The European Union and member governments proved unwilling to tackle human rights abuse at home during 2011, even as they proclaimed the issue’s importance in inspiring the Arab Spring, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012.
Human Rights Watch found worrying trends on human rights in the European Union region, highlighting events in nine member states and developments in the areas of migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, and counterterrorism policy.
A separate essay in the report analyses long-term trends on human rights in Europe. It concludes that declining respect for rights, weak enforcement when violations do occur, the growing influence of extremist parties, and the retreat from the idea that rights apply equally to everyone amount to a crisis that demands urgent action.
“Judging from the soaring rhetoric on the Arab Spring in 2011, human rights would seem to be a central concern of the EU,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The sad truth is that European Union governments too often set aside rights at home when they prove inconvenient, especially those of vulnerable minorities and migrants, and brush aside criticism of abuse.”
In its 676-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined.
While the idea of a human rights crisis in Europe may seem far-fetched, a closer examination reveals deeply worrying trends, Human Rights Watch said. Four developments stand out: the erosion of rights under counterterrorism policy; growing intolerance and abusive policies toward minorities and migrants; the rise of populist extremist parties and their influence on mainstream politics; and the declining effectiveness of the institutions and tools that protect human rights.
Policy responses to migration from North Africa exemplified the EU’s negative approach in 2011. These included calls to limit free movement inside EU internal borders, disputes over the responsibility for rescuing boat migrants in peril, and a reluctance to resettle refugees from Libya.
Populist extremist parties remained strong across the EU region, corroding mainstream politics, especially on issues related to Roma, Muslims, and migrants. EU governments frequently responded by echoing these parties’ criticism of minorities and pursuing policies that infringed on human rights.
The European Commission failed to pursue vigorously its duty to act against measures that violate the Charter of Fundamental Rights and other EU laws. It accepted half-hearted amendments to a highly problematic media law in Hungary, dropped proceedings against France over its expulsion of Eastern European Roma despite ongoing abuses, and suspended proceedings against Greece even though it has done little to reform its deeply flawed asylum system and inhuman and degrading detention. On January 17, the Commission announced enforcement action against Hungary over judicial appointments, but it is unclear what effect the intervention will have on the government’s wider interference with the courts and media.
“For all its promises of zero-tolerance, the European Commission has proved reluctant to take on member states over their human rights records,” Ward said. “Unless the commission finds more courage, the downward slide on rights inside the EU looks set to continue.”