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Government responses to COVID-19 threatened a wide range of rights in Europe and Central Asia and exposed the human cost of social exclusion, inequality and state overreach. Under-resourcing of health systems and failure to provide adequate PPE exacerbated the death rates, workers faced barriers in accessing adequate social security, and public health measures disproportionately affected marginalized individuals and groups. Many governments also used the pandemic as a smokescreen for power grabs, clampdowns on freedoms and a pretext to ignore human rights obligations.

In a number of countries, governments continued to erode the independence of the judiciary. Contested presidential elections in Belarus provoked a human rights emergency in which all semblance to the right to a fair trial and accountability was eroded. Unresolved conflicts in the region negatively affected freedom of movement and rights such as to health. Armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan saw all sides use banned cluster munitions on civilian areas, and commit war crimes.

The space for human rights defenders shrank, through restrictive laws and a pandemic-related reduction in funding. Support organizations reported spikes in domestic violence during COVID-19 lockdowns, while such measures limited access to services.

The pandemic also worsened the already precarious situation of refugees and migrants. Several countries delayed or suspended asylum requests, and many refugees and migrants were particularly at risk as they were forced to live in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions. States failed to set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a pace which would avoid the worst human rights impacts of the climate crisis. Attacks on the European human rights framework continued. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates persisted, despite the risk of human rights violations in the Yemen conflict.

Rights to health and social security

The Europe and Central Asia region was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some 27 million cases and 585,000 deaths in the region by the year’s end, amounting to close to a third of the global total. Numbers may well have been higher due to under-reporting, which, in some cases, was deliberate as in Turkmenistan. Government responses to the pandemic varied dramatically, as did the quality of health care and data collection. This led to vastly differing reported rates of infection and death.

Infections and deaths also varied widely across different groups of the population. According to the WHO, up to half of those who died due to COVID-19 in some countries were older people in long-term care homes. Health care workers and care home workers were infected and died at a greater rate than the rest of the population, sometimes owing to a failure to provide adequate and sufficient PPE. As of September, as per available data, the highest rate of death among health workers was in the UK, Russia, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, and Spain. The pandemic highlighted the weakened state of many western European health care systems after years of austerity measures, and the chronic under-resourcing of health systems in eastern Europe and Central Asia.

COVID-19–related lockdown measures had an immediate impact on the economy and workers’ rights. Many workers, especially those in informal employment, experienced barriers to accessing social security schemes, including furlough, sick leave and other income-supporting mechanisms. Particularly affected were gig workers, seasonal workers, cleaners, care home workers, and sex workers. The pandemic revealed the essential role of migrant workers in the agricultural and other sectors, as some governments such as the UK and Germany flew them in at the peak of the first lockdown, and others such as Spain, Italy and Portugal quickly regularized some.

In many countries, people of colour and ethnic minority origin had disproportionately high rates of infection and death. This reflected multiple challenges faced by these populations, including barriers to adequate health care and a higher incidence of underlying health conditions, exacerbated by poverty, systemic racism and discrimination. Authorities generally failed to fulfil early promises to release older prisoners and detainees or juveniles, women with children or those with underlying health conditions. A tragic consequence was the death on 25 July – reportedly of pneumonia – of Kyrgyzstani human rights defender and prisoner of conscience Azimjan Askarov. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010 on false charges and repeated calls had been made for his release including due to the COVID-19 risk to his health.

Governments must investigate the disproportionate deaths in settings such as care homes, and failures to provide adequate PPE. Equal access to vaccines within and across countries is also urgent, and co-operation between states imperative, to ensure that treatment and vaccines are acceptable, affordable, accessible and available to all.

State overreach

Close to one half of all countries in the region imposed states of emergency related to COVID-19. Governments restricted not only freedom of movement, but also other rights such as freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. Some political movements sought to hijack human rights discourse in opposing lockdown measures and the wearing of masks, but the human toll of the virus underlined the importance of science and facts. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus, for example, defied both when he dismissed COVID-19 as a “psychosis”.

