EU: Protection of human rights in the EU "rarely a priority", says Human Rights Watch (1)

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07.02.13 - On 1 February, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its annual world report. [1] The EU, which in the 2012 report was described as "unwilling to prioritize human rights at home", [2] was this year again given a bad assessment.

"In the face of political and economic crisis affecting the European Union and many of its member states, protection of human rights was rarely a priority in 2012, especially when those negatively affected were marginalized or unpopular groups, such as Roma, migrants, and asylum seekers," says the report.

Unkept promises

Despite some positive steps in the field of migration and asylum, such as the adoption of the revised Qualification Directive including the recognition of gender-based persecution and the adoption of a resettlement framework, negotiations on the adoption of a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) remain incomplete.

Stalled negotiations on the remaining pieces of legislation of the "asylum package" were emblematic of the unwillingness or inability to address other issues: the limited number of refugees resettled in the EU (less than 5,000 in 2012 according to the UNHCR), [3] the death of over 300 people attempting to cross the Mediterranean between January and November 2012, and the absence of a coordinated response to the Syrian refugee crisis. HRW note with regret that "migrants and asylum seekers continue to experience gaps in accessing asylum and poor reception and detention conditions", including unaccompanied minors

Meanwhile, a series of policies and measures in 2012 aimed to limit the arrival of migrants: discussions over the possible reinstatement of internal borders in Schengen; the ongoing discussions towards the adoption of a high-tech border surveillance system, EUROSUR; the interception of migrants at sea by Frontex; and the expansion of the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM) which brings together Denmark, Norway, the UK and Sweden in their attempt to return unaccompanied children to Afghanistan. [4]

Morevover, despite warnings from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, "EU institutions largely failed to live up to the promise of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights." The European Council was "reluctant to hold member states to account for abuse" in relation to violence against Muslims and Roma, and despite documented cases of complicity in torture during the US "extraordinary rendition" operations.

Selected member states: violations of human rights across Europe

This year's report sees Romania added to the list of EU member states covered (France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, UK), and HRW note that the ongoing political crisis that began in May last year is jeopardising the rule of law, in a country already tainted with allegations of torture by the CIA on its territory and the violent eviction and ghettoisation of the Roma community.

According to HRW, the human rights situation did not improve in a single member state under examination. Policies, practices and incidents of racial profiling, racist violence, degrading and inhuman treatment of detainees, homophobia, detention of migrants, discrimination against Roma, and complicity in torture increased in number, leading to condemnations from the European courts of Justice and Human Rights and the United Nations.

In France, the government did not live up to its pledge to tackle discrimination and ethnic profiling. 4,000 Roma were forcibly evicted between August and September 2012, while forms or 'receipts' were not introduced for police identity checks as promised in the president's manifesto. The country was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for violation the principle of non-refoulement, while the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture expressed deep concerns about the substandard detention conditions in prisons and immigration detention centres.

In Greece, far-right party Golden Dawn's winning of parliamentary seats in June 2012 is described by HRW as symptomatic of the disturbing rise of xenophobia and racist violence which reached "alarming proportions". In 2012, Greece was condemned in five cases by the ECHR and once by the UN Committee Against Torture for the detention of migrants and asylum seekers in unsanitary conditions. This did not stop the new government from pursuing its "predecessor's heavy-handed immigration control approach" which includes detention, expulsion, arbitrary arrests, no access to the asylum procedure, and the completion of a 12 kilometre-long fence, topped with razor wire, along a portion of the Evros river.

In Spain, the disproportionate manner in which austerity measures hit the most vulnerable in society caught the attention of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Violence by law enforcement authorities during anti-austerity protests (including the use of rubber bullets) [6] remained unaccounted for. The parliament rejected an anti-discrimination bill, and the state was found guilty by the ECHR of torture and discrimination against an African woman who had suffered an abusive identity check by the police.

HRW's analysis of the situation in the EU ends by looking at the UK's anti-terrorism policy - including the Abu Qatada case, the inquiry into UK's complicity in rendition and torture in Libya, and the extradition of five suspected terrorists to the USA - which occupied much of the political agenda in 2012. Despite a reduction of pre-trial detention in terrorism cases from 28 to 14 days, HRW emphasise that the new anti-terrorism bill still allows for proceedings which may infringe on fundamental rights, in particular the right to due process. The organisation also stresses violations of the rights of migrants and refugees, including the deportation of Tamil asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka, and the rising number of children in detention pending deportation with their family.

[1] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013, Events of 2012, February 2013
[2] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012, Events of 2011: European Union, January 2012
[3] European Parliament - DG for Internal Policies, Comparative Study on the best practices for the integration of resettled refugees in the EU Member States, January 2013
[4] European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors - ERPUM
[5] Open Society Justice Initiative, Globalizing torture: CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition, February 2013
[6] See website of the collective STOP Bales de Goma (STOP rubbet bullets) in Spanish and Catalan

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