On a mission pushing for human rights and responsibilities

  • 2009-11-26
  • Interview by Anna-Maria Galojan

Thomas Hammarberg was elected Commissioner for Human Rights on Oct. 5, 2005, by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.

Over the past 25 years, Mr. Hammarberg has published widely on various human rights’ issues, particularly on children’s rights, refugee policy, minority issues, xenophobia as well as international affairs and security. He is also well known for his presentations and lectures on human rights at various governmental and academic institutions.
Hammarberg took time out at ‘The 3rd Equality Summit – Cooperation for Equality’ in Stockholm on Nov. 16 to discuss with The Baltic Times the past, present and future for human rights in the EU 27 countries.

Mr. Hammarberg, for you, what is the definition of human rights today?
I think the definition is really defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it includes freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. Also social rights, protection against impurity, and all other basic problems – employment, etc. There are many human rights! It is very much also media’s work to protect humans against discrimination, because if we do not have any discrimination there will be few human rights’ problems. Many problems can be seen as aspects of discrimination. (Only one in three Europeans is fully aware that they are protected by law against discrimination!).

Is it possible to regulate discrimination only by laws, or is it a large part of the ethical and cultural background, also of tradition? Is legislation enough to protect those rights?
No, it is not really enough. I am sure human rights are very much based on certain ethics: tolerance, respect for others and equality cooperation. The legislation is important to protect the rights, but also we need to change attitudes between people. It is important to have tolerance among people. It is necessary to educate people in these subjects. Of course we need correct information, to respect others of all ethnic backgrounds, together with their rights. Human rights also depend on childhood. Because of that it is so important to protect children’s rights and respect them. If not, children cannot value human rights.

Today Europe is so big, there are so many different problems. How is it with the minorities?
It will take time, but I think it is a very interesting challenge for us. It also gives a big opportunity; we can learn from each other. I hope governments and people in the future will welcome minorities in their countries... Minorities need to be seen as an important and integral part of the community. Any disparagement of them only shows the arrogance and insecurity of the ruling government.

One of the biggest problems in Estonia is with the people who hold the so-called “grey passes,” people without any citizenship. There is no such problem in Latvia. What hope is there for those Estonian people, who lived the last 20 years without citizenship, to get it?
My hope is that everyone will become a citizen of some country. I guess people want a better situation for their children. Minorities are defined by themselves. People need to understand that they are belonging to ex-minorities. We need to understand that people can have really different identities - they can be Russians, but Estonian citizens. People can have as their mother tongue Russian, but they are still Estonian. This problem will be resolved as Estonia comes to understand European values and really integrates into Europe. We need to be very flexible and patient with the present political establishment. It is not so easy, but we need to resolve it in today’s Europe!

What can you suggest for our readers? What can they do on a personal level to develop human rights, to participate in equality cooperation?
Language is important. It can offend people deeply. People need to use words very carefully. In Estonia, for example, it is normal to use, on public television or in the paper-media, the word ‘nigger,’ rather than ‘black.’ Actually, the correct definition is ‘Afro-American,’ or even ‘Afro-Estonian.’ It is illegal to use ‘nigger’ in the UK. Another example: in Russian is the word ‘invalid’ [people with disabilities], but what does it really mean? Valid mean having value, invalid implies no values. It is very downgrading terminology. Our language brings messages as to how tolerant we are. We need to have a clear law to regulate this. I am sure that speeches inciting hatred need to be criminalized. Discrimination is illegal in the European Union. All countries in the EU are obliged to take these laws on board! The question is implementation? But there are also people who are using some impolite, even discriminative definitions without realizing it - they need to be educated on this question, also in schools. [They need] to be convinced to be more careful and to respect others. There are also some media, not all channels in EU countries, which encourage hate speeches, xenophobia and other bad feelings about others, working against ethical rules, dealing with discrimination. It is always important to correct these things, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work. It is important to have a discussion with media on the seatrain of rules, and the most important is responsibility! Actually, there are no moral rights without responsibilities!