The coronavirus pandemic which has engulfed the world has stamped its mark on human rights issues around that same world. In the ‘UN Human Rights 2020’ report, Michelle Bachelet, high commissioner for human rights, said that the COVID-19 viral disease which had been caused by coronavirus has exploited and widened existing gaps in human rights protection, and has increased inequality and discrimination. From this point of view, while holding this tenth report on human rights in our hands, we could say with a relieved heart that, in fact, we are doing quite well in terms of human rights, especially in comparison with so many other countries.
However, there are several reasons not to do so.
The most important of these reasons is a recognition of the fact that how well we may be doing today is the result of constant work. Protected human rights are not a matter of course; human rights are protected within those countries in which both state and society stand up every day in support of the freedom and well-being of ordinary people. A glance at some other countries proves that the coronavirus crisis can also be used as an excuse to restrict people’s rights where the state wants to expand its powerbase and silence critical voices. At the same time, the crisis situation has also required even the best of governments to restrict some rights in order to ensure the continued good health of people and the well-being of society as a whole. It is therefore important that public authorities and society in general monitor the proportionality of any restrictions which have or will be imposed.
Another reason to avoid excessive feelings of satisfaction is recognition of the fact that most of those concerns which have been raised in this report have now been pending for several years in a row. There is a marked reluctance at the political level to address unpopular and/or complex issues in legislation, such as prisoner voting rights, clearer regulation of essentially-recognised cohabitation for same-sex couples, defining the limits of hate speech, and tidying up the collection of communications data so that it falls into line with the European framework. The failure to resolve problems which are related to citizenship for Abkhazian Estonians also raises the question of why the Estonian state tends to leave these people without the legal certainty which should be appropriate to the rule of law.
The change of government during the reporting period, during which the Reform Party-Centre Party coalition replaced the Centre Party-EKRE-Fatherland coalition which took office after the 2019 Riigikogu elections in January 2021, highlighted the political impact of the change of government on human rights protection, including funding issues. As a result, in July 2020, due to the existence of different interpretations of the law, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology, acting as the Minister of Finance, stopped paying gambling tax to NGOs, through the help of which the Ministry of Social Affairs has previously been able to finance equal treatment projects. Although the Ministry of Social Affairs then took over the financing of those projects and made the missing payments, the legislator has not so far removed any ambiguities from the relevant legal acts. However, the continuing legal uncertainty means that the process of providing funding to equal treatment projects will not stand on its own feet in the future, and that there is a risk that this issue will be resolved politically rather than substantively. Resolving this situation should be one of the goals.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Estonia declared a state of emergency on 12 March 12 2020. The Foreign Minister then informed the Council of Europe of the activation of Article 15 of the ‘Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’, which allows a state to take measures in the event of an emergency where such measures involve a suspension of state compliance with its obligations under the terms of the convention to the extent that the gravity of the situation so requires. The opposition reacted critically to the decision, pointing to the danger that such a move would give the government an excuse to enact disproportionate restrictions in terms of fundamental rights. The Supreme Court issued a statement which served to emphasise the fact that the Estonian constitution – and therefore the right to a fair trial – still applies, regardless of the application of Article 15. However, the government ended the state of emergency on 18 May 2020 and informed the Council of Europe of that act, without being blamed for any potentially disproportionate restrictions which may have been imposed in the meantime.
While many people who have disabilities experienced significant difficulties due to the closing down of contact learning in special schools and the necessary social services during the first wave of the pandemic, the lesson was learned and several exceptions were made during the following waves for people who have disabilities. The coronavirus pandemic also affected detention facilities, and the Chancellor of Justice had to remind the executive power that even during a pandemic-related situation, restrictions against detainees must not be disproportionate.
In conclusion, it must be assumed that Estonia did not lightly neglect people’s freedoms even under the circumstances which were imposed during the pandemic. The work of the courts was not interrupted by the pandemic, and video sessions were widely used. In addition, while the benefits of the HOIA mobile app have remained rather vague, its development has tended to focus on protecting personal data by creating a solution which exchanges non-personalised codes rather than linking the data to a specific person.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated society’s polarities. This has resulted in a need for increased levels of transparency when it comes to political influencers. With a view to achieving this, the citizens initiative – entitled the ‘Liberal Citizen Foundation’ (SALK) – was established in 2020 with the aim of being able to promote liberal values which, amongst other things, monitors the transparency of party funding through donations and public media advertisements. At the same time, in 2020, the courts recognised the right of the non-profit association to name itself the ‘MTÜ Süvariik’ (‘Deep State NGO’), as the respective application was found by the court not to be in conflict with good morals.
The situation regarding the pandemic has also posed a challenge when it comes to being able to ensure democratic governance. The ambiguity shown by, and shortcomings experienced in relation to, the legislator in terms of amendments to legal acts which were caused by the coronavirus pandemic have been criticised, as has the rather passive attitude of the Riigikogu in a crisis situation which has been going on for two years. Several solicitors have highlighted the fact that there is no parliamentary control over the government’s general arrangements in terms of restrictions which were imposed by the government itself, and neither can those restrictions be challenged by the Chancellor of Justice who is left with little to do other than instructing people to go to court. However, as the vast majority of court cases which have arisen as a result of the imposition of the pandemic-related measures are still awaiting final judgment, it is too early to assess the constitutional validity of restrictions which have been imposed by the executive power.
It is reassuring to know that the Estonian state and its general society are not ready to give up on those freedoms which have been guaranteed to everyone even during an uncertain pandemic crisis. However, it is more difficult to find a balance between the freedoms of the individual and the restrictions which are required to protect the health and well-being of society as a whole. The abundance of information in the digital age makes it particularly difficult to find a balance, as distinguishing between misinformation and conspiracy theories on the one hand and reliable information on the other can be a daunting task. This is another reason for this report not being able to provide a satisfactory statement which says that everything is fine, but instead assigns each of us the task of helping to ensure that human rights are protected in the best possible way in Estonia, and on a daily basis.