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An Interview with an Expert Adviser of the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA): ‘The impact of the pandemic on human rights”

We spoke to Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, who is in charge of numerous reports of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

By Barbara Matejčić

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) is responsible for the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights in the EU and operates at several levels: collecting and analyzing data on the human rights situation, advising decision-makers at EU and national level; raises awareness of fundamental rights policies and legislation. We have spoken to Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, a long-term Expert Advisor to the Agency, who is in charge of numerous reports on behalf of the Agency.

How has the pandemic affected the human rights situation in the European Union?

The pandemic affected a number of political, social and economic rights. Of particular concern is the rise in poverty and unemployment, which has hit those who are already disadvantaged in society the hardest; temporary workers, people with disabilities, older, marginalized groups such as the Roma. The number of racist and xenophobic outbursts against people of Chinese or Asian descent has increased, including insults, physical attacks, online hate speech, but also xenophobic statements by public figures and the media in some member states. There have also been cases of banning access to certain services such as education or health care for people of Asian descent.

Governments have taken urgent measures to curb the spread of the virus, which in turn has restricted some rights such as freedom of movement and assembly, protection of personal data and the right to privacy, which is justified in the global health crisis, but must be temporary and must be monitored. Also, the measures must not be discriminatory, which did not happen, for example, with distance education, which endangered the right of many children and young people to education because many do not have access to the Internet and computers.

It is important that two aspects are taken into account when adopting measures: the principle of proportionality, which requires that measures do not exceed the limits necessary to achieve the objectives, and the decision to terminate. Whatever measures that governments have taken to protect human lives, they must be proportionate, non-discriminatory and have a defined duration.

Do you see indications that the global economy is turning in the direction of greater justice and equality, as many expected at the start of the pandemic?

No, I would not say that we are moving towards a more just society. Both globally and in the EU, almost without exception, all countries have taken measures to protect fundamental human rights to life and health and are investing funds measured in trillions of dollars or euros. This helps us avoid the most severe consequences of a pandemic, but I don’t think it leads us to a more equal world.

In late June, the FRA published a study entitled What do fundamental rights mean to people in the EU? This is the first such large FRA survey in which 35,000 respondents participated last year. The survey found that nine out of ten respondents believe that human rights are essential for the well-being of society, but at the same time many do not think that human rights apply to them. How do you interpret that?

Seventy years after the Convention on Human Rights, the implementation of a number of human rights instruments and education, it was to be expected that everyone would understand what human rights were and that they were crucial to the functioning of society and democracy as a political system. However, it is interesting how the respondents perceive human rights, ie how human rights relate to them personally. Yes, there is a widespread feeling among respondents that human rights do not concern them, but someone else. People at risk of poverty and the unemployed are more suspicious that they personally benefit from human rights.

Until the 1990s, human rights were most commonly used as a foreign policy instrument, with the West accusing the East of violating citizens’ political rights because it does not hold free elections, no multi-party system, etc. -economic rights of citizens because it does not provide them with a dignified life. Thus human rights served to control other countries. The 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights changed that. It was the cornerstone of the second era of understanding human rights and this led to the building of national human rights institutions.

Human rights are still being used to name others, but now everyone is looking at the state of human rights in their backyard. But this transition has not been accompanied by changes in the understanding of human rights by the population. It certainly contributes to the fact that only basic human rights, such as the right to life, are taught in education. In addition, for the last 20, 30 years, human rights have been primarily related to the topics of migration or minorities, and not to the majority of the population, so that when the majority hears about human rights, they think that it concerns others and not them.

They may consider that they have the right to decent housing or education, but they will not expect the state to oblige them to do so, as is the case under international legal instruments. It is only in extraordinary circumstances such as a pandemic that people begin to realize that shell rights apply to everyone, not just certain groups. Obviously, it will take more time for people to become more aware of the range of human rights and to demand that those rights be enforced.

How would you outline Croatia according to the data you obtained from the research?

