07.08.2018 Willy Fautré: “There are serious human rights violations in Latvia related to the discriminatory status of the Russian-speaking minority”
Willy Fautré: “There are serious human rights violations in Latvia related to the discriminatory status of the Russian-speaking minority”
Willy Fautré, the director of Human Rights without Frontiers answered to the questions of HR activist Oxana Chelisheva
Could you introduce your Human Rights NGO to readers? What are in your agenda?
Our NGO has recently celebrated its 30 years of activity. During these three decades, we have been dealing with human rights around the world but mostly in countries which had been under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes. We have a network of correspondents around the world who send us information on violations of human rights in their own countries. We distribute this sort of news through our daily electronic newsletter which reaches around ten thousand people and institutions, including members of the European Parliament, members of parliaments of 15 EU member states, embassies in Brussels, Washington, New York, Geneva. We also reach think tanks and press correspondents in Brussels, universities and interested people in the academic world.
And what are the topics which you raise and work with?
Freedom of religion and belief is one of them. Also, ethnic minorities as well as human trafficking, especially for sexual exploitation, security and religion, women’s rights, etc. Actually, human rights in general, I would say.
You tell that initially your organization had a focus on totalitarian regimes but now you also deal with problems people face inside the EU. Is it a shift or is it broader understanding of human rights as such?
It is not a shift. You know, a number of people, institutions and victims themselves regularly contact us and share their problems with us. We are open and concerned about any human rights violations. No topic is taboo. We also deal with the European and Interpol arrest warrants as well as specific individual cases related to the problematic implementation thereof. We also work with people applying for the status of refugees in Europe. At the moment, we help believers of the Church of Almighty God from China looking for a safe haven in Europe, for instance. But it can be for other countries on other occasions. So, we are very flexible. We recently published a report on human rights in Morocco because we got such a request.
Which of the EU member states raise more concern in comparison with the other? Or is EU still homogeneous and aspiring for universal values?
There are specific problems related to each member state. It can be related to refugees coming from Africa trying to reach Italy, Greece, France… That involves issues concerning the EU policy towards refugees. It can be also the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. The universal values promoted by the EU around the world must also be defended inside the EU but we notice a number of problems in some EU countries that could be tackled by the European Commission on the basis of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty but they are not.
Let's discuss about the problems of Latvia. How would you describe the depth and character of problems people are facing in Latvia?
As an outsider I have identified several major problems in Latvia. For a number of years we have been following the situation of the Russian-speaking minority in the Baltic States. The main problem is statelessness. Moreover, a significant share of people living in Latvia cannot vote or run for elections because they are non-citizens. The preservation of linguistic diversity is another growing problem. Many people living in Latvia speak Russian at home but policies regulating teaching in minority languages become more and more restrictive. Several years ago we published a special issue of our newsletter covering these problems which was also followed by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw.
You have been following the situation in Latvia for pretty long time. Do you have any explanation why it is so difficult to find solutions to these problems? What are the reasons behind reluctance of the EU to directly address them? What is behind it?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of the Baltic States had to face the challenge of creating or re-creating a specific national identity, as it was the case in Ukraine, Kazakhstan or other former Soviet Republic. The language is one of the main components of a national and individual identity. So a number of policies have been put in place to fulfill this objective in Latvia but the needs of the Russian-speaking minority have not been sufficiently taken into account. This can probably be explained by the fact that the Russian language had been for decades the language imposed by Moscow. Concerning the initiatives of the EU institutions to try to solve a number of problems generated by the linguistic policies in each of these three member states, not much has been done, as far as I know. Hardly anything efficient has been done as the same problems have been persisting since 1989…
But what is the reason for that?
Well, you know, to activate Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty as a sanction for breaching European common values and the rule of law is always a difficult decision to be taken by the European Commission. Many members of the European Parliament have repeatedly raised their voices to use it against Poland and Hungary but it is a very political issue with a lot of implications. Moreover, there is also a lack of mechanisms inside the EU to tackle human rights violations in its member states, including in the Baltic States. I mean there are a lot of mechanisms to address human rights violations outside the EU but not inside. It is a recurrent problem. Quite a number of systemic human rights issues inside the EU which have been raised by civil society organizations have not tackled seriously by the EU institutions. To make it short and clear, there is lack of political will to address such issues inside the EU in a robust way.
Do you see any circles within EU political forces which are more ready to address such a challenge?
There is a number of members of the European Parliament who are interested in those issues. They can take initiatives but at the levels of the Council and the Commission the situation is different. The only body which I see as a possible driving force is the European Parliament. MEPs can ask parliamentary questions and table resolutions, they can host events of human rights NGOs highlighting serious breaches of fundamental rights on the EU territory. The European Commission has been the most difficult institution to involve actively in the fight against human rights violations in Europe. For example, for years MEPs have addressed parliamentary questions about the exploitation of North Korean workers in Poland despite the UN sanctions but no concrete step has been taken by the Commission.
What you have just told me is quite shocking. Can really European Commission openly stop any attempt to deal with human rights problems inside the EU?
We see that there is lack of will by the European Commission to address problems that are continuously raised by MEPs and NGOs. For example, we have repeatedly highlighted institutional discrimination issues with regard to the relations between EU member states and religions but there has not been any concrete step. Latvia and the other Baltic States are not the only victims of the lack of action. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) in Vienna should also deal with the linguistic problems of Latvia as discrimination is in its mandate but it does not. MEPs should not leave this stone unturned.
