Are Human Rights Becoming Consolidated?

21. August, 2002


Nils Muiznieks

This is a translation from Latvian of the article which originally appeared in Diena, 28 August 2002, and is reprinted in with permission from the publisher

On the eve of the 8th Saeima elections it is useful to have a look at the achievements and failures of the 7th Saeima in the field of human rights. The halting in January 2001 of the human rights monitoring conducted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the closure of the OSCE Mission to Latvia at the end of 2001 and Latvia’s successful movement towards the EU and NATO all bear witness to Latvia’s progress since the elections in 1998. However, the members of the next Saeima will inherit a number of unsolved human right issues, which they will have to tackle.

The 7th Saeima adopted several important laws pertaining to human rights, including the State Language Law in December 1999, amendments to the Law on the Constitutional Court in November 2000, the Labour Law in June 2001, Administrative Procedure Code in October 2001 and this year, the Law on Sexual and Reproductive Health, the Alternative Service Law and the amendments to the Election Law, abolishing the language requirement for election candidates.

Although each of the above-mentioned laws or amendments strengthen an essential right or freedom, their practical value largely depends on their interpretation or application by officials. Enforcement of a new law at times requires education of officials and the general public. This usually requires substantial funding, which is not always provided from the state budget.

The State Language Law and the related Cabinet of Ministers’ regulations adopted in August 2000, provide detailed description of cases when the government has the authority to intervene in the use of language in public, thus interfering with the right to privacy, the right of minorities to use their own language and freedom of speech. Lawmakers found a solution to this controversial issue, which the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities assessed as “basically in compliance with Latvia’s international commitments.”

However, since the adoption of the Law and Regulations, some information appearing in the media suggests that the State Language Centre occasionally oversteps its authority and attempts to regulate language usage also on occasions when legitimate public interest, which is very clearly defined in the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, is not concerned. Attempts of the State Language Centre to expand the list of professions in the private sector subject to regulations were politically defeated. The State Language Centre examined the language skills of car spare part shop employees, although this profession is not included in the list of professions subject to regulations.

A very positive development is the strengthening of the role of the Constitutional Court and public activity in filing complaints with the Court. The possibility to file such complaints was provided by progressive amendments to the Law on the Constitutional Court, adopted by the Saeima in November 2000, allowing private individuals to use this mechanism for the protection of their rights.

Recently discovered problems with the implementation of the Labour Law notwithstanding, the law’s anti-discriminatory norms are in compliance with the requirements of the recently adopted EU directives. The Administrative Process Code, which is not yet in force, which regulates the adoption of and the right to appeal administrative norms, provides new possibilities for protecting human rights. The Law sets out principles to be observed in legal relations (proportionality principle, judicial confidence principle, etc.), and the implementation of the Law requires serious education work, which requires funding until now not allocated from the state budget.

The Law on Sexual and Reproductive Health finally encodes the essential right of women to end pregnancy, or abortion, which previously was regulated by decree of the Ministry of Welfare. However, the church fathers, which harshly criticised the Law, should not be discouraged,because the Saeima also expanded religious rights by adopting the Alternative Service Law, which allows for the alternative military service without bearing arms on the grounds of religious beliefs, or conscientious objection.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights and the OSCE each gave a slightly different answer to the question whether or not a person running for public office could be required to know the state language. Considering the contradictory signals by authoritative sources, it was encouraging that Latvia’s parliamentarians made the decision to broaden voters’ possible choices and the rights of persons running for public office by abolishing the language requirement and establishing a standard in Latvian legislation that is above the minimum.

Considering all urgent needs in the social and other spheres, the 7th Saeima took a courageous step when finally allocating funds for the renovation of the Central Prison and individual police detention cells. Additional big investments are still required in order for our prisons to comply with European standards.

Although the pace of adoption of legislation will decrease in the future, the 8th Saeima will have to complete the hitherto unsuccessful work on the new Criminal Procedure Code. The absence of the Code is one of the reasons for the catastrophic situation with the long pre-trial investigation and detention periods.

Legislation pertaining to health protection still has shortcomings: no law has yet been adopted regulating the rights of patients in accordance with European standards. The government has for a while been promising to the European Union a new Law on Psychiatric Assistance, but this has not emerged beyond the Ministry of Welfare. To continue the harmonisation of legislation, the next Saeima should ratify the signed Council of Europe conventions – the Convention for Human Rights and Bioethics and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Legislation in line with EU requirements will be of no importance if judges will not know how to apply it democratically, if the public will not have any trust in the judicial system and if the system remains inaccessible to a significant section of the public. One can hope that the next Saeima and government will succeed better at convincing the public about their serious intentions to combat corruption in the court system and elsewhere. We should have high demands on the courts, but the Saeima must allot sufficient funding for the training of judges, the renovation of court buildings, court equipment and judge salaries. Although several adopted rulings raise concern and even suspicions, we should also remember that judges are overworked, poorly paid and forced to quickly learn not only the continuously changing Latvian legislation, but also the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and EU legislation.

The weakness of our court system, together with the practice of judges and prosecutors, create a huge human rights problem – the high number of non-reviewed cases at courts, the huge numbers of remand prisoners and long pre-trial detention periods. Latvia has one of the highest rate of remand prisoners in the world – 43% overall, and even 63% (!) among juveniles. Detention is applied far too frequently and detention periods are almost automatically prolonged, not evaluating whether this is vital to the investigation. Although the new Criminal Procedure Code is much needed, it will not bring essential changes while prosecutors and judges continue to work in the old style.

The system of state funded legal aid is seriously undeveloped. Individuals from socially vulnerable groups – low-income persons, persons with mental health problems, illegal immigrants and others – are frequently unable to pay for advocate services and legal assistance is not available for them. A number of NGOs, as well as Legal Clinic at University of Latvia, attempt to fill this gap, but this important human rights issue requires a complex solution at the state level.

During the next Saeima, the European Court of Human Rights, which only recently started to make rulings on complaints from Latvia, will play a more important role in resolving human rights issues. Until now, the attitude of Latvian judges and officials towards the Court has been superficial. Latvia, like other member states of the European Council, will likely loose a number of cases due to legislative shortcomings or mistakes made by officials, and victims will receive compensation from the state budget. We have already seen the first such cases. The 8th Saeima will have to not only allocate funding to pay compensations, but also to work effectively in order to prevent the sources of such complaints. raksts

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