A record number of countries (10 at mid-year) derogated from provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, several for extended periods of time. While under certain conditions countries can derogate from some of their human rights obligations in times of crisis, restrictions must be temporary, necessary and proportionate.

The enforcement of lockdowns and other COVID-19 related public health measures disproportionately hit marginalized individuals and groups who were targeted with violence, discriminatory identity checks, forced quarantines and fines. Such practices highlighted institutional racism, discrimination and the lack of accountability regarding allegations of unlawful use of force by law enforcement officials. Roma and people on the move, such as refugees and asylum-seekers, were placed under discriminatory “forced quarantines” in Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Hungary, Russia, Serbia, and Slovakia. Monitors recorded the unlawful use of force by law enforcement officials together with other violations in Belgium, France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Romania and Spain. In Azerbaijan, arrests on politically motivated charges intensified under the pretext of containing the pandemic, and government critics were arrested, when in March the President declared he would “isolate” and “clear” the opposition.

In contexts where freedoms were already severely circumscribed, 2020 saw several countries restricting them even further. Russian authorities moved beyond organizations, stigmatizing individuals also as “foreign agents” and clamped down further on single person pickets. The authorities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan adopted or proposed new restrictive laws on assemblies. When allegations of election fraud prompted mass protests, police in Belarus responded with massive and unprecedented violence, torture and other ill-treatment. Independent voices were brutally suppressed as arbitrary arrests, politically motivated prosecutions and other reprisals escalated against opposition candidates and their supporters, political and civil society activists and independent media.

While the need for timely, accurate, science-based information was urgent to combat the pandemic, a number of governments imposed unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information. Governments misused existing and new legislation to curtail freedom of expression in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Governments took insufficient measures to protect journalists and whistle-blowers, including health workers, at times targeting those who criticized government responses to COVID-19. This was the case in Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. In Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, medical and essential workers did not dare speak out against already egregious freedom of expression restrictions. In Turkey, the government orchestrated troll armies and imposed online restrictions and mis-navigations to distract from certain websites, accounts and inconvenient information.

Some governments conflated the public health crisis with national security concerns, such as in Hungary. In France and Turkey, for example, national security legislation was rushed through in expedited proceedings, while governments in Russia and elsewhere bolstered surveillance capabilities, hoarded and sometimes disclosed personal data, posing a long-term threat to privacy and other rights. The EU’s Counter-Terrorism Agenda, launched in December, promised to harness the power of technology to keep people safe from violent attacks. But the Agenda would vastly expand surveillance capacity and the use of predictive technologies at the expense of freedom of expression and the right to privacy, fair trial and non-discrimination.

Governments must cease using the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on dissent, rein in police overreach, ensure accountability for misconduct, and stop the slide into surveillance states.

Undermining judicial independence

In a number of countries, governments continued to take steps that eroded the independence of the judiciary. One common measure was to discipline judges or interfere with their appointment or the security of their tenure, for demonstrating independence, criticizing the authorities, or passing judgments that went against the wishes of the government.

In Poland, Parliament adopted a new law prohibiting judges from questioning the credentials of judges appointed by the President at the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court. The state initiated disciplinary proceedings in August against 1,278 judges who had asked the OSCE to monitor the presidential election. Despite an April decision by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) requiring the Polish government to immediately suspend its new system of disciplinary proceedings against judges, the authorities refused to implement this ruling.

In Hungary, senior members of the government contested final judgments in official government communications and in the media, delaying their execution. In Turkey, the Council of Judges and Prosecutors initiated disciplinary proceedings against the three judges who acquitted the Gezi trial defendants, following the President’s criticism of the acquittal decision.

The authorities in Turkey also undermined fair trial guarantees by taking steps to control bar associations and targeting lawyers for their professional activities. In July, Parliament passed a law changing the structure of the bar associations, weakening their ability to voice concerns about issues such as the lack of independence of the judiciary and human rights. In September, 47 lawyers were detained by police on suspicion of “membership of a terrorist organization”, based solely on their work. Also, in September, the Court of Cassation upheld the prison sentences of 14 lawyers prosecuted under terrorism-related charges.

