U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Austria

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997   Austria is a constitutional democracy with a federal parliamentary form of government and an independent judiciary. Citizens choose their representatives in periodic, free, and fair multiparty elections. The police are subordinated to the executive and judicial authorities. The national police maintain internal security. The army is responsible for external security. Austria's highly developed, market-based economy, with its mix of technologically advanced industry, modern agriculture, and tourism affords its citizens a high standard of living. The Government fully respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and judiciary provide effective means of dealing with instances of individual abuse. There were occasional reports of abuse by police. The Government is taking serious steps to address violence against women.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the Constitution prohibits such practices, government statistics for 1995 showed 615 complaints against police officials for illegitimate use of force, a decrease of 61 compared with 1994. In six cases, police officials were convicted and required to pay fines. In nine cases, officers faced disciplinary proceedings, and in one case, the disciplinary proceeding was terminated. Of the people who filed complaints against the police, 23 were sued for slander and 15 were sued for resisting arrest. Prison conditions meet minimum international standards. The Government is a party to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which includes a provision for human rights monitoring missions. In individual cases, investigating judges or prison directors have jurisdiction over questions of access to the defendant.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government observes this prohibition. In criminal cases the law provides for investigative or pretrial detention for up to 48 hours, except that in cases of charges of "aggressive behavior" an investigative judge may within that period decide to grant a prosecution request for detention up to 2 years pending completion of an investigation. The grounds required for such investigative detention are specified in the law, as are conditions for bail. The investigative judge is required to evaluate an investigative detention at 2 weeks, 1 month, and every 2 months after the arrest.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision in practice. The judiciary provides citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process. There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution prohibits such practices, government authorities generally respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of the press, and the Government generally respects this right in practice, although stringent slander laws tend to discourage reports of police brutality. Publications may be removed from circulation if they violate legal provisions concerning morality or public security, but such cases are extremely rare. Television and national radio are government monopolies, but they present diverse points of view. A law passed in 1993 permits regional private radio stations, but implementation of the law was delayed due to legal challenges by unsuccessful applicants for licenses. After the Constitutional Court ordered the revision of radio frequencies and after complaints against the law were dropped in Styria and Salzburg, two stations opened. The text of the law, with rewritten radio frequency rules, is under revision. Academic freedom is respected.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, except for Nazi organizations and activities (an exception stipulated also in the Austrian State Treaty of 1955). The law on the formation of associations states that permission to form an organization may be denied if it is apparent that the organization will pursue the illegal activities of a prohibited organization.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution generally provides for freedom of religion of individuals, as laid down by the Treaty of St. Germain. The status of religious organizations, however, is governed by the 1874 "Law on Recognition" of churches. Religious recognition has wide-ranging implications, e.g., the authority to participate in the state-collected religious taxation program, engage in religious education, and import religious workers to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers. Officially, 75.3 percent of the populace is Roman Catholic, and there are 12 other recognized religious organizations. For non-European Union missionaries or pastors, recognition is the key to residence and work. Some foreign Protestant churches have not qualified for religious recognition and have had to withdraw or scale back their services.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government does not restrict movement, including emigration. Citizens who leave the country have the right to return at any time. Austria has signed the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, but it subscribes to the "safe country" concept. Asylum seekers who have entered illegally are required to depart and seek refugee status from outside the country (a provision which is not always enforced). Individuals found to be true refugees by government authorities are not sent back to the countries from which they have fled. According to one NGO report, conditions in refugee detention centers are very poor. Suicide attempts and hunger strikes have been reported in these centers where detainees may spent up to 6 months in custody. The Government cooperates with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) relying on UNHCR information to determine "safe" countries." Before the 1992 legal reforms the UNHCR played a more direct role in Austrian refugee decisions; today the UNHCR has withdrawn to a more advisory and monitoring role. In this role, the UNHCR continues to chide the Government over the safe country concept and the legal applicant rules, both of which appear to represent diversions from the Convention and its Protocol. At present Austria provides a "temporary protected status" which, although limited in scope by time and nationality, could be considered "first asylum." Refugees from the former Yugoslavia arriving between April 1992 and July 1993 were granted protected status, but this window has now closed. Since 1992 the Government has granted refugee status only to several hundred individuals from the former Yugoslavia. The rest have remained under protected status, been absorbed through the normal immigration process, or remained illegally. Outside the influx from the former Yugoslavia, since passage of the 1992 law, the Government has granted refugee status to an average of 600 applicants yearly.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right peacefully to change their government. Citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. Approximately 26 percent of the members of Parliament and 4 of 16 cabinet members are women.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A number of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. In some cases, they have been dissatisfied with the information authorities have supplied in response to specific complaints.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The law provides for protection against any of these kinds of discrimination in employment, provision of welfare benefits, and other matters, and the Government generally enforces its provisions effectively.


