Estonia’s relationship to human rights has been complicated ever since regaining its independence. After it became apparent that human rights inhibit the state’s freedom of activity, especially in sensitive areas such as national relations, it could be seen that they were implemented rather minimally and formally. Matters were not helped by Russia’s at times inflated attacks in the name of protecting the rights of Russians residing here. Mistakes were also made by those who treated human rights as foreign values, which we as a nation have to accept, if we want to reintegrate into Europe.
Therefore, it has happened that these days Estonia formally appears to be an example of human rights. The Republic of Estonia has acceded to nearly all of the human rights conventions and agreements (conventions regarding citizenship are an important exception). Each year Estonia reports to dozens of international monitoring mechanisms, and state-wide things aren’t in too bad a shape, when to look at the acts of law. Compared to states of similar fate, Estonia is undoubtedly a success story.
However, when we look beneath the surface the question arises to what extent the human rights have taken root as values. Does accepting human rights in a legal and formal manner indicate a culture, which is based on human rights in its substance? It is more difficult to unequivocally respond “yes” here. Living in a totalitarian society and growing pains of a democratic state have undoubtedly left a mark.
In the last decade the human rights discussion points in Estonia have become rather similar to those, which are experienced elsewhere in the world. Achieving equal rights for sexual and gender minorities and women, and backlashes to them, and human rights issues related to migration have also taken up a lot of space in public discussions here. Also, a political power has had success at elections in Estonia, which questions many of the achievements so far, and which no longer considers it a taboo to attack the judiciary or the independence of journalism.
This somewhat conflicting situation is also demonstrated in this annual report. On one hand, there has been a slow progress towards better protection of human rights in several areas. The Chancellor of Justice has received an important role as an institute protecting human rights and as a control mechanism for the UN Conventions on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Awareness of protection of personal data has increased and the ban on outdoor political advertising, which was constantly criticised in our reports as well, is about to be eliminated. On the other hand, the government that started work in spring has excluded further participation in resettlement of refugees and the work on limiting the spread of hate speech and hate crimes has not begun. In most areas, however, there has been no significant deterioration, nor improvement.
The Estonian Conservative People’s Party entering the government and dissemination of opposing rhetoric, which was going on even before that, is however, leaving its mark. The appalling rhetoric and content influence Estonia’s society whether we like it or not, and therefore, danger areas for human rights protection can be detected. These can mainly be divided in two: first, there’s danger to universality of human rights, there will be attempts to redefine them, and weaken the independent institutions protecting human rights.
Human rights are universal in nature, which means that they apply to everyone and everywhere in the world. In Estonia, however, there have been attempts to redefine them as the rights of the majority (for example, in the Russian minority language issues, there have been references to a non-existent human right to speak Estonian) and exclude, for example, sexual and gender minorities from human rights protection. Similarly, restricting human rights of migrants and criminals takes places, people with disabilities also have great problems with exercising their rights in practice.
Attacks against independence of the judiciary, free press and protectors of human rights are also a worrying phenomenon. This places them in a new situation, where they have to explain, and at times, justify their role. Threatening journalists, judges, human rights activists and opposition politicians easily creates an atmosphere of fear in a small society, where it is hard to stay true to one’s values.
Human Rights in Estonia have not reached a point of crisis yet. But the danger signs, which we also discuss in the annual report, should make everyone who considers human rights to be important, think. No matter where you stand up for human rights – in politics, journalism, state or local government offices, in non-governmental organisations, schools, youth centres, cultural institutions, businesses or elsewhere – it is vital to work on planting the culture of human rights, more than ever before. This means considering human rights not just as constitutional requirements or international duties or obligations, but as a part of founding values of our society. This means giving our actions a meaning within the framework of human rights. This means educating ourselves and others about human rights using language and methods, which are understood. This means standing up for human rights also when it is neither easy nor comfortable to do so.
Human rights will remain as long as we all work to protect them together, as well as we can. I wish us all strength to do that!