In Russia and in much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, violations of the right to a fair trial remained widespread and the authorities cited the pandemic to deny detainees meetings with lawyers and prohibit public observation of trials. During Belarus’ human rights emergency all semblance of adherence to the right to a fair trial and accountability was eroded: not only were killings and torture of peaceful protesters not investigated, but authorities made every effort to halt or obstruct attempts by victims of violations to file complaints against perpetrators.

Governments must ensure respect for the rule of law, protect the independence of the judiciary and uphold fair trial guarantees.

Human rights in conflict zones

Conflicts in countries of the former Soviet Union continued to hold back human development and regional co-operation, and lines of contact along unrecognized territories constrained the rights of residents on both sides.

In Georgia, Russia and the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region continued to restrict freedom of movement with the rest of the county, including through the further installation of physical barriers. Crossing points shut in 2019 remained closed, and at least 10 residents were said to have died after being refused permission for medical transfer to the rest of Georgia. In Moldova, the de facto authorities in the unrecognized Transdniestria region introduced restrictions on travel from government-controlled territory, affecting medical provisions to the local population. In Ukraine both government forces and those of Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country imposed restrictions on travel across the contact line, often appearing as reciprocal measures, with the number of crossings dropping from a monthly average of one million to tens of thousands by October. These and COVID-19 restrictions meant that scores of people suffered family separation, and lack of access to health care, pensions and workplaces. Older people and vulnerable groups were among those most severely affected.

The most serious clashes were in September when heavy fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia and Armenian-supported forces in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. More than 5,000 deaths resulted. All sides used heavy explosive weapons with wide-area effects in densely populated civilian areas, including ballistic missiles and notoriously inaccurate rocket artillery salvos. These caused civilian deaths, injuries and widespread damage to civilian areas. Cluster munitions banned under international humanitarian law were deployed on Stepanakert/Khankendi, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and on Barda city in an area under Azerbaijan government control. Both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces committed war crimes including extrajudicial execution, torture of captives and desecration of corpses of opposing forces.

All parties to the conflicts must fully respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians from the effects of hostilities. Any restrictions on freedom of movement should be strictly necessary, dictated by genuine security and military considerations, and proportionate.

Human rights defenders

Some governments further limited the space for human rights defenders and NGOs through restrictive laws and policies, and stigmatizing rhetoric. This trend accelerated during the pandemic, which thinned the ranks of civil society through financial attrition, as funding streams from individuals, foundations, businesses and governments dried up as a consequence of COVID-19-related economic hardship.

Turkey continued to repress and harass NGOs, human rights defenders and dissenting voices, while failing to implement a key European Court of Human Rights judgment calling for the immediate release of unjustly detained civil society activist Osman Kavala. The governments in Kazakhstan and Russia continued moves to silence NGOs through smear campaigns, and tax authorities in Kazakhstan threatened over a dozen human rights NGOs with suspension based on alleged reporting violations around foreign income. In Russia peaceful protesters, human rights defenders and civic and political activists faced arrests and prosecution. In Kyrgyzstan proposed amendments to NGO legislation created onerous financial reporting requirements.

In the context of counter-terrorism, France and Austria moved to dissolve a number of Muslim associations on the basis of problematic procedures. Restrictive new NGO legislation was mooted in Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, and Serbia, while governments in France, Italy, Malta and elsewhere continued to obstruct and sometimes criminalize the work of NGOs involved in rescuing or providing humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum-seekers.

In a positive development, the CJEU struck down a 2017 restrictive NGO law in Hungary as being in breach of EU law. The year also saw the strengthening of social movements focussed on the environment, accountability, women’s rights and anti-racism. Protesters mobilized against contested election results in Belarus, corruption in Bulgaria and regressive moves by the new government in Slovenia. Thousands challenged a controversial security law proposed in France and a ruling further restricting access to safe abortion care in Poland.

