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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

UN warns Greek government: you are damaging Greece

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor expressed her extreme unhappiness with the government’s behaviour towards humanitarians and other civil society groups, noting that as much as anything or anyone else, they damage Greece and Greek people.

The Greek government has been given yet another chance to stop, review and alter its illegal and dangerous activities. It is vital that it takes this opportunity.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, has concluded her visit to Greece with a stinging attack on the Greek government for creating an atmosphere in which human rights defenders cannot operate in safety, without fear, or in many cases related to refugees, at all.

Lawlor was in Greece from Monday 13 June, and left today. You can read her statement in full here