Europe’s Unprecedented Human Rights Crisis

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe now face a crisis unprecedented since the end of the Cold War”, according to Council of Europe’s Secretary General Thorbjørn. With this sense of urgency, the SG addressed the Committee of Ministers this week in Vienna about increasing human rights violations including corruption, immunity from prosecution, impunity, human trafficking, racism, hate speech and discrimination.

We often pay attention to serious human rights violations in other areas than Europe, and rightly so. However, we should not underestimate dire problems facing the continent today amidst all these discussions of rule of law promotion elsewhere.

An illustration of Europe’s human rights crisis, according to the SG, is the problem that might well be one of the most serious affronts to physical integrity and personal dignity: human trafficking. The Council, its institutions and laws aim to adequately set standards that protect individuals from slavery, servitude or forced labor, combat this crime in all its forms, and ensure evidence-based prevention and prosecution strategies that are grounded in data of its monitoring mechanisms. Recent reforms of the Council’s institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights and the effectiveness of the Council’s Conventions and their monitoring mechanisms, are therefore particularly relevant.

Recently, the Court has been restructured and “saved” from its own success, as evidenced by its well-known and immense backlog of cases, while safeguarding the individual petition right. All of the Council’s Member States have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Court of Human Rights oversees its implementation in the member states. 28 of the 47 member States of the Council are members of the European Union, which will accede to the ECHR as well.

The Court has interpreted Article 4 ECHR to include human trafficking, even though the literal text did not include this “modern” crime. Consequently, victims of trafficking can (continue to) ask the Court to examine potential abuses of their Convention rights and thereby also keep Member States to their anti-trafficking obligations under international human rights law.

Another tool to combat human trafficking is the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which entered into force in 2008, with wide support by its 40 State Parties. In 2013, the first non-Member State Belarus acceded to this Convention as well. This Convention established a special monitoring mechanism, the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), and the Committee of the Parties to the Convention. Their data are used to identify today’s main challenges with trafficking in Europe:

  1. Increasing trafficking related to labor exploitation, forced begging and forced crime;
  2. Impact of prevention measures not systematically assessed; and
  3. Lack of effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions against traffickers.

Despite warnings in the literature since at least 2006, “only” now the monitoring mechanisms find data on supposedly rising trafficking for labor exploitation, forced begging and forced criminality. This inference might well be caused by what Daniel Kahneman would refer to as WYSIATI (what you see is all there is), because otherinternational organizations do not conclude that just human trafficking for other than sexual exploitation would be increasing. More so, even though in Europe trafficking for sexual exploitation remains predominant, the “other” noted forms might still be under-reported, particularly because of the established pervasive lack of identification of trafficking victims.

After all, the report admits that victims are often mistaken for irregular migrants, which can lead to deportation and re-trafficking. Moreover, Member States still lack the mechanisms for co-ordination for victim identification and have not yet trained the relevant professionals, including law enforcement personnel, social services staff, border officials and labor inspectors, to recognize, assist and protect victims. Also Member States often still do not fund NGOs that give victim support.

Although both the human rights and anti-trafficking conventions require a human rights-based, victim-centered approach, several Member States still do not apply it. Many states have failed to adapt their domestic legislation and actions to what the report identifies as “newly” emerging and increasing forms such as trafficking for labor exploitation. Member States fail to punish traffickers adequately, and, in some cases, the definition of the offence in national criminal law does not comply with the standards set by the anti-trafficking Convention. The punishment provided under domestic law and sentences imposed by courts, moreover, do not sufficiently deter potential offenders.

Therefore, the report makes the following recommendations:

  1. Systematically assess the impact of prevention measures;
  2. Set up national referral mechanisms to facilitate the identification of trafficking victims; and
  3. Bring national legislation criminalizing human trafficking in full conformity with the Convention and ensure its effective application.

The SG is certainly right that the Council and its Member States should invest in monitoring so that there is a knowledge base for evidence-based strategies to combat human trafficking. He also rightly calls for an immediate, concerted action to stop the erosion of fundamental rights, which are moreover threatened by the impact of the economic crisis and growing inequalities. Hence, we look forward to the agenda of the proposed Summit devoted to “Democratic Security” in 2015, which will most likely pay the deserved attention to the combat of human trafficking in all its forms.

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