Events of 2009

The European Union moved closer to stronger safeguards for rights during 2009 after the last member state, the Czech Republic, signed the Lisbon Treaty in November. The treaty makes significant changes to EU decision making and its Charter of Fundamental Rights binding EU law, and commits the EU to becoming a party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

EU institutions frequently showed a lack of will to hold member states to account for breaches of European standards on human rights. European Commission proposals for a new five-year EU justice and home affairs agenda in June lacked specificity and emphasized the rights of citizens, raising concerns over adequate attention to the human rights of immigrants; the European Council was due to adopt the agenda, known as the Stockholm Program, in December 2009. The European Parliament adopted a report in January 2009 deploring the refusal of member states to accept robust scrutiny of their human rights records and the consequent undermining of the credibility of EU foreign policy on human rights.

The Parliament gave its backing in April to a proposed anti-discrimination directive aimed at reducing discrimination in access to goods and services based on religion, belief, age, disability, or sexual orientation. At this writing the Council has yet to approve the directive.

Many EU countries continue to pursue counterterrorism measures that violate human rights, including national security removals despite the risk of ill-treatment upon return, inadequate safeguards in detention, use of administrative measures to bypass due process standards for criminal suspects, and interference with the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy.

Migration and asylum policies remain focused on controlling borders, rather than on human rights, with several member states adopting measures to criminalize irregular immigration, lengthen administrative detention, and restrict access to asylum.

The growing popularity of far-right political parties, evidenced by results in the European Parliament elections in June, heightened concerns about racism and xenophobia, particularly targeting Roma and Sinti, migrants, Muslims, and Jews.

Counterterrorism Measures and Human Rights

Rulings by the European Court of Justice in December 2008, June 2009, and September 2009 highlighted concerns about the fairness of procedures for determining inclusion on the EU's terrorism blacklist, and led the European Council to remove the People's Mujahideen Organization of Iran from the list in January. In April the European Commission proposed reforms to the procedures.

Information continued to surface during 2009 about now-closed CIA secret detention centers on EU territory, including new allegations in August that the CIA held and questioned suspects in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius through 2005. In November the Lithuanian parliament launched a parliamentary investigation into the allegations. Romania repeated its denials of having hosted a secret CIA prison, despite credible reports in August that the facility was located on one of Bucharest's busiest streets. The Polish government failed to fully cooperate with a national prosecutor's investigation into an alleged secret prison near Szymany airport.

EU countries were slow to act on pledges to resettle detainees held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay who cannot be returned safely to their countries of origin. At this writing only Belgium, France, Portugal, and Ireland have accepted detainees (a total of six former prisoners), while Italy, Hungary, and Spain have indicated they might do so.

Common EU Asylum and Migration Policy

The failure of the European Commission to hold Italy and Greece fully to account for treatment of asylum seekers and migrants in breach of European standards undermined efforts toward the development of a genuine common asylum system. Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security Jacques Barrot offered only conditional criticism of Greece's dysfunctional asylum system during his June visit. Barrot was tardy in criticizing Italy's policy, enacted in May, of pushing back to Libya migrants intercepted at sea, his initial response being instead to propose reviving a deeply flawed idea to externalize EU refugee processing to countries like Libya. In September, however, Barrot used stronger language in calling the situation of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya unacceptable and reminding Italy of its nonrefoulement obligations.

There was limited progress toward the consolidation and improvement of a common asylum policy and standardized procedures throughout the Union. Following Commission proposals, in May the European Parliament adopted an "asylum package" proposing amendments to the Reception Conditions Directive, the Dublin II Regulation, and the European fingerprint database for asylum seekers and irregular migrants, as well as endorsing the creation of a European Asylum Support Office. Negotiations to arrive at common positions are ongoing. Justice and Home Affairs Council meetings in June and September confirmed the lack of consensus on reform of the Dublin II Regulation, focusing instead on burden-sharing through voluntary resettlement and coordinated resettlement from third countries.

A significant drop in arrivals by sea was attributed to the global economic downturn, push-backs at sea, and joint patrols under the auspices of Frontex, the EU's external border agency. In at least one case Frontex assisted Italy's interdiction of boat migrants, whom Italy then pushed back to Libya.

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