Official data for 1995 (the latest statistics available) show 12,554 reported cases of violence against women, of which 500 were rapes and 279 other sexual assaults. Police and judges enforce laws against violence; however, only about 10 percent of abused women file complaints. The Government plans to expand police authority to enforce measures banning an abusive spouse from a previously jointly owned home or other places where the victim might be stalked. Most legal restrictions on women's rights have been abolished. Women are still prohibited by law from night work in most occupations. Although this ban is sometimes used as a pretext for not hiring women, it is supported by the Women's Affairs Ministry and women's organizations. (Nurses, taxi drivers, and a few other occupations are exempted from this ban.) According to a 1994 ruling by the European Court of Justice, a sex-based prohibition of nighttime work is not permissible. The Government has been granted a transition period until 2001 to adapt its legislation to gender-neutral European Union regulations and is due to report in 1997 on its progress. In addition to the federal Women's Affairs Ministry, a federal Equality Commission and a federal Commissioner for Equal Treatment oversee laws prescribing equal treatment of men and women. Sixty percent of women between the ages of 15 and 60 are in the labor force. Despite substantial gains in women's incomes, they average 20 percent lower than those of men. Women are not allowed in the military. Although labor laws providing for equal treatment extend to women in the civil service, they remain underrepresented there. To remedy this, a 1993 law requires hiring women of equivalent qualifications ahead of men in civil service areas in which less than 40 percent of the employees are women; but there are no penalties for failure to attain the 40 percent target. Women may be awarded compensation of up to 4 months' salary if discriminated against in promotions because of their sex. The Labor Court can also award compensation from employers to victims of sexual harassment. Women's rights organizations are partly politically affiliated, and partly autonomous groups. In voicing their concerns, they receive wide public attention.


Laws protect the vast majority of children's rights established in international conventions and in some respects go beyond them. Each provincial government and the federal Ministry for Youth and Family Affairs has an "Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents" whose main function is to resolve complaints about violations of rights of children. There is no societal pattern of abuse against children. Allegations concerning a suspected Austrian-Slovak child pornography ring in August led to strong public and political pressure to further tighten Austrian legislation on child pornography. Pertinent legislation was last amended in 1994, when possession of child pornography videos was made a criminal offense.

People with Disabilities

Disabled individuals are protected by law from discrimination in housing, education, and employment. The law requires all private enterprises and state and federal government offices to employ 1 disabled person for every 25 to 45 employees, depending on the type of work. Employers who do not meet this requirement must pay a fee to the Government, and the proceeds help finance services for the disabled such as training programs, wage subsidies, and workplace adaptations. No federal law mandates access for the physically disabled; some public buildings are virtually inaccessible for those unable to climb stairs.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Interior Ministry issued a report on rightwing extremism, which showed that in 1995 the number of complaints and reports of incidents of rightwing extremism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism rose to 621, which was 20 cases higher than in 1994. Eighty-nine cases resulted in court sentences. Small, loosely organized, rightwing groups are increasing their use of computers and international electronic networks. In 1995 criminal investigations were launched against three Austrians for spreading fascist and extreme rightwing propaganda through the Internet. At year's end, the cases are still pending with no arrests, prosecutions, or convictions. In late 1995, the Justice and Interior Ministries developed a joint proposal for legislation to expand the use of investigative tools, such as electronic eavesdropping and merging of databases, and to introduce protection for defendants and witnesses who cooperate with investigative authorities. The proposal was controversial, and it is estimated that changes in the law will not occur before mid-1997.

