Human Rights: What Can We Hope for From the Bulgarian EU Presidency?

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In mid-December, the Bulgarian government presented to the National Assembly its Programme for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Programme establishes four priorities: economic growth and social cohesion; European perspective for the Western Balkans; safety and stability in a strong and united Europe; digital economy and skills for the future. None of these priorities is related to human rights. Moreover, the phrases "human rights" and "fundamental rights" are not even used in the Programme. There are no references to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In general, it does not show that Bulgaria recognises human rights, which need to be strengthened during its Presidency, as they are one of the fundamental values of the Union.

Very disappointing priorities

Upon assuming the presidency of the Council of Europe, which rotates through the member states, each government is responsible for determining the Council's agenda and setting a work programme during the course of its presidency.

Instead of mentioning human rights, Bulgaria's Programme says a lot about "migration management". The aim is to increase the efficiency of the "policy of returning people" and "border control management" and to "strengthen the external borders" of the Union in the context of "terrorism". In the few cases when human rights policies are mentioned, the Programme says that the Bulgarian Presidency will work for the equality of men and women and for the rights of people with disabilities and their integration in society. However, nothing specific is mentioned.

Therefore, it is clear that the Bulgarian Presidency does not intend to address any of the human rights problems in the Union, which so far proved to be difficult to swallow. They include: undermining the rule of law and the system of checks and balances in several countries of the Union; widespread racial, ethnic and religious discrimination, Islamophobia and hate speech; discrimination in national criminal justice systems; limited access to quality education for those who are excluded from society; constantly shrinking freedom of the media; restrictions of the activities and in some member states even persecution of the human rights organisations.

These issues are well-defined in the reports of local and international human rights monitors, including the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). They were not addressed or at least not in an adequate way in the programme documents of the previous Council Presidents, including the Programme for the Estonian Presidency. However, Bulgaria, the only state that will take over the Presidency while under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism seems to be particularly ill suited to trigger off any change.

'Deep concern' over discrimination

Even if we disregard the comments and recommendations of the observers from non-governmental human rights organisations and limit ourselves only to those made recently by the official bodies of the United Nations and the Council of Europe, the image of Bulgaria does not seem very attractive. In 2017, two UN's treaty bodies made comments and recommendations that are quite worrying for a country that has joined the club of countries with the highest standards for human rights protection.

In May, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed "deep concern" about the increase in incidents of hate speech and hate crime in Bulgaria, practiced with impunity and targeted at the main minority groups in the country: Turks, Roma, Jews, Africans, refugees and migrants. The Committee also noted the "continued marginalisation of Roma" in all walks of life, and in particular the forced evictions from their only homes, segregation in education and lack of access to paid work and medical care. Another big concern for the Committee is the treatment of migrants. The Committee highlights in its concluding observations the violent push backs from the territory of the state, as well as their ill-treatment and arbitrary detention.

Torture & many other rights violations

In December, the Committee against Torture, another UN body, published even more worrying observations. They were in regard to the unpunished and widespread ill-treatment of detainees, especially people from the Roma minority, in Bulgarian police stations; inhumane treatment of prisoners and people placed in social and health institutions; mistreatment and push backs of asylum seekers. A particular concern for the Committee is the fact that in the period 2000-2010 hundreds of children with intellectual disabilities died in institutions and nobody was found guilty. The Committee also noted that in recent years there is a backsliding in the cooperation between authorities, who refuse to allow independent, non-governmental monitoring of human rights in the institutions, and NGOs.

At regional level, Bulgaria is one of the few member states of the Council of Europe for which in 2015 the European Committee against Torture issued a public statement highlighting the lack of cooperation of the Bulgarian authorities in order to improve the conditions in the places for detention. The Committee also noted the systematic police abuse of detainees. Moreover, Bulgaria is among the countries with the highest number of non-executed judgments of the European Court of Human Rights on per capita basis. They concern violations in the entire spectrum of human rights which are protected under the European Convention on Human Rights. A significant part of them concern violations of the right to life as a result of the excessive use of force and firearms as well as torture, inhuman and degrading treatment by police officers.

Having all these in mind, the expectations that the Bulgarian Presidency will address the Union's serious human rights problems cannot be high. It is hard to imagine that things can improve significantly during the next Presidency of Austria with the far-right Freedom Party as part of the governing coalition in this country. This poses a serious challenge to the advocacy of non-governmental human rights organisations. Faced with systemic under-funding and with the governmental pressure in several countries, they must redouble their efforts in order to achieve positive change.