“On Rights and People” – BHC celebrates 30 years since its founding with a new podcast and a focus on young people

On July 14th, 1992, a group of Bulgarian citizens founded the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC). The Committee is therefore the oldest still-functioning human rights organization in the country. Its founders are Kalina Bozeva, Maria Bakardjieva, Antoanetta Nenkova, Yuliana Metodieva, Emil Koen, Tania Marincheshka, Koprinka Chervenkova, Petar Slabakov, Pravda Spasova, Krasimir Kanev, Dimitrina Petrova, Antonina Zheliazkova, Yonko Grozev, and Danail Danov.

Today, exactly thirty years later, the organization maintains five main programs. In addition to defense and advocacy in the realm of human rights, we also heavily contribute to broadening the expertise of many of the human rights defenders in the country. BHC is currently the largest nongovernmental human rights organization in Bulgaria and one of the largest in Eastern Europe.

However, the reason we have been operating for thirty years transcends any grandiose words we may use to describe it. Stories about human rights always start with people, but they rarely feature the winners. The history of BHC is intertwined with the stories of thousands of human destinies—the destinies of the most rejected, wronged, and unwanted members of our society. In our work, we encounter violations of the rights of individuals. Nevertheless, they are the key to bringing about changes that affect everyone.

“On Rights and People” is the title of a new podcast that BHC is launching on the cusp of its 30th anniversary. The first episode is already available for streaming on Anchor and Spotify.

The new format is aimed at the younger generation. Its goal will be to separate stories about human rights from the formal language of legal cases and monitoring reports and transform them into easy-to-understand conversations about everyday life because human rights are everywhere. Its pilot episode seeks answers to some fundamental questions: what is a “human rights podcast,” why is it necessary, and what does it mean to be a defender of human rights? You will also hear about the results of our social experiment, where we asked people on the street what they knew about human rights.

“On Rights and People” will start with one episode per month, featuring not only experts from the organization, but also activists, representatives from other organizations and institutions, and regular people with unique stories about human rights.

“BHC has always understood the need to make the complex language of human rights comprehensible and understood by as many people as possible, as well as its own responsibility to do so. Over the years, the Committee has published its own magazine, “Through the Lens,” edited by Yuliana Metodieva. Yana Tavanie later created the communications program, which uses all the tools at its disposal to demonstrate and explain the extensive, meaningful work being done not only at BHC but in the human rights sector as a whole.

According to Krasimir Kanev, chairman and co-founder of the organization, BHC is largely to thank for the fact that there are no taboos when it comes to human rights in Bulgaria. “After the fall of the communist regime, Bulgarian society still struggled to confront many of the “hot potatoes” in the realm of human rights. Anyone who dared to discuss such topics risked ostracization by society and the media and, in some cases, even compromised their own security. Nevertheless, BHC did not hesitate to highlight the problems of even the most shunned groups and individuals, to expose the skeletons in the closet of Bulgarian society that even the most well-intentioned people pass with their eyes closed,” explains Kanev.

BHC is currently the largest nongovernmental human rights organization in the Balkans and one of the largest in Eastern Europe. For thirty years, the Committee has managed to take root and flourish as a human rights organization in a social and cultural environment that is often hostile—and even more often indifferent—to human rights. It is an environment which not only fails to encourage the overall stability of the nongovernmental sector, but also on occasion purposefully undermines many of the conditions of its operation. For this reason, ensuring the organization, personnel, and financial capacity necessary for the functioning of such an organization in Bulgaria is a considerable challenge and an enormous achievement.

BHC sets the human rights narrative for Bulgaria: what are the main human rights problems in the country, which groups are affected, and what decisions need to be made. Today, there is wide consensus from the human rights community in response to these questions, both on a national and international level. The reports on Bulgaria published by various institutions, the methods employed by various bodies and, in recent years, even the reporting from certain mainstream media—all highlight more or less the same problems. At the heart of this discussion are BHC’s reports, published since the very beginning of its operation.

However, BHC does more than establish the narrative on human rights in Bulgaria. For as long as it has operated, it has utilized legal means to actively protect vulnerable groups and individuals on a national and international level. These cases have left a lasting impact on the implementation of human rights law and have shaped to a significant degree the human rights issues in Bulgaria. Currently, the European Court of Human Rights has fourteen cases and groups of cases under intensive surveillance in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. These are key cases identifying the most important human rights problems in Bulgaria brought to the attention of the Court. Six of them (43%) are cases and groups of cases whose filing is exclusively supported by BHC. In three other groups, BHC contributed to the filing of some, though not all, cases in the group. All in all, over its thirty years of operation, BHC has participated in 64% of all Bulgarian cases and groups of cases in the ECHR—which are now supervised under the enhanced procedure—attesting to legal work on an admirable scale and years-long resilience on both a national and international level.

Finally, over the thirty years of its existence, BHC has established itself as an active member of the international human rights community. Our organization is part of the main nongovernmental human rights networks across Europe. It actively participates and, in many cases, leads human rights-related projects not only in Bulgaria but also in other European countries. Its activists contribute to the capacity-building of many other human rights organizations around the world.

