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EU: Parliament Report Details Rights Record In East

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Parliament has issued its annual report on the situation of human rights in the world and in the European Union itself. Much of this year's report deals with EU candidate nations in Eastern Europe, which are criticized both for their treatment of minorities and for the hold some governments in the region retain over public television and radio. In Brussels this week (9 July), RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas spoke with the author of the report, Matti Wuori, a Finnish member of the parliament.

Brussels, 11 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament's annual human rights reports inhabit a legislative "gray area." Although they originate from the only directly elected EU institution, they are not binding on any other community institution or member state.

The author of this year's report -- issued last week (5 July) -- is Matti Wuori, a Finnish legal expert who had previously advised South Africa's truth commission and headed Greenpeace. Wuori says the main aim of the parliament's reports is to identify shortcomings in the human rights policies of EU institutions and member states in the hope that members will take note of the criticism.

This year's report, like last year's, opens with a number of general aims. It says the EU must make human rights issues an integral and high-priority part of all its activities, most of all in its fledgling common foreign and security policy.

The report notes with approval the European Commission's insistence this spring that the EU should not apply different human rights criteria to non-member states. It says that although all EU-third country treaties now contain human rights clauses allowing their suspension if serious rights violations take place, only treaties with African and Caribbean nations contain clear mechanisms allowing the implementation of such clauses.

Much of the content of this year's report is devoted to the EU's 10 candidate states in Central and Eastern Europe. Their treatment of ethnic minorities comes in for particularly harsh criticism, with discrimination against Roma found to be still widespread in the area. Despite the development by several candidates of action plans for the integration of Roma, the report finds that no "significant progress" has been made in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. Romania, the report notes, has yet to devise any similar plan.

Wuori says, however, that there are some signs of improvement, especially in the Baltic countries:

"There are some minority problems like those of the Roma -- the gypsies -- and even Hungarian minorities in many countries. But we're saying some kind words about the treatment of the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic States, and the language-law efforts, including Estonia, so we have some positive messages as well."

The report notes that, in another worrying trend, many countries in Eastern and Central Europe are in danger of losing their independent, critical media. It says, "In the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, a pattern of journalism may well be emerging that could combine the worst features of the old statist system and a Western commercialized media culture as its lowest denominator."

The report also finds that in some candidate countries, governing political parties exercise undue influence over radio and television. It says that in Hungary only the ruling parties are represented on television and radio boards, and that the recent crises affecting Czech television and Bulgarian radio are manifestations of the same problem.

The critical tone of the report raises the obvious question of whether most candidate countries can be considered ready to join the EU at all. The answer can be found in the European Commission's recent annual progress reports on candidate countries, which have consistently said that all candidates -- with the exception of Turkey -- meet the so-called Copenhagen criteria of functioning democracy and respect for human rights (agreed upon at a 1993 EU summit in Copenhagen).

Leaving aside the question of whether candidate countries actually fulfill these criteria, Wuori says democratization is a long-term process and Western Europe's two-generation head start after the war cannot be simply erased.

"I've always taken a broad view of the Copenhagen criteria. If we are to have a functioning democracy, an open society, an active civil society [then] it's not enough for the elite, for the official institutions to work. You have to have a certain atmosphere which is conducive to a democratic dialogue in any country."

That atmosphere, says Wuori, cannot be created overnight. This is why, he says, political elites in even the leading candidate countries have become too self-satisfied and their public opinions increasingly frustrated with their countries' evolution.

On the other hand, Wuori says, the West itself has made some questionable decisions when facing difficult choices. Among other things, Wuori's report criticizes NATO's 1999 airstrike against Serbia's TV and Radio building. It says that all journalists should be considered non-combatants because they are increasingly vulnerable to the charge of being "propagandists."