Religious Minorities

In May a Jewish cemetery in Rechnitz was vandalized. In November unidentified vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery in Hollabrunn. On December 18, "Wolfgang T" was convicted of desecrating the Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt in 1993. A second suspect remains at large. Jewish community leaders praised the Government's auction of the "Mauerbach" collection, a compilation of art works originally owned by Austrian Jews, then seized by the Nazis, and later held by the Government. Following efforts to find the original owners, the Government auctioned about 8,000 art works with 88 percent of the proceeds going to the Austrian Jewish community for use in social projects.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have the right to form and join unions without prior authorization, under general constitutional guarantees of freedom of association. In practice, trade unions have an important and independent voice in the political, social, and economic life of the country. Fifty-two percent of the work force was organized in 14 national unions, all belonging to the Austrian Trade Union Federation (OGB), which has a highly centralized leadership structure. Individual unions and the OGB are independent of government or political party control, although formal factions within these organizations are closely allied with political parties. Although the right to strike is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution or in national legislation, it is universally recognized. Historically, strikes have been comparatively few and usually of short duration. There were no strikes during the year. A major reason for the record of labor peace is the unofficial system of "social partnership" among labor, management, and government. At the center of the system is the Joint Parity Commission for Wages and Prices, which has an important voice on major economic questions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Unions have the right to organize and bargain collectively. Almost all large companies, private or state-owned, are organized. Worker councils operate at the enterprise level, and workers are entitled by law to elect one-third of the members of the supervisory boards of major companies. Collective agreements covering wages, benefits, and working conditions are negotiated by the OGB with the National Chamber of Commerce and its associations, which represent the employers. Wage and price policy guidelines are set by the Joint Parity Commission. A 1973 law obliges employers in enterprises with more than five employees to prove that job dismissals are not motivated by antiunion discrimination. Employers found guilty of this are required to reinstate workers. Labor and business representatives remain in disagreement over how to comply with the obligation under the International Labor Organization's Convention 98 to provide legal protection to employees against arbitrary dismissals in firms with five employees or fewer. Typically, legal disputes between employer and employees regarding job-related matters are handled by a special arbitration court for social affairs. The OGB is exclusively responsible for collective bargaining. The leadership of the Chamber of Labor, the Chamber of Commerce, and the OGB are elected democratically. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced labor is prohibited by law and is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum legal working age is 15 years. The law is effectively enforced by the Labor Inspectorate of the Ministry of Social Affairs.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no legislated national minimum wage. Instead, nationwide collective bargaining agreements set minimums by job classification for each industry. The generally accepted unofficial minimum gross income is $14,000 per year. Every worker is entitled to a variety of generous social benefits. The average citizen has a high standard of living, and even the minimum wages are sufficient to permit a decent living for workers and their families. Although the legal workweek has been established at 40 hours since 1975, more than 50 percent of the labor force is covered by collective bargaining agreements that set the workweek at 38 or 38 1/2 hours. Extensive legislation, regularly enforced by the Labor Inspectorate of the Ministry of Social Affairs, provides for mandatory occupational health and safety standards. Workers may file complaints anonymously with the Labor Inspectorate, which may bring suit against the employer on behalf of the employee, but this option is rarely exercised, as workers normally rely instead on the Chambers of Labor, which file suits on their behalf. The Labor Code provides that workers have the right to remove themselves from a job if they fear "serious, immediate danger to life and health" without incurring any prejudice to their job or career.

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