STRASBOURG - Alavaro Gil-Robles, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, singled out Latvia and Estonia last week for human rights violations when he released the long-awaited reports for five of the 10 EU candidate countries.
Speaking to journalists at a Feb. 12 press conference in Strasbourg, Gil-Robles said that Latvia's and Estonia's large numbers of noncitizens were areas of concern, especially those born since independence who despite having a legal right to citizenship do not have it.
Stressing that he was sensitive to the difficult and unique situation that exists in Latvia and Estonia with their large number of noncitizens inherited from the Soviet period, Gil-Robles nonetheless concluded that unlike Estonia, Latvia lacked the "political will" to change the current practice of not automatically granting Latvian citizenship to noncitizens' children, despite their legal right to it if born since 1991.
While the reports, which are nonbinding and advisory in nature, highlighted areas of concern in the Baltic states, including Lithuania, they also contained a list of recommendations concerning minority and human rights policies (see box on page 2).
At the Strasbourg press conference Gil-Robles paid particular attention to Latvia's noncitizen population and recommended that when children were born, parents should be charged with choosing a citizenship - either Latvian or another. Currently noncitizens must fill out a special form so that their children will be granted citizenship.
He called the current situation "extremely unsatisfactory."
Of the over 20,000 children born to noncitizens since Aug. 21, 1991, and entitled to citizenship, over 16,000 were still without status, according to Gil-Robles' report.
"One of the first steps toward dealing with the problem should be to avoid creating any further noncitizens," the report stated.
"Where children are without any nationality. Measures need to be taken to put an end to this situation," Gil-Robles said at the press conference.
The commissioner's report also pointed out that even in orphanages like the one in Riga's Imanta region, children who have the right to citizenship still do not posses it. Worse, the orphans have no one to help them acquire it.
Former special task minister for integration Nils Muiznieks told The Baltic Times that he fully supported the commissioner's' recommendations concerning children born to noncitizens here in Latvia.
Estonia has a similar situation, explained Gil-Robles, but there officials "have shown more openness."
"They want to solve this problem. I hope Latvia will be able to do the same thing," Gil-Robles said.
Despite also having a large number of noncitizens, the report on Estonia was clearly more positive than the one on Latvia, in particularly about the dialogue between government and minorities.
"I was impressed by the now prevailing spirit of dialogue and cooperation on both sides that has paved the way for a serious effort by the authorities to secure the rights of persons belonging to minorities," Gil-Robles wrote in his report on Estonia.
The report on Latvia was largely devoid of such praise.
By and large much of the reports on the two Baltic countries focused on their difficult minority situations. Since Lithuania granted citizenship to its much smaller minority community, content and criticism differed from its Baltic neighbors.
By contrast, the report on Lithuania focused on prison conditions, judicial reform and the trafficking of women. Domestic violence was also an issue of concern in the Lithuanian report.
"In general terms, judges and the police (generally, the municipal police) very seldom intervene, except in cases of extreme gravity. Also, with the exception of the most violent cases, the police do not inform judges and prosecutors on a regular basis," the report stated.
In his report on Latvia, the commissioner asked Latvia to examine the possibility of granting noncitizens the vote in municipal elections, an issue that Elisabeth Schroedter also recommended in her recent report to the European Parliament (see story on this page).
Despite the criticism, Gil-Robles found basis for praise as well in his reports. He stressed how far the Baltic states have come since independence was restored in the early 1990s and their difficult history under the Soviet Union. Indeed, many independent reports into the human rights situation in Latvia and Estonia have been assailed by nationalists as being insensitive to history, and for this reason Gil-Robles seemed to take pains in his report to show that he is sensitive to the tragic chapter of Latvia's history.
"As all of us are aware, Latvia's 20th-century history was harsh, at times tragic, and the present situation is the result of it. However - and I am deeply convinced of this - history must not prevent Latvian society from making headway towards democracy and prosperity, and such headway is impossible if the country is constantly looking back at its past, however traumatic," the report read.
As before when Gil-Robles made his initial trip to Latvia the media response was predictably divided along ethnic lines. The Latvian daily Latvijas Avize ran a story titled "Strasbourg's Diplomatic Games" and proceeded to criticize the report, while Russian language dailies Vesti Segednya and Telegraf both lauded it.
The necessary ministries will examine the report where recommendations will be considered for the future.