Governments must halt the stigmatization of NGOs and human rights defenders and ensure a safe and enabling environment in which it is possible to defend and promote human rights without fear of punishment, reprisal or intimidation.

Rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

Progress on combating domestic violence stalled – and even reversed – in many countries. The year saw no new signatures or ratifications to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention). On the contrary, the Hungarian Parliament refused to ratify it, while the Polish Minister of Justice announced plans to withdraw from the Convention and Turkey’s President mooted the same idea.

As many women were confined in their homes with abusers under lockdown, support organizations in a number of countries reported spikes in domestic violence, while accessing support services became more difficult. In Ukraine and many other countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, strict quarantine measures meant that many survivors could not access free legal aid offered online as they continued to share living space with their abuser or could not travel to shelters. Some governments in the EU took special steps to assist victims during the pandemic by renting hotel rooms instead of sending women to shelters where the risk of infection was higher, or creating new helplines. Some countries, including Croatia, Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain finally took steps to improve their rape laws to make them consent-based.

Under lockdown, some jurisdictions categorized abortion care as non-essential medical treatment, placing new obstacles to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. While a legislative initiative to further restrict access to abortion care in Slovakia narrowly failed, the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland struck down a provision which allowed women to terminate a pregnancy in cases of fatal or severe foetal abnormality. This move prompted mass protests by women and allies in the country. Peaceful protesters were met with police violence and faced administrative and criminal charges. Meanwhile, 11 women’s rights activists in Greece were arrested and charged for breaching public health rules after staging a symbolic action against gender-based violence.

In several countries, religious and political figures used COVID-19 as an excuse for engaging in advocacy of hatred against the LGBTI community, blaming them for the pandemic. Monitors also reported COVID-related spikes in domestic abuse against LGBTI people. Some countries used the pandemic as a pretext to restrict access to hormone therapy and other medical treatment for trans people. A number of local governments in Poland declared themselves to be “LGBTI-free zones” and incumbent President Andrzej Duda engaged in advocacy of hatred against the LGBTI community during his campaign for re-election. At the end of the year, the Hungarian government proposed a raft of legislation restricting LGBTI rights. In a related development, the Romanian Parliament passed a law prohibiting the teaching of gender studies, which remained contested at the Constitutional Tribunal at the year’s end.

Governments must bolster support services for women and LGBTI victims of domestic violence, remove obstacles to accessing sexual and reproductive rights, and combat discrimination against women and LGBTI people.

Rights of refugees and migrants

COVID-19 worsened the already precarious situation of refugees and migrants. Several countries delayed or suspended processing asylum requests. Many refugees and migrants were particularly at risk of COVID-19 as they lived in overcrowded, insalubrious detention facilities, camps, or squats. The most emblematic case was the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, where a fire left 13,000 refugees and migrants without shelter. Border closures deprived seasonal workers and labour migrants of subsistence and their families of remittances, including in Central Asia.

Pushbacks and violence at land and sea borders continued. In a cynical and dangerous move, Turkey instrumentalized refugees and migrants for political purposes by encouraging them to travel from Turkey to Greece’s land border, sometimes even facilitating their transport. In turn, the Greek authorities committed human rights violations against people on the move, including excessive use of force, beatings, use of live ammunition, and pushbacks into Turkey. Croatia continued forcible expulsions of asylum-seekers, often accompanied with violence and abuse. Governments throughout southern Europe prohibited ships in the Mediterranean from disembarking rescued migrants and refugees, leaving them stranded at sea for record periods of time. In a clear attempt to circumvent legal obligations against pushbacks, Italy, Malta and the EU continued to co-operate with Libya, where disembarked migrants and refugees were subjected to serious human rights violations. The EU began to discuss a new migration pact which continued the EU’s main policy thrust of deterring migration rather than managing it in a human rights compliant manner.