Right now in Latvia we observe this huge and very complex case of legal harassment of activists of Russian-speaking minority. Some of them are under criminal charges. Some of them were and are still in prison. They are labelled as the Kremlin “fifth column”... Can you give any advice to people in Latvia? What else could they do to draw attention of Europe which they so desperately need?
We are aware of the situation of Prof. Alexander Gaponenko. He is behind bars. In custody for several months. What is shocking is the fact that, as far as we know, there is no official accusation against him. The only info we could get from open sources is that it is a state secret. This, of course, cannot be accepted by human rights NGOs and in democratic countries. This morning we sent an email to the prosecutor in charge of the case asking him to disclose the nature of the charges on Mr Gaponenko and on which concrete incident his arrest was operated and justified. We will also send this letter of inquiry by normal mail, not just by email. We hope that there will be a public reaction and we will be able to check if the accusations against Prof. Gaponenko are true. Unofficially, he is accused of being part of Russia’s fifth column. What does it mean and how credible is this if there is no transparency in the proceedings? For sure, this case and others related to the Russian-speaking minority of Latvia have to be dealt with inside Latvia, without involving Russia, and within the framework of several supra-national institutions such as the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Any call for Russia’s help in Gaponenko’s case and on internal linguistic issues will have a negative impact on these legitimate issues and on activists fighting discrimination based on language.
In your experience have you had any similar examples of representatives of various traditional language and ethnic minorities of Europe being harassed?
Yes, there have been such cases. The main EU channel that was used to raise awareness is the European Parliament. NGOs organized conferences and other events highlighting the involvement of majority populations and governments tolerating institutionalized discrimination based on ethnicity and linguistic issues. They gave some visibility to such problems. This was for example the case with the Hungarian minority in Romania and other neighboring countries. Each case is very specific in each country. There was also the problem of Catalonia in Spain.
Can you briefly describe your own background? How it happened that you joined human rights movement? What was your motivation?
I have been involved in human rights for more than 40 years. Before creating Human Rights Without Frontiers, I was a language teacher in my country, Belgium, where I was also involved in projects dealing with our own linguistic problems. For some time I was “charge de mission” in the cabinet of the Ministry of Education to put in place a number of policies to bring closer together the youths of the Francophone and Flemish regions of Belgium. I was also in a similar position in the Belgian parliament where I was in charge of teaching French to the Flemish members of the parliament and Dutch to the Francophone parliamentarians.
Apart from that, I was a member of the board of directors of a Belgian NGO dealing with our linguistic issues. Around 50 people were working on a wide range of projects aiming at bringing closer together members of our different linguistic communities. Our objective was to stimulate the learning of each other’s language to facilitate the communication between the different linguistic communities, to contribute to a better mutual understanding, national cohesion and social peace.
For you personally the native language would be which…?
I am francophone but I can speak the three official languages of the country and I taught them in my past life. I feel at home in any region of the country whatever the dominant language. One way of solving our linguistic issues was to make of Belgium a federal state.
How is the federal state structured in Belgium?
The political architecture of Belgium is very complex but I will try to make it short and understandable. Belgium has three official languages: Dutch (in the north of the country), French (in the south) and German (a small minority of 70,000 people in the east). Brussels has a bilingual status. It means that public institutions in Brussels must provide services either in Dutch or in French to people who, for instance, come to the town hall or to any other state or city institution.
Each region has its own parliament and government, even the German-speaking tiny minority, which runs its own schools, radio, TV, courts and various administrations in German.
Does this language diversity represent any danger for stability of Belgium as a state?
Our federal state has advantages and disadvantages, risks and threats, such as separatism…
A strong Flemish nationalist party, the NVA, is in power at the federal level with other moderate pro-unity parties. In its political agenda, the NVA calls for separatism of the Flemish region from Belgium. However, since the misadventure of Catalonia, there has been a political shift. The NVA is now more inclined to some sort of confederalism, which would mean two or three separate ‘sub-states’ inside ‘the shell’ called Belgium. The reasons are however not linguistic but economic. The North is richer and more dynamic economically than the South and the Flemish community does not want to go on financing the Francophone community through the existing federal system. For years, they have been complaining, “We pay too much for the Francophones. We want to take care of our own budget and the Francophones to take care of theirs”.
You have this strong Flemish party with their aspirations for independence. Does it cause any human rights violations?
No, the NVA respects the rule of law and democracy. None of the main other parties in the Flanders is for separatism and all Francophone parties are in favour of the unity of the country. Belgium has a culture of political dialogue and has always solved its problems, whatever their nature, through political compromises, as no party has an absolute majority and a coalition of parties is always necessary to rule the country.
Would this path of dialogues be a solution for Latvia?
All people of Latvia should decide for themselves while looking for assistance outside the Baltic region, but inside the EU. They can try to learn from the experience of other countries but they must find their own solution. I am not saying that Latvia should be federal as Belgium. Not at all. But it is a fact that there are serious human rights violations in Latvia related to the discriminatory status of the Russian-speaking minority. We also know that there are stateless people who can't even vote. These are violations of international linguistic standards. They should be addressed in super-national institutions such as the Council of Europe and its Venice Commission, the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice, the OSCE.
Brussles, July 2018