European Human Rights are now under siege from all sides

By John Dalhuisen

Europe has long prided itself on having the most sophisticated and most robust rights protection system in the world. It still does. But gone are the days that this could be taken for granted – and as we look back in years to come, there is a good chance people will point to 2015 as the turning point – when a slow slide that started several years ago, suddenly accelerated and became an unmistakable problem.

Let me take you back to the 1990s. For all the ugly scars and open wounds left by the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, there was considerable optimism that we would witness the emergence of new democratic, rights-respecting nations in the East. The role and value of supra-national rights–protecting systems – whether judicial or political – was not in question. They are both very much in question now.

Take the refugee crisis. EU leaders have resoundingly failed to come up with a common and humane response to the difficult task of welcoming a million people, most of them fleeing conflict or persecution. The majority of countries, with the honourable exception of Germany, have simply decided that the protection of their borders is more important the protection of the rights of refugees. Hungary is the most glaring example, but when even Scandinavian countries, long ardent champions of the Refugee Convention, are openly questioning its relevance and flouting its provisions, you know you have a problem.  We are now in the shameful situation of the EU bullying the Balkan countries and begging Turkey to keep the refugees it does not want.

Take the response to the Paris attacks. Across Europe we are witnessing the introduction of a fresh wave of repressive counter-terrorism and intrusive surveillance measures that are further entrenching the erosion of human rights that began after 9/11. France has led the way, with rights-sapping emergency powers that it recently renewed with little regard for their demonstrably arbitrary application. But other countries, including Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Poland, are lurking in the wings with similar proposals of their own.

Take the UK, which is expected to publish plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the influence of the European Court of Human Rights sometime in the coming months.  The UK government is not alone in wanting to redraw the relationship between the Strasbourg court and national law. The majority party in Switzerland, the People’s Party, is also calling for the affirmation of the primacy of domestic law over the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.  Russia introduced a law to this effect at the end of last year.  Once rights are considered transient and retractable by the government of the day, the very notion of their permanence and universality is undermined.

Indeed, if one looks further East, we see states that have abandoned even the pretence of upholding human rights. In the former Soviet Union, the crackdown on critical voices has gathered pace, as increasingly autocratic governments have concluded the risks of tolerating dissent are just too great.  Azerbaijan has locked up almost all its leading activists, while Russia has continued to squeeze the life out of domestic NGOs. Turkey – a qualified human rights success story for much of the 2000s – has seen a dramatic roll-back over the last few years, with record numbers of journalists and activists being prosecuted in violation of their right to freedom of expression, and since late last year, a spate of unlawful killings in the South East, as the fragile peace-process with the PKK has broken down.

There are two common threads running through the human rights malaise across Europe. The first is the preponderance of leaders who consider the cost of respecting human rights to outweigh the benefits. This includes both leaders in the west who are spearheading, or fear being outflanked by, populist movements, and leaders in the east, who fear for their grip on power and the riches they reap with it.

The second is an ever-greater willingness to ignore international human rights mechanisms.  Stripped of political backing, the Council of Europe, the grand old lady of Europe's human rights protection system, looks increasingly anachronistic now. She must not be allowed to become a toothless pensioner, cast into early retirement on the banks of the Rhine.

Human rights are not obstacles to the creation and preservation of inclusive, prosperous societies – they are preconditions. This simple message is in danger of being lost in Europe.

John Dalhuisen is Amnesty’s Europe Director. Amnesty's State of the World's Human Rights report can be read here.

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