate what they are doing. What I identified when I was doing my campaign were groups who need special attention: children, women and elderly people. The current Human Rights Commission has done a lot of work with children already. So, they are my priorities, and to continue the work that is going well. Regarding Women’s Human Rights there is a new mechanism for combating [human] trafficking. And regarding children and young people, what I am very interested in is concerning the issue around new Information Technologies and Human Rights.  For example:  I have children aged thirteen and fifteen, and they live on this social network. I think that we really have to try to talk about how these networks can be used more effectively for Human Rights.

But in this case, is it possible to get (a sort of) censorship? How do you protect minors while protecting the Right of Information too?
Of course, the Right of Information is a very important Human Right but it is not an absolute right. Restrictions can be placed, especially to protect the rights of others. Regulating the Internet is very childish, because there are no borders.  And of course, the legal regime of the United States regarding Human Expression is different than in Europe, for example.

Your predecessor recently informed the media about the impact of the current economic crisis in Human Rights. How do you maintain Human Rights in various countries when [they are] applying austerity budgets and cutting social policies?
[Regarding] social and economic rights, there is a legal instrument in the European Charter, which many countries of the Council of Europe have ratified. They don’t have the same kind of teeth that the Human Rights Court has. So it is a little bit more difficult to defend social economic rights in a court of law. But, I think that the best places to raise these rights, especially when budgets are being cut, are national human rights institutions and ombudsmen. And I hope that together with them, we can… really drive attention to the most vulnerable groups whose budgets have been cut.
One aspect of the social economic crisis is that it is easy to defend in a court of law: stopping discrimination, making sure there is access to houses, school access, health care is provided, and there is no discrimination in this way.

You have been in the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance for the last few years. This agency has repeatedly warned about the rise of racism, xenophobia and discrimination in the European environment. Is it time to address, for example, topics like immigration?
Immigration is very high on the agenda and also the Commissioner works a lot in immigration, for example on the issue of decriminalizing immigrants. To achieve the political debate about immigration and integration, people tended to talk about the right to integration and the need for the integration for immigrants, and now people talk more about the duty or the imperative [to integrate], almost forcing immigrants to integrate. These kinds [of questions] concern human rights, especially stopping discrimination or the stigma of various groups who are not able to integrate because of their own background. That’s one issue.

The other [issue] is that there are many countries in the Council of Europe with long experiences in immigration, but there are others that have now become countries with immigration. And we now know by our experience that this is the time to pay attention: when a country is accepting immigrants. This issue will be very high on the agenda and I think in the region for the next decade at least. It’s the right of every country to have their immigration policy, and there isn’t a problem with that. But if you fulfill the obligation for the Refugee Convention, whereby once an immigrant arrives, even if he arrives without documents, there are basic social rights, especially for children, like education.

But sometimes these rights generate complaints in local society
Yes, sure, but I think that you have to look at the cost of not giving basic social rights to people as well… It creates more social problems and a cost that a society has [to bear]. So, I think it is a good investment actually.

Social media is one of the basic tools for the inclusion of these disadvantaged groups in the rest of society. However, in many countries under the Council of Europe there is censorship against Freedom of Press and Opinion. Could the Commissioner do something about this?
The current commissioner [Thomas Hammarberg] has developed a lot of attention around Freedom Expression and Journalism, because very often the freedom expression is also essential for Human Rights defenders. And Human Rights defenders are a critical part of the Commissioner’s mandate. In this sense, the key partners of the commissioner are national parliaments and ombudsmen. And there are as well even killed [journalists], and of course it is a huge issue.

Another brother trend is identifying the concentration in the media and [investigating] media diversity and the diversity in opinion. Here you have the public media and the commercial media. Public media has special rules concerning their government and funding, tough regulation, and so on. The commercial media has a different regulatory framework and different Human Rights issues can play out there. But it is clear that the commissioner can often be worried and express his concern surrounding freedom of expression and convince parliaments and governments in the Council of Europe to highlight the work of individual Human Rights defenders or journalists.

