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EU: Respect Rights Amid Pandemic, Economic Downturn

Tackle Inequality, Abuses against Migrants, Autocratic Backsliding

A nurse holds hands with a Covid-19 patient at the intensive care unit of Casal Palocco hospital in Rome, October 20, 2020.  ©2020 Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

(Brussels) – The Covid-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the lives and rights of people across the European Union, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.  
 
The disease and the economic consequences of lockdowns exacerbated discrimination and marginalization. In some cases, the pandemic served as a pretext for governments to consolidate power, advance anti-rights policies, restrict freedoms, or target migrants, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and ethnic or other minority groups. But the EU did take steps to promote and defend human rights around the world.  
 
“It’s been a challenging year for rights protection in the EU, with a public health and economic crisis triggered by Covid 19 and some member states sliding deeper toward authoritarian rule,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “To ensure that 2021 is a year of recovery, EU institutions and states should be guided by the compass of fundamental rights, stand up consistently for democratic institutions, and take positive steps to tackle deepening inequalities and abuses against migrants and minorities. 


In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.  
 
Human Rights Watch highlighted union-wide concerns on migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, poverty and inequality, rule of law, and EU foreign policy. The World Report includes chapters on FranceGermanyGreeceHungaryItalyPoland, and Spain, and on non-EU countries in the region such as Bosnia and HerzegovinaSerbia, Kosovo, and the United Kingdom
 
The Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown measures, and ensuing economic recession had a disproportionate impact on people living on low incomes or in poverty. The EU eased rules to make funds available to member states to mitigate the effects, but unemployment, food insecurity, and unequal access to distance learning exacerbated existing inequalities. Homeless people and people living in inadequate housing, including Roma people and migrants in crowded reception facilities, faced increased health risks. 
 
The EU made limited progress in developing tools to hold to account member states that undermine the rule of law, with important rulings by the European Court of Justice, the first EU Commission report on rule of law in all 27 member states, and an agreement in November to tie access to EU funds to the rule of law.  Hungary and Poland held up voting on the EU budget and coronavirus relief until EU leaders made concessions that weakened the conditionality mechanism and will likely delay its implementation. 

Member states did not progress in their scrutiny of those two countries under article 7 – the treaty mechanism to address threats to EU values. 
 
The treatment of migrants and asylum seekers undermined the bloc’s credibility as a defender of human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission released a wide-ranging New Pact on Migration and Asylum in September, capping off a year marked by border closures, pushbacks, and increased vulnerability of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.  
 
Though promoted as a “fresh start,” the pact confirmed the focus on sealing borders and boosting returns, included proposals that could undermine safeguards and increase detention, and lacked innovative proposals for rights-respecting migration management.  
 
The European Commission published in September an action plan against racism, the first high-level recognition of structural racism in the EU. Intolerance, discrimination, and violence against Jews, Muslims, Roma, and other minorities were prevalent across the EU, with the pandemic serving as a pretext to attack members of social groups already experiencing discrimination, hate speech, and hate crime.  
 
In November, the Commission adopted strategy on LGBTIQ equality, amid an attack by Poland and Hungary on what they term “gender ideology” that threatened the rights of sexual and gender minorities, reproductive rights, and efforts to address violence against women. 
 
Violent attacks attributed to Islamist and far-right extremism in Germany, France, and Austria killed 22 people and wounded dozens. Amid concerns over public discourse stigmatizing Muslims, EU interior ministers pledged to counter terrorism while respecting fundamental rights and freedoms.  
 
In its foreign policy, the EU led initiatives in United Nations forums to expose violations and seek accountability, remained a staunch supporter of the International Criminal Court, and adopted a new EU global human rights sanctions regime. The EU and member states continued as major humanitarian donors and mobilized assistance to third countries affected by Covid-19. However, the bloc struggled at times to respond in a timely and principled manner to international developments, with some member states blocking unanimous action. 

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