Egert Rünne: human rights in a changed Estonia

Everyone has human rights that must be protected by states and other people, and this has been a key message of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights already for 72 years. The importance of the Universal Declaration as a defender of everyone’s human rights is the reason why Human Rights Day is celebrated on December 10th, writes Egert Rünne, the head of the Estonian Human Rights Centre, in an article originally published by ERR.

The protection of fundamental rights is not only for the fulfilment of international agreements, but the Republic of Estonia is also founded on respecting them. Already 102 years ago, we appreciated that respect for and observance of fundamental rights would help to create a just and secure country.

Equal treatment, the rights of national minorities and civil liberties were important in the manifesto for all the peoples of Estonia. Thus, from the beginning of the republic, it has been a clear goal to create a democratic country governed by the rule of law in Estonia.

(Re) establishing a democratic rule of law

Throughout history, our society has had times when many freedoms have been restricted. Fortunately, I have lived all my conscious life in Estonia, which has had a direction of respecting and protecting human rights. Until recent years, the human rights situation in Estonia has objectively improved with each year I have lived.

In the 1990s, the motivation was to fight for democracy: we wanted to restore a state that respected our fundamental rights, and we did so successfully. By the first decade of the 2000s, we had reached a basic level of human rights protection in order to gain access to the European Union’s club of value-based countries. In the second decade, the discussion focused on ensuring equal opportunities for women and various minorities.

In his recent book, A Promised Land, Barack Obama wrote that the goal of a democratic state must be to empower all people to stand up for their rights, not to suppress them.

In the last decade, Estonia started to get there in the development of human rights. For example, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified because everyone deserves equal treatment. The state also understood that asylum seekers must be treated more humanely, that they do not need to be hidden in the middle of the forest by the Russian border.

In addition, the Riigikogu (Parliament of Estonia) passed the Cohabitation Act because every family needs protection, and Estonia participated in the redistribution of refugees, understanding the concerns of other countries, in order to help all those in need.

Of course, the situation was far from ideal even then: there were still many problems to be solved. But there was hope that things would get better little by little and, most importantly, there was will.

Lust for power at the expense of the protection of human rights

Before the Riigikogu elections, the Human Rights Centre analyses the election programs of all candidate parties in the light of human rights, also in 2019. The Estonian Centre Party (Keskerakond) had the most comprehensive program protecting and promoting human rights.

In its election program, the Estonian Centre Party promised, for example, the introduction of a general ban on discrimination, clearer regulation of the ban on incitement to hatred, an increase in the volume of free legal aid, including in Russian, assistance to abused children and much more.

Those seeking power often have to decide what is the price of power and what to sacrifice for it. After the elections, the Estonian Centre Party decided to form a coalition with two parties whose election program lacked or even destroyed the treatment of human rights issues. Few human rights promises reached the coalition agreement.

Moreover, as we see around us every day: despite its hopes, the Centre Party has not been able to change coalition partners. Instead, they have given free rein to the backwards leap and blurring of constitutional ideals.

The fragility of human rights is not just an empty phrase

The coming to power of the new coalition was immediately accompanied by the dismantling or reversal of what had been achieved before. The decision was taken to end participation in resettlement and relocation programs for people in need of international protection, political pressure on journalists critical of the government, attacks on state institutions and civil society, especially minority and women’s rights organizations.

Yes, you might think that in the first year it was just talk and intimidation. Some were voicing opinions that everybody should just be quiet and it would pass. It didn’t pass. On the contrary, the trend of deteriorating human rights is becoming increasingly clear.

We have noticed this both in people’s appeals to the Human Rights Centre and in the course of preparing various analyses, for example, in a recent report submitted to the UN, talking to the people of Estonia about the human rights situation.

The pandemic opened the door to hasty legislative changes on migration issues and to casual suspension of the Convention on Human Rights. In addition, the extraordinary situation has not put an end to the authorities’ policy of bullying women, minorities and foreigners.

The intimidation and temporary suspension of NGOs’ funding, bullying of foreign students, polarising referendum and support of anti-abortion groups are disturbing examples of the trend, the results of which can be seen in both Poland and Hungary. But the patterns are familiar from history.

Yes, these are small steps taken individually, but no society changes overnight, it is changed little by little, starting with the restriction of freedom of the most vulnerable.

Human rights are fragile and a rhetoric or legal text on paper is not enough to protect them. In Estonia, which has reached a turning point in the protection of human rights, everyone must ask themselves whether they have done enough to stand up for the human rights of themselves and others.

Or have you given it up and adapted to a situation where the dream of Estonia that respects everyone’s human rights is becoming more and more distant and inaccessible. The situation is not hopeless yet. Yet.

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It is important to protect everyone’s human rights, because it helps to keep stability and peace in the society. There are many challenges for protection of human rights in Estonia: intolerance has really come out of the closet. Bad things happen when good people are too passive, but together we can make a change.

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