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EU behaviour on human rights defenders 'shameful' - UN expert


A man stands next to a damaged migrant boat in Thermi on the Greek island of Lesbos in February. [Source: RTE]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 75 years old this year, however, people who take peaceful action to promote and protect the rights of others are still facing risks, threats and rights violations themselves.


Today, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor is presenting a report focused on human rights defenders in Greece to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.


The report is based on a research trip Ms Lawlor made to the country in June 2022 at the invitation of the Greek government.


In a preliminary statement at the end of her visit, Ms Lawlor reported credible and consistent accounts of direct retaliation against people for simply helping others.


Since her visit she said she is "dismayed" to have received reports of several more cases.


"I think the behaviour by the EU is shameful. The EU talks out of both sides of its mouth."

"It's really shocking what is going on in Greece. Human rights defenders who are trying to work on the rights of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are being intimidated," she said.


"They are being stigmatised by government officials. Then the pro-government press repeats these comments. There have been online threats to them. There's been criminal investigations and proceedings opened against defenders as they continue their work.


"They're prosecuted, despite a lack of evidence, of things like people smuggling and involvement in criminal organisations," Ms Lawlor said.

Mary Lawlor will present a report focused on human rights defenders in Greece to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. [Source: RTE]

She also described how it is not just people like lawyers who are trying to provide legal assistance to human rights defenders or refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, or to journalists who are trying to cover what is going on in terms of the pushbacks that are happening between Greece and Turkey, but it is also happening to ordinary people who are just trying to show solidarity.


"I met people who are afraid now to give migrants food and water because they've seen one journalist who was criminalised because he gave food and water to people arriving in Greece. So that's the kind of thing that is going on and it is completely at odds with international law and refugee law," she said.


During her investigation, Ms Lawlor and her team met human rights defender Panayote Dimitras, someone they have been in regular contact with for several years.


After the visit, he was charged with forming and joining a criminal organisation and facilitating illegal entry and stay in Greece.


"Panayote Dimitras set up the Greek Helsinki Monitor (a human rights organisation in Greece), which is 30 years old. He is a most erudite and learned economist. He has been told to stop working because he informed the Greek authorities of the presence in Greece of people seeking to claim asylum. And he's under investigation for forming a criminal organisation. This kind of thing must stop. It's just ridiculous," said Ms Lawlor.


"I feel very sorry for Greece, even though I do not at all justify what they are doing, but the EU is equally to blame."

Ms Lawlor also found that of most of the cases that go for prosecution, there are very few actual convictions, which shows that the evidence is unsafe.


The Greek government will have an opportunity to respond to Ms Lawlor's report, but she says the state is already aware of where her concerns lie.


According to Ms Lawlor, the current government has placed migration within a security paradigm, facilitating rights violations, including pushbacks, which make a mockery of Greece and the EU's commitment to human rights.


"There needs to be change and accountability," she said.


"I think the behaviour by the EU is shameful. The EU talks out of both sides of its mouth. It talks about, you know, how the states must abide by international law, EU law, the Geneva Convention, etc. They even have guidelines on the protection of human rights offenders, which originated in Ireland in 2004.

"The sad reality is that they pour money into Greece to build these camps and nobody in Europe is willing to put in place a fair, legal, accessible, transparent asylum policy that will get rid of the people smugglers and that would allow people to come in an orderly fashion."


Ms Lawlor believes the EU has closed its borders to people seeking asylum or trying to become a migrant worker, and it is trying to force Greece to be the one to solve the problem.


"I feel very sorry for Greece, even though I do not at all justify what they are doing, but the EU is equally to blame. In Greece up to 2020 there was great cooperation between the government and the NGOs, including in humanitarian assistance, and they were even doing search and rescue.


"Now nobody can do search and rescue. As we've seen recently Médecins Sans Frontières had their boat stopped off the coast of Italy. The whole thing is just like caging people into Greece without the EU saying it can put a proper system of migration in place and reframe their thinking on migration."


Ms Lawlor is calling for the Greek government to work with human rights defenders and to close all open criminal investigations sanctioning human rights work, as she follows up on the recommendations in her report.

 

(c) 2023, RTE News

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