Author: Nataša Briški | journalist, Metina Lista, Strategic communications adviser and social media expert, co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of digital media network Meta’s list. Journalist by profession, with strong media credentials and 25 years of experience working for various media – local, national and international. Former foreign affairs correspondent, based in Washington D.C., a correspondent for BBC World Report and POP TV anchorwoman.
Natasha is also a member of The Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Slovenia Special Council, a member of an Expert Council on Gender Equality, founded by Slovenian Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, and a member of a Commission on Equal opportunities, an advisory board for Slovenian Ministry of Education, Science and Sport.
The European Union is founded on a commitment to values such as democracy, the rule of law and respect, protection, and promotion of human rights. In the Democracy Report 2020, the V-Dem Institute, an independent research organisation at the University of Gothenburg, confirmed that “for the first time since 2001, there are more autocracies than democracies in the world”. It is believed that there are 92 such countries that are home to 54% of the global population. That is something we should be very concerned about.
For some time, we have been witnessing a very dangerous trend of destroying the unity in the European convoy. A strong EU, of course, is not in the interest of leaders with authoritarian tendencies, who like to ignore the will of the people, trample on human rights, and destroy democratic institutions and the rule of law. This causes and has caused problems for Putin, Erdogan and Trump, in the light of the economically strong European Union because it is easier to manipulate isolated little countries than a strong bloc. This was also one of the missions of Trump’s former adviser Bannon, who organised the anti-EU crusade before the EP elections. He was not very successful at that time, but it seems that a certain seed has been planted.
A decade or so ago, as noted in the introduction to the extensive survey entitled “What do fundamental rights mean for people in the EU?”, the question of the importance of human rights in European societies would have been unthinkable. But times change. Human rights systems have increasingly been under steady threat, and are even being criticised as political correctness gone too far, as a tool serving only the elite, and as inconvenient barriers to swift action.
Nowadays, we should therefore talk about human rights much more, not less, as Branko Soban, an expert in this area and an insightful commentator, among others, said in the European Quarter podcast: “In many places, even in the most democratic countries, human rights are only used when the weather is nice. But human rights are not intended for nice weather only; they are most relevant when there is thunder and lightning.”
HOW WE UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The survey of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, which reached out to almost 35,000 people in the 27 countries of the EU, the United Kingdom and North Macedonia, offers real insight into the debate on what we actually know and think about human rights. There is a very different attitude towards human rights and democracy between former Eastern Bloc countries that have become members of the EU and countries with a longer democratic tradition. There are, for example, obvious differences between countries as regards the importance of protecting minority rights, and a gap can be noticed between older and younger people when it comes to the functioning of society.
The results show that people value democracy, and free and fair elections, and the vast majority of participants regard human rights as an important achievement. As many as 88% of people in the European Union responded that they consider human rights important for creating a fairer society in their country. This ranges from a ‘low’ of 76% in Hungary to a ‘high’ of 96% in Malta and 95% in Finland. At the same time, 68% of respondents believe that some take unfair advantage of human rights, “such as criminals and terrorists who don’t deserve them.” Moreover, there is a higher percentage of poorer people (44%) compared to others (27%), who think that not all benefit equally from human rights.
The majority (52%) of people think that everyone in their country enjoys the same basic human rights, namely 65% of people who are employed and 41% of unemployed people. The results indicate a significant contrast between people’s income and education levels on the one hand and their views on human rights on the other.
As part of the discussion on the right to a fair trial as one of the fundamental human rights, one in four people (27%) in the EU think that, in their country, judges are rarely or even never able to do their job free from government influence. The results range from as much as 47% in Croatia to 11% in both Denmark and Finland. According to the results of the survey, corruption is more of a problem in some Member States than in the others. This is particularly supposed to affect the health sector. It is of particular concern that almost half of younger people (48%) aged 16–29 years consider it acceptable to give a little gift or do a favour (i.e. low-level bribery).
Some 86% of people consider free and fair elections of high importance to democracy, followed by having a media that is free from government influence. Again, young people aged 16–29 attach a lower level of importance to different characteristics of democracy. The majority of people in the EU (60%) agree that traditional political parties and politicians do not care about them. As much as 81% of people in Croatia and 80% in Romania share this opinion, compared with only 28% in Sweden and 30% in Denmark. The percentage of those assessing the efforts of traditional political parties and politicians for them is even higher (73%) when respondents find it difficult to make ends meet and have a lower level of education, compared with 45% of people who make ends meet easily.
In addition, the item concerning the protection of the rights of minorities results in some of the biggest differences in the survey among EU Member States, where two in three people in the EU-27 are convinced that this is an important part of democracy. This is considered of highest importance in Malta (88%), Cyprus (84%) and Spain (79%), whereas the protection of the rights of minorities is only considered an important part of democracy by 40% of people in the Czech Republic, 48% in Bulgaria and 48% in Hungary.
People are also differently aware of the three international human rights instruments – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in force since 1948), the European Convention on Human Rights (in force since 1953), and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (in force since 2009). Four in three people in the European Union have heard of at least one of these instruments, but most have heard of the European Convention (68%).
HUMAN RIGHTS AND COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic represents an unprecedented global crisis. Countries are forced to take extraordinary measures, including sometimes at the expense of human rights violations. Secretary General of the Council of Europe Marija Pejčinović Burić said: “While the virus is resulting in the tragic loss of life, we must nonetheless prevent it from destroying our way of life – our understanding of who we are, what we value, and the rights to which every European is entitled.” According to the Council of Europe report entitled “COVID and free speech”, the pandemic has demonstrated a great desire for quality information, with a significant part of the public returning to traditional and public service media as main source of news.
This is also the case in Slovenia, which Greenpeace and the Civil Liberties Union for Europe said in a Report on democracy at the time of the pandemic, is among the EU Member States that in the COVID-19 pandemic have imposed disproportionate restrictions to civic freedoms, access to information and participation in decision making. It is also assessed that the Slovenian government has encouraged the use of digital technologies to track demonstrators and used the fight against pandemics as an excuse to silence critics of the authorities and weaken environmental standards.
In the coming year, the European Commission is expected to publish an action plan on how to put rights and principles into practice. On paper, it is true that everyone enjoys the same human rights, yet too often it turns out that this is not always the case in practice.