According to the Press Freedom Index, made by Reporters Without Borders in 2011, Latvia showed noticeable problems in press freedom. However, there is a ‘Satisfactory Situation’ and ‘Good Situation’ in Lithuania and Estonia respectively. Any comment?
I think you have to look very closely what it is saying behind the numbers. And, of course, in Latvia’s case it was law enforcement authorities conducting raids and arresting and looking for evidence in editorial offices, and of course this has affected Latvia’s rating.
I always urge looking very closely at what’s behind the numbers and how they arrive there, and whether Latvia’s place in the rating – and many other countries actually, if you look outside of the Council of Europe, they have a similar rating to them – is not comparing apples and oranges.

Talking about Latvia, after twenty years of independence, and the [ongoing bad] relations between Russians and Latvians, doesn’t it show a lack of integration?
The situation in Latvia is very contradictory. There are areas where we can point to a lot of integration and areas [where] we can point to very little integration. I mean, Latvia has a high number of ethnic inter-marriages and very low number of extremists. If you look, there is a very good EU study… There was this special section with surveys of Russian speakers from the three Baltic States, in Finland and in other small countries: in Finland, Russian speakers felt more discriminated against.

So, on the one hand, I think that we should be careful not to overdramatize the situation. On the other hand, it is clear that there are many challenges as well. We have this referendum on citizenship language issues … And it is clear that, in certain areas, not [everything has been] done: at a political level, political integration...    
Many of the issues are political issues and some of them have a Human Rights component.  My discussion, especially since I was elected, is to separate out the political aspect, for example of the citizenship language issues. There are Human Rights aspects of this, and it is important to separate the two out.

Yes, but there is a big group of population in Latvia who are considered as ‘aliens’ in the statistics
Yes, they are not citizens. What is interesting is that the national community has basically accepted such things in line with Human Right standards, with a couple of exceptions: one exception is children. Children born in Latvia since independence that don’t have citizenship are in contradiction with the Rights of a Child, which said: “Every child has the right of citizenship by birth”. And whatever other Human Rights issues [might exist], the Human Right of a Child has the priority. And it is clear that there isn’t any interest in [the fact] that children can’t be citizens.

There are a couple of other Human Rights aspects to the citizenship issue. For example, if we talk about restrictions in the private sector or the employment of non-citizens.
 And there are some restrictions, and you can debate about that they are not proportional and whether or not [these restrictions] serve a legitimate purpose, and whether or not they constitute a form of discrimination. I am not saying it does, I am saying that it could be an example.

Another issue that has arisen, occasionally, in the Court of Human Rights is a policy which was discriminatory toward non-citizens… time worked outside of Latvia for non-citizens isn’t counted in the calculation of pensions, but it is for citizens. This was luckily resolved.

At the moment, the democratization process in the country has not resulted in a ‘rich’ level of tolerance with the LGTB. How do you decriminalize them at the social level?
 The issue of the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexual people is a problematic human rights issue in many countries of the Council of Europe. … Here our [previous] Commissioner was very highly regarded in that he did a big study of the situation of LGBT [government] approaches across all Europe (‘Discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity’). And this is clearly one issue that in many countries of the Council of Europe, including in Latvia, there are a lot public worries and a lot is still to be done.

I think that there are certain issues that the European Human Rights court has left to be decided at a national level. For example, these issues attached to marriages, partnership, many issues of adoption…
The other issues are clear: gays and lesbians have the right of the freedom of association, the freedom of assembly, they can organize prides, nobody can ban these things, that hate speech and the violence against LGBT’s is banned… and that discrimination based on sexual orientation in EU countries is banned. There are some non-negotiable and very clear cut issues. But it is clear that a lot of awareness raising needs to be done. And clearly [for] the president of the Council of Europe, this is one of the priority areas that they tried to address.