BHC plays an important role in several crucial processes, defending the rights of thousands of people in Bulgaria:

  • Reforming the system for combating juvenile antisocial behavior

In the late 1990s, approximately 2,500 children in Bulgaria were placed in correctional boarding schools for reasons that, from a legal point of view, were completely arbitrary. This was one of the issues that drew BHC’s attention in the very first years following its founding. In 1996, reform was achieved that established judicial control over the admission of children into correctional boarding schools; this control was expanded eight years later. As a result, only two correctional boarding schools and one social pedagogical boarding school remain in Bulgaria today, each accommodating around 100 children. Nevertheless, we believe there is still work to be done, as the current law on combatting juvenile antisocial behavior dates back to 1958. The juvenile justice system is in need of drastic reform and profound humanization, which we continue to advocate for.

  • Deinstitutionalizing children in institutions

In 2007, BHC supported the investigation of BBC journalist Kate Blewett, which eventually lead to the release of the film “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children.” The story of the children placed in a home for children with disabilities in “Mogilino,” a small town in the Ruse area, shocked Europe and provoked international outrage. In 2010, BHC cooperated with the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office to conduct joint inspections and found that almost 240 deaths had occurred in children’s homes. These deaths were never investigated. Subsequent reforms drastically reduced the number of children placed in these juvenile institutions. Nevertheless, the established approach to caring for these children remained unchanged, and we continue to oppose it to this day.

  • Improving the conditions in psychiatric institutions for adults

Since the early days of BHC’s founding, the rights of mentally ill individuals have been one of its main areas of focus. The organization’s persistent monitoring and advocacy over the years have led to the closure of psychiatric institutions in Sanadinovo, Pastra, and Dragash Voivoda, as well as the improvement of conditions in Radovets, Kachulka, and Kudelin. For seven years, the Ministry of Health did not allow observation in closed institutions under its jurisdiction. Our diligent advocacy before international organizations during this time lead to a series of inspections, followed by a statement from the Committee Against Torture on the inhumane conditions in several of Bulgaria’s social care centers for adults.

  • Prison reform

BHC conducts periodic monitoring of prisons and detention facilities and documents incarceration conditions and the wellbeing of detained individuals, all with the goal of preventing and protecting from torture and inhumane and degrading treatment. Every year we collect and publish information on the rates of police brutality as well as the living conditions and treatment in detention facilities and prisons across the country.

In 2020, BHC launched its “Prison Reform” project with financial support from the European Economic Area’s Financial Mechanism. The project is entirely dedicated to prison reform and was initiated after the ECHR’s pilot judgement against Bulgaria in “Neshkov and others,” which concerned inhumane and degrading conditions in prisons and the lack of internal legal protection mechanisms. Over the course of three years, the project compiled a detailed analysis of the state of the penitentiary system in Bulgaria and the problems that remain to be addressed. The “Prison Reform” project website is the only one of its kind, providing access to documents required under the Access to Public Information Act on the state of prisons and detention facilities. There is no other place where these documents, as well as similar specialized information on the subject, can be found publicly.

  • Developing the system for protection against discrimination in Bulgaria

Margarita Ilieva, attorney-at-law and a long-time director of the legal program at BHC, contributed her extensive legal expertise as part of a team which drafted the Law on Protection from Discrimination. Today, almost nineteen years after its adoption and despite the need to update the regulations, this law remains a tool used to successfully protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

  • Police brutality: introducing the standard of absolute necessity

BHC data shows that one in three detained individuals in Bulgaria have been mistreated during their detainment or inside a police station. Moreover, despite the hundreds of appeals that are made every year, the number of resulting lawsuits can be counted on one hand. BHC has been fighting the Bulgarian police’s illegal, repressive practices for decades, either through strategic litigation in the European Court of Human Rights (the group of cases Velikova v. Bulgaria is the largest group of cases under the enhanced supervision of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe) or through intense advocacy for legislation reform before the responsible institutions. Our organization is among the first to raise the issue of the absolute necessity standard, which restricts the legal use of force by police.

  • Introducing international protection standards in Bulgaria for refugees and asylum-seekers

The specialized Legal Aid Program for Refugees and Migrants has made a fundamental contribution to the introduction of numerous legal standards in Bulgarian law related to international protection. Under the leadership of Iliana Savova, attorney-at-law, the last twenty-five years have seen the program participating in all the working groups for amending both the Law on Asylum and Refugees and other laws supporting the protection of these vulnerable individuals. Some standards introduced thanks to BHC’s advocacy include: legal representation for unaccompanied refugee children during proceedings and after the protected status has been granted; the participation of translators in the proceedings for granting international protection; the prohibition on detaining unaccompanied children in the Special Facility for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners and the obligation to instead send them to the “Child Protection” departments; and many others. Over the years, the program has helped those seeking international protection with legal aid in thousands of lawsuits and the standards we uphold are reflected and incorporated in the case-law and numerous by-laws.

  • Fighting against hate speech

BHC has a long history of achievements in the realm of public hate speech prevention. These efforts culminated in 2021 with the European Court of Human Rights’ judgements in the cases Behar and Guthman v. Bulgaria and Budinova and Chaprazov v. Bulgaria—the first successful judgements against our country regarding public, illegal antisemitic and anti-Roma speech.