“Europe nowadays does not only have a human rights problem; it is a human rights problem”

FIDH’s newly elected president Dimitris Christopoulos stands with “hope without optimism.”

On the 27th of August, Greek academic Dimitris Christopoulos was elected President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The vote was held during the 39th FIDH Congress in Johannesburg where member organisations gathered to elect the new International Board and determine the main orientations for the next three years. Nineteen years since he arrived to his first FIDH congress in Dakar now he is in charge of an international human rights NGO federating 178 organizations from 120 countries. Christopoulos was proposed by the Greek League for Human Rights, for which he has been serving as a member since 1990 and chaired from 2003 to 2011. During the first days of September, he dropped by our office and Tassos Morfis asked him a few questions.

On your first speech at the FIDH Congress in Johannesburg after you were elected as the president, you asked: How can we get the Greek case back into the international setting? What did you mean by that?

The FIDH membership of the Greek League for Human Rights is a great asset, which further enables the Greek cause to be internationalized in the eyes of a global audience, in the eyes of the human rights defenders. And that is why I believe that the FIDH has all good reasons to work by helping and assisting the national structures, the national members in order to have more effective results. The Greek case is not only a ‘financial crisis’ case. It is a human rights case also.

In this state of emergency that we have experienced in Europe for the last year at least, how do the human rights defenders cope with the situation? How can they act and defend human rights?

These are hard times for Europe, but they are harder in other parts of the world. So the problem in Europe is that by downgrading the human rights standards, it sends a disastrous message everywhere around. Europe carries a particular symbolism when it comes to human rights. It is true that in our days we are witnessing a regularization of the state of emergency, should that be the French, should that be Turkey, or should that be the downgrading of rule of law procedures; we have seen that in countries such as Hungary, Poland and so on. Of course, every country is particular but no country is incomparable. Europe nowadays is not only that it has a human rights problem; it is a human rights problem. And that makes the life of human rights defenders more difficult and more complex. As I have said before, what is at stake today for us is to explore the means of being dedicated to our founding values, but at the same time adapting in this new era of human rights that we are living in. Because as I have told you, what we are through today is not a human rights “accident”, is not a human rights crisis, it is a transition towards a new rights regime. In general, until today the political liberal theories have used the term “transition” more or less with a positive connotation: some suspense, but finally happy end. Transition was always a transition to democracy, should that be the transition in the European south, Central Europe, Latin America. Today, on the contrary, we are witnessing transition not to, but from democracy, as we knew it, so that puts us to great intellectual and political challenges.

This transition that you are talking about includes the rise of far right extremism and also it is combined with the austerity politics and the refugee crisis. Again we are talking about really hard times for Europe.

Of course it does. Yet, far right extremism is not a political alien in Europe. It is a an inherent part of the European historical legacy of the 20th century. Extreme right has always been here and revisits us in uncomfortable times, such as this one. The moral panic of the European political elites when it comes to refugees and migrants is the best ally of the extreme right re-emergence.

But when it comes to the US, how will the upcoming elections affect the climate that is being developed lately around the globe?

Everybody in Europe will not confess publicly, but in private discussions they are starring with panic at the eventually possibility of having Trump as the new president of the U.S. So, should that be the case, obviously we will be talking about a new era gating the world. I don’t know where that will go — a lot of people who know well American politics will tell you he is not able to perform or to do what he says. But, on the other side, if you read what Hitler was writing in the mid 30’s, he actually tries to do it and to a certain extent he did it. We do not have good reasons to feel extremely safe today… I tell you. Unfortunately we have legitimate reasons not to feel safe, because this political discourse, which has been constructed around the very idea of security, is per se a threat to our security. Our world is becoming more unsafe after 9/11 in the name of “security”. Europe is in a moral panic, because one million arrived to a continent of half a billion, one million refugees out of sixty-five million refugees we have globally in the world. Why this panic? What is the reason of the rise of the extreme right? Is it the one million refugees or the panic? Of course it’s the panic. So, I think what needs to be absolutely urgently revised and revisited is exactly the uni-dimensional perspective of security, which creates a collective fear. And this fear is exactly the alimentation of the extreme right-wing ideology. So this is where we can work. This is what I see as a major political and communicational challenge for the FIDH in the next years.

How do you plan to raise awareness on human rights through your position?