Respondents from Croatia are more concerned about some issues such as corruption, trust in the judiciary and political influence on everyday life than respondents in western countries. I find this positive because it means that they are awake, that they are in some way monitoring what is happening. This is characteristic of newer democracies, especially the elderly population who question whether democracy has met their expectations. In countries with longer-lasting democracies, people are less vigilant.

We also have more reasons to be worried and vigilant than, for example, the people of Denmark. For example, the survey shows that an average of 27% of EU respondents believe that judges are not independent of political influence, and that percentage varies from 47% in Croatia to 11% in Denmark and Finland. Also, over 50% of respondents in Croatia think that it is occasionally acceptable to give a gift or do a favour to a civil servant in exchange for their more efficient work, while only 20% of Swedish respondents think the same.

There is an affair with corruption everywhere, including in developed democracies. Remember, for example, the so-called A diesel scandal that rocked the German car industry a few years ago, in which it turned out that Volkswagen was rigging the test results of its supposedly environmentally friendly vehicles. But often these are high-level scandals, involving multinational corporations, governments, etc., and do not affect a large number of citizens as much. Rarely is corruption localized in such countries, present at low levels such as bribing police officers or giving bribes to doctors, which is more prevalent in countries such as Greece, Bulgaria or Croatia.

Do political leaders use your research to improve their work and increase the trust of citizens, given that as many as 60% of respondents from the survey believe that parties and politicians do not care about them?

Some important institutions have taken over our research, primarily the Council of Europe, but also the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The results were discussed in the European Parliament, and we spoke with various European Commission services: the Justice Service, the Employment Service, Social Affairs and Inclusion, the Education Service and the Health Service. We are also trying to reach out to national authorities. We hope to have the opportunity to present the research in national parliaments and stimulate debate.

Many instances, such as various international organizations and journalists, have collected and published testimonies and evidence of violations of the law and the brutality of the Croatian police against migrants over the years, especially on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, yet the Croatian government denies all this. How can the rights of refugees be protected if they are grossly violated by the police?

Denying irregularities in police work is a very common practice in EU countries. This is one of the bigger problems, whether it is migrants, minorities or anyone else. If all member states had established transparent, independent procedures for monitoring the work of the police, it would be better for respect for human rights, but also for the police themselves. But I think we are very far from that, although there are rare, good examples with far-reaching consequences.

In the UK, for example, many years ago after the brutal death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, an extensive police investigation was carried out into systemic racism, which in turn led to one of the most important London police reforms. We are now witnessing public outrage in the United States over the cover-up of police omissions and mistakes, as well as demands for more transparent police work and independent investigations within the police. The police have great powers and citizens should know if they are using them within the law, and independent investigations lead to this knowledge. This, of course, also applies to Croatia.

The Croatian authorities are acting exactly the opposite of your recommendations. Namely, they refuse to conduct an independent investigation into the police’s treatment of migrants and even obstruct the work of the ombudswoman, whom they do not allow independent insight into the work of the police, which is in the description of her job.

If institutions are not allowed to do their job, it can become a subject of justice, so let the courts decide on that. There is also an international level such as the Council of Europe and their instruments that can consider whether there is a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights or some other convention.

How does the Agency collect data and are national authorities trying to influence the reports?

I have worked for the Agency for twenty years, even before it was called that, and I have never experienced an attempt to influence reports from any EU member state. We received objections and criticisms, but not on our conclusions and recommendations, not on the data. We collect data through quantitative research, and our expertise is especially research of minority groups such as LGBT people, Jews, migrants, Roma, etc. In parallel, we conduct qualitative research and have a network of organizations in each EU Member State, which are our eyes and ears in the field for many years and they collect information that already exists, these are so-called secondary sources.

This material was created with the financial support of the European Union within the project “Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world – EU Presidency Project 2019 – 2021”. The author is solely responsible for the content and it cannot be considered the official position of the European Union.