RIGA - Latvia confronted one of its most pressing issues on Aug. 28 when police officials, NGO representatives and foreign leaders met for a seminar on combating hate crime.
"There is a common misperception that hate crime is something that's unique to Latvia. One of our aims with this seminar was to remind that hate-crime legislation is not only new to Latvia, but most countries in Europe," said Ilze Brands-Kehris, director of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, which organized the event as part of a three-year project to facilitate anti-discrimination.
Foreign police officers present at the seminar shared their experiences with Latvian colleagues.
"Supervisors must take a pro-active role. Sergeants must go to every hate incident to make sure that the officer is handling things in a professional and effective manner," Inspector Robin Dempsey of the Northern Ireland Police Service said during the seminar.
Dempsey's speech focused on the violent split between Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant population, and the state's struggle to develop a law enforcement policy strong enough to deal with the turbulent situation. Today, he said, Northern Ireland's police force is seen as a model for the rest of Europe.
"Human rights is essential," he emphasized. "It's a way of policing, not a part of policing."
On the Latvian side, Head of Riga City Police Andris Dzenis discussed the force's increased efforts to maintain safety at massive events, such as the recent World Ice Hockey Championship and the upcoming NATO summit.
Although she didn't openly speak of intolerance or hate crime, Brands-Keris said the Latvian police representative's participation was progress enough.
"They are showing a positive gesture, and this is important," she said.
Victims of hate crime also spoke during the conference, with members of the gay and lesbian organization Mozaika expressing genuine disappointment over how police handled the 2006 gay pride events. At several points throughout the festival, police were negligent in preventing protestors from verbally and physically assaulting participants. Members of AfroLat, Latvia's African-Latvian Association, also shared their experience with intolerance.
Since EU accession, the number of reported hate crimes in Latvia has risen. The situation is especially hostile for black minorities, with a string of racially-motivated attacks reported in Riga over the past year.
The most recent incident occurred on June 10, when two young skinheads attacked a black man on a busy downtown street. Riga police initially filed the case under "hooliganism," spurring members of AfroLat to protest. The organization pointed out the assailants had allegedly hurled racist epithets at the man.
During the conference's closing discussion, Latvia's officers were encouraged to take a pro-active role against hate crime.
"Police leadership has not yet had the courage to act," Brands-Kehris said. "And although many blame problems with legislation, we want to show that police can improve the situation even before the proper legislation is in place.
The conference was an important step toward open dialogue between Latvia's police officials, the media, NGOs and hate-crime victims, Brands-Kehris explained. Yet she emphasized that, in order for progress to be made, police would have to take these issues beyond the conference room.
"What I'm afraid of is that a majority of the officers will not take what they learned any further than this seminar or the training sessions," she said. "Yet there were far more police this year than last year, which shows initiative."
Following the seminar, which was funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, police representatives from Northern Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands spoke privately with Latvia's police force. The foreign officials shared their experiences in dealing with hate crime and emphasized the importance of enforcing an open and consistent policy when dealing with such incidents.