A Conversation with the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner

This is going to be a rather short post, but it’s really cool.

So last Thursday my close friend and mentor, Rosie, went on vacation with her husband to Europe, as they do occasionally to see friends and sometimes his family (who lives in Latvia), since they’re both retired. They were in Paris (just in time for the election on Sunday) and then went to Strasbourg. Here’s where things get awesome. The Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe is Rosie’s nephew-in-law, and they had the opportunity to see him give his annual address to the Council of Europe.

Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks giving his annual report to the Council of Europe (he’s at the rostrum, center). Photo by Rosie Macs.

Rosie also gave me the opportunity to send a message to him, which she would relay. I was floored that I had the opportunity to ‘talk’ to such an important and high-ranking official on this subject matter. Not going to lie, the government nerd in me hardcore geeked out for a solid five minutes and I had trouble composing a message; I really needed to make sure the wording was right and I needed to make sure the questions I asked were ones that I actually wanted answered, and not just something I could look up. What other opportunity would I have to ask the CoE’s Human Rights Commissioner questions? I eventually came up with the following message:

Even though I personally am not a fan of the European Union as it currently is structured, I think the EU does a lot of good behind the scenes that I think goes unnoticed by many. I applaud your work and wish you the best of luck from abroad. If I may, I would like to ask two questions:
1. Is there a growing concern in Strasbourg and/or Brussels for the increasingly authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary, and these governments’ hard-line xenophobic rhetoric?
2. Does the Human Rights Commissioner also work with the governments of European states that are not members of the EU, such as Norway, Switzerland, and (soon to be) the United Kingdom? I am primarily concerned with the treatment of Middle Eastern and Eastern European immigrants in the UK after they leave the EU officially, since it is already of concern to many.

I was happy with my message, and I was absolutely not disappointed by his reply:


Thanks for your interest in my work! Attached, you will find the verbatim record of the presentation of my annual report before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the questions and answers. This exercise, which Egils and Rosie witnessed, is very important for me as it happens once a year. Since the Parliamentary Assembly elected me, I am accountable primarily to them.

The Council of Europe is not the European Union — it is composed of 47 member states. All of the EU 28 are members, as are Norway, Switzerland, all the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, and the countries in the South Caucasus. I often explain the functions of the two organisations in this way — at the core of the EU is the free movement of goods, people, and services, the border free Schengen area and the common currency. At the core of the Council of Europe are human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Council of Europe has various mechanisms to promote these values, including the European Court of Human Rights, various monitoring and expert bodies and my office. Here are answers to your questions:

1.1. There is growing concern about the increasingly authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland. Here are links to my work on both countries: http://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/country-monitoring/poland

http://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/country-monitoring/hungary

Most of the authoritarian steps had already been taken in Hungary before I took office — encroachments on the independence of the judiciary, government efforts to muzzle the public service broadcaster, etc. Recent worrying steps include nasty rhetoric and policy towards migrants and a campaign against all things funded by George Soros (NGOs and Central European University). I will shortly be sending a letter to the Hungarian authorities sharing my concern about proposed legislative changes affecting non-governmental organisations. I will also be writing about pressures on Central European University as part of a broader trend of restrictions on academic freedom in Europe in the conclusion to my next quarterly report.

Regarding Poland, I went on three visits to the country last year to engage the authorities about the crisis they created in the Constitutional Tribunal, but also to address worrying steps affecting women’s rights, media freedom, freedom of assembly and more. The Polish government is clearly learning from the Hungarians about what they can get away with.

2. I work in all 47 member states, including Norway and Switzerland. I did a country report on Norway the year before last and am going to Switzerland shortly. I did a memorandum on migration in the UK last year and stressed the nastiness of the discourse on the topic (here is the link: http://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/commissioner-publishes-memorandum-on-asylum-and-immigration-in-the-uk). It only deteriorated in the run up to the Brexit referendum. I analysed the human rights issues surrounding Brexit in the conclusion to one of my quarterly reports last year (here is the link: https://wcd.coe.int/com.instranet.InstraServlet?Index=no&command=com.instranet.CmdBlobGet&InstranetImage=2936458&SecMode=1&DocId=2383108&Usage=2) See pages 21–23. ). The Brexit experience shows that words matter, they can lead to nasty actions, as we saw a spike in hate crimes in the UK right after the referendum. I have pointed to this negative experience as a warning for politicians elsewhere to be careful when they discuss migration and other sensitive topics.

Hope that is useful!

Good luck!

Best,

Nils


Nils Muiznieks (photo cred. humanrightseurope.org)