The FIDH has a long tradition of advocacy; actually we are fighting against impunity of individuals in different parts of the world. The FIDH has a long tradition of strategic navigation before the European Court of Human Rights, the European Social Committee and so obviously we need to work and consolidate this tradition in the future. One part of the strategy is actually in legal advocacy and the other part is political awareness, and there we are not alone, as I told you. The FIDH is a human rights movement, 160 organisations around the world in 120 countries. We are talking about an authentic grass-root movement of human rights. Our power here is togetherness; that every part of this body feels the FIDH as its own Federation: ownership as we say, as the ultimate legitimate right of belonging. So it is all-together that we can work. When I was the president of the Greek League for Human Rights, I enjoyed our membership within the FIDH, but I must confess that I did not do much to actively participate. When all these problems started in Greece, six-seven years ago, I started to think otherwise. How to use the FIDH in order to make the Greek case an international case? The more we keep it as a “Greek case”, the more people will believe that this is a unique case, which is there because these Greeks are extremely particular and so on. Once you internationalize the case, then you are able to make the links to see what is particular and what is not particular. What is comparable and what is not comparable. This is the great asset of an international movement, because it helps you in being with others and in understanding others. I was in South Africa and we were talking about migration and a very close colleague of mine, who works for the affiliated league there, said: “We are surprised by the European response to the refugees … We live with refugees, that is something we have known for the last 40 years.” Try to incorporate this knowledge in the European discourse, try to banalize the fear, try to make the Europeans understand that what they are going through today is only a small symptom of what the whole world is in. That is how we understand that: our problem, as a part of a global problem. And a settlement or a sincere and fair reflection to your problem might be a contribution to the solution to a global problem also.

During the refugee crisis did the EU stand up to its core values and to the expectations of its citizens?

The EU has been shameful, I’m very sorry to say. It took us two world wars and millions of refugees to achieve the Geneva Convention on refugee rights. Today, a million refugees was enough to abandon this achievement. That is why I am telling you, this is a shame for Europe. Should things turn well in history, our children or our grandchildren will be regarding the European answer to the refugee crisis today, shameful for their ancestors. So, why the European elites are following this politics? They’ll cynically tell you: “We know that the EU-Turkish deal will not work, we know that all this in practice won’t deliver, but we need to send a message.” And what is the message? The message is that we keep the gates closed in order to keep calm the extreme right. So, at the end of the tunnel is the European mainstream fear of the extreme right. Yet it is exactly this fear that legitimates the extreme right. It is exactly this awkwardness, this perplexity that vis-à-vis extreme right argument makes the extreme argument a trivial one. Once you implicitly adopt this argument and the people have to decide, they will not choose the mainstream politics of the center right. They will select the passionate extreme right-wing rhetoric. This is the case in Austria, this the case in the Netherlands, this is the case as you see over the last years in France, and this is, of course, in Central and Eastern Europe where you have for the first time — and given of course be the experience of the Soviet regime — the return of a legitimate extreme right-wing discourse of the executive and legislative, which destructs rule of law. This it what happens in Poland, in Hungary.

How did the Greek state operate during this refugee crisis?

The Greek state has been going through serious systemic problems over the last years. It has never been a very effective state and during the crisis it has also lost a great part of its potentials, which does not allow it to deal effectively, not only with refugees, but with any public policy. This we need to consider. When we speak about refugee management in Greece we need to put it in the context of the great administrative deficiency and failure. Second, yet Greece has sent a good message of solidarity to these people and this is where we have to acknowledge the fact that the Greek government last year did not continue with the politics of push-backs and detention centers, which were supposed to function as deterrents for refugees and migrants. That was a good sign, because it helped Europe to come straight towards its own responsibility. Apart from that, I am sorry to say, the Greek state did not deliver much. Now, after having become the scapegoat of the European Union by this covered ultra conservative discourse, the Greek state has been obliged to implement this shameful deal with Turkey. Actually, Greece is the country doing the dirty job for the others: detaining them at the borders.

Are these detentions centers a huge blow in human rights?

Detention is not a way to deal with somebody who entered illegally your territory; they are not criminals. So even if detention was perfect, which is not the case of course, I would be against detention, because I do not believe that people who crossed boundaries, because they are afraid of what is happening back in their house, should be detained. I find this disgraceful for Europe at the beginning of the 21st century, to detain people because they are refugees.

How does the Greek state work along side with the NGOs?

The situation is extremely hypocritical from all sides here. The European Union is pushing Greece to improve detention facilities because they want to return people. So they say to Greece: “Please improve your detentions structures, so we can bring 50,000 guys back to Greece in virtue of the Dublin regulation.” And the Greek state simply does not do it. So we are talking about a complete negative outcome of the discussion. In this context, we have had an extremely actual radical and proactive role of the civil society and social movements of solidarity. In the absence of state policy, NGOs and solidarity structures did the work, which in normal circumstances, should have been carried out by the state. Once they do that, of course, they have their own agenda. You cannot expect NGOs and social movements to incorporate the state agenda here. You cannot expect all these organizations and movements to implement the EU-Turkish deal; they will not do it.

Do you think there is any future for a better Europe? We have been watching the downfall for the past years.

Ηope is an essential part of political action of every subjectivity. Antonio Gramsci said that we have reasons to be pessimists, because of our knowledge, optimists, thanks to our will. This is where we are. I read an excellent book a year ago by Terry Eagleton, the title of which is “Hope without Optimism,” this is where I stand.


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