Governments must expand the provision of safe and regular pathways of migration, particularly for persons in need of protection to come to Europe, including humanitarian visas, resettlement, community sponsorship and family reunification.

Prevention of climate change and corporate accountability

In December, the European Council decided to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. While an advance from its previous, even more inadequate, pledge, this target would still fail to reduce emissions at a pace that avoids the worst human rights impacts of the climate crisis and would put an excessive burden on developing countries. At national level, the vast majority of European countries announcing net-zero emission targets continued only to commit to reaching this by 2050. In order to refrain from causing significant harm to rights of people in and outside of Europe, they are required to aim for carbon neutrality well before this date. In addition, in most cases net-zero plans included loopholes that could delay climate action, together with measures that would be detrimental for the enjoyment of human rights. Several countries, such as France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the UK allowed fossil fuel companies, the aviation industry and other carbon-polluting companies to benefit from economic stimulus measures, such as tax rebates and loans, without any conditions to reduce their carbon footprint.

There was a significant increase in climate litigation targeting governments and corporations, with major new cases being filed in France (applying the recent ‘law of vigilance’), Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK, among others, as well as a case by six Portuguese children and young adults to the European Court of Human Rights targeting 33 member states. The Irish Supreme Court required the government to adopt more ambitious emissions reductions targets, whereas the Swiss Federal Court rejected a similar claim.

Following years of pressure from civil society and trade unions, the European Commission began the process of introducing a law obliging corporations to respect human rights and environmental standards through businesses’ entire global value chains. In November, while a majority of Swiss voters voted in favour of introducing a similar law, the initiative failed as it did not receive the support of most cantons.

Governments must accelerate inadequate timetables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reach zero-carbon emissions and eliminate loopholes delaying climate action. They should condition any economic support measure to high-emitting companies with time-bound commitments to phase out fossil fuels. EU legislators must ensure laws effectively hold businesses accountable for human rights and environmental harm within their value chain and provide victims with access to remedy.

Human rights at home and in the world

Attacks on the European human rights framework continued in 2020. In the OSCE, states could not agree on the leadership of the key human rights institutions and allowed mandates to lapse for many months before approving replacements. Council of Europe member states continued to delay the implementation or selectively implement judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. A striking indicator of backsliding was the growth in judgments finding a violation of Article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits using restrictions on rights for any purpose other than those prescribed by the Convention. Member states such as Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey were found to have abusively detained or prosecuted individuals or otherwise restricted their rights. Article 18 violations should ring loud alarm bells: they indicate political persecution.

The EU continued to struggle to address the ongoing erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, although it activated proceedings against the two states for risking a serious breach of the union’s core values. At the year’s end, EU member states agreed to link EU funding, including COVID-19 recovery and climate-related funds, to compliance with the rule of law, but how this linkage could be triggered in the future remained unclear. Despite some important human rights-related judgments of the CJEU on the independence of the judiciary and attacks on NGOs, the failure of the EU to reverse or arrest the shrinking space for NGOs and migration-related human rights violations strained internal/external coherence and made it more difficult for the EU to engage credibly on human rights in foreign policy.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Russia and China continued to wield political, economic and sometimes military influence, and undermined the international human rights framework and the institutions mandated to protect it. Russia offered financial and media support to the Belarusian authorities as they waged a full-fledged violent assault on the population, and the EU, UN and regional human rights institutions were unable to muster political weight to halt the egregious violations. In Western Europe, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France and the UK were among those permitting arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite the high likelihood that these arms would be used to commit human rights violations in the conflict in Yemen.

Notwithstanding internal challenges, the EU and its member states remained important players in promoting human rights worldwide. In 2020, the EU took significant steps to boost its human rights policy, including by adopting a new Human Rights Action Plan.

States must fulfil the treaty obligations they have chosen to take upon themselves and respect the human rights architecture of which they are a part. Where they have undertaken to respect the decisions of international human rights courts, they must implement those rulings.