Egert Rünne: The situation of human rights in Estonia has improved. What next?

In 2022, it seemed that the long-standing stagnation in human rights development continued. Legal clarity was created more through the judicial system than through the will of the government and the decisions of the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament). Although EKRE remained outside the government, populist-tinged ideas continued in the government. Proposals such as expelling Russian and Belarusian students and plans to limit voting rights infringed on the principle that already granted rights should not be taken away – it opens doors that are hard to close again.

Today, the world celebrates International Human Rights Day. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly, has been the cornerstone of human rights for 75 years. Thus, it is apt to ask how our country is doing in promoting human rights.

Human Rights Freed from Chains

Human rights protection was released from the hostage of a single party after the 2023 Riigikogu elections. No, it was not EKRE. Paradoxically, it was Isamaa – a party that stood for human rights in the 1990s but has significantly hindered development in the last decade. Moreover, in comparison to other parties in ensuring and promoting human rights, Isamaa’s recent election programs, like EKRE’s, contained promises that would have been a step back for human rights if realized. The Estonian Human Rights Centre (EHRC) noted that their spring election program contained several risks that could have hindered human rights development in Estonia.

Since a coalition was formed without Isamaa, including three parties that stood most for human rights according to their election program analysis, national human rights protection gained momentum after the last elections. For example, the acts implementing the cohabitation law, awaited for ten years, were adopted, and marriage equality was established. There are other promising initiatives: a law addressing incitement to hatred and hate-motivated crimes passed the first reading, the government plans to unify the protection of all discrimination-related characteristics, and has decided to end the distribution of “roof funds”.

However, the speed of processing many bills during the first working year of the new coalition did not comply with good practice, leaving limited opportunity for citizens and interest groups to participate. In a democratic state, it is important to follow good governance principles in every situation. Therefore, such a violation of practices should not become habitual, as it may backfire in the future.

A Moment of Truth in Integration and Refugee Policy

In 2022, Russia began a full-scale war against Ukraine. Initially, the involvement of NGOs did not gain momentum, but the state quickly realized that cooperation is in the best interest of those in need. Thanks to the joint efforts of the state and NGOs, integration, education, and asylum systems continued to function successfully in Estonia.

Although the quality of asylum procedures significantly deteriorated during the migration pressure, 2023 marked significant progress: The Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) agreed, in cooperation with the UN Refugee Agency, that EHRC could conduct border monitoring, i.e., check the PPA’s treatment of asylum seekers at border points. We had been waiting for this development, which ensures better access to asylum procedures for those in need, for over a decade.

We have made a significant step forward in Estonia’s humanitarian aid and integration policy. We have been able to respond effectively to complex situations, offering support and protection to those who need it most. Estonia has proven itself as a country that not only stands for its values in words but is also capable and ready to implement these values in practice.

Maintaining Momentum to Elevate Human Rights Protection

However, there are also warning signs. For example, banning a demonstration in support of Palestine in Tartu limits citizens’ right to protest. Such a measure requires special attention and a proportionality analysis, especially in a context where both past practice and law stipulate that banning protests is used as an extreme measure. Rightly so, as the freedom to express opinions and assemble is one of the main human rights. Additionally, the new government has lacked the political will to even discuss aligning data retention and prisoners’ voting rights with EU law and the practice of the Supreme Court.

By not letting the momentum wane, completing initiatives, making decisions that we have long postponed, and refraining from legally questionable decisions driven only by political gain, we can elevate Estonia’s human rights protection to a new level in the coming years. Thus, we move closer to an Estonia that firmly stands for the rights of every individual.”

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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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