European Emissaries Seek to Confront Intolerance and Promote Freedom

The Council of Europe’s group of Eminent Persons—assembled to address the challenges arising from the resurgence of intolerance and discrimination in Europe—has produced a new report on “Living together: Combining diversity and freedom in 21st-century Europe.” The group, commissioned by secretary-general of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland, is led by the former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and is comprised of nine political heavyweights, including Ayşe Kadıoğlu of Turkey and Vladimir Lukin of the Russian Federation. Presented to The Council of Europe on May 11th, the report focused on the increasing levels of intolerance throughout Europe and the threat that intolerance poses to the values of The CoE. Eight major “risks” were identified––rising intolerance; rising support for xenophobic and populist parties; discrimination; the presence of a population virtually without rights; parallel societies; Islamic extremism; loss of democratic freedoms; and a possible clash between “religious freedom” and freedom of expression––followed by 59 “proposals for action” formulated to address these risks. The group chose to present its findings as a general representation of intolerance in Europe, rather than singling out specific countries for scrutiny. The report indicated that minority groups and immigrants are the victims of widespread discrimination in Europe and that leaders in many European countries are not taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety and equality of all citizens. Roma are particularly affected by this negative dynamic. According to the report’s findings, Roma are persecuted in almost all aspects of their lives. The unemployment rate of Roma women lingers somewhere between 80 and 90 percent and the school drop-out rates of Roma children are alarmingly high.  They are underrepresented in the governments of the countries where they reside and are often used as scapegoats by politicians. Roma people are often stereotyped as criminals, and anti-Gypsism is widespread. Human Rights First’s research and advocacy efforts focus on violent hate crimes against Roma. Our most recent set of recommendations for the government of Hungary offered a blueprint for concrete actions necessary to strengthen response to bias-motivated violence against Roma. The recognition of the plight of the Roma is an integral step forward in guaranteeing the rights and safety of the group. However, it remains to be seen what, if any, steps the CoE will take to urge leaders to make the protection of the Roma a priority. The Eminent Persons group also found that xenophobia is rampant in Europe and has led to increased support for xenophobic and populist political parties in many countries. Commonly cited stereotypes for anti-immigration positions blame foreigners for stealing jobs, taking advantage of the welfare system, and increasing crime. However, these sentiments are often directed toward people who are in fact the bigots’ fellow citizens who stand out because of the color of their skin or religious practices. The report concludes that little fuss is made over the presence of immigrants that are physically and socially indiscernible from the rest of a country’s citizens. As these xenophobic tendencies become increasingly prevalent, political parties are beginning to incorporate them into their platforms. The populist parties emerging in Europe differ from traditional neofascist parties in that they have garnered a much broader voting base. The parties are able to do so by playing off the fear of rising immigration levels in their countries. The group found that “in some countries, they have even established themselves as the second largest party with around 30% of the votes, sometimes denying their rivals a governing majority.” These parties are quickly gaining momentum, which threatens the security of immigrants across the continent.  Even those currently in power are actively participating in discrimination against immigrants and minority groups. Country reports by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance have found that police do not regularly report victims of hate crimes and go so far as to try and intimidate the victims. The report offers numerous proposals for fighting the spread of intolerance across Europe, many of which are in line with Human Rights First’s recommendations. It commends the member states of the CoE for pledging to follow the European Convention on Human Rights but advocates for stronger implementation and enforcement of the provisions of the convention on a national level. It also recognizes the importance of the larger societal change needed to make these new laws effective. It cites the impact that education, civil society, prominent individuals, and the media as invaluable to altering the mindset of the European people. Utilizing these resources to create a more socially conscious populace will decrease levels of prejudice throughout the continent. Despite its having been presented three weeks ago, the report has yet to be given full approval by the Council of Europe. Secretary-general of the Organization, Thorbjorn Jagland, has said that the 47 member states will issue a written response after further examination. The foreign minister of Ukraine, Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, has called for alterations to the report to take into consideration the specific circumstances of certain countries.

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Published on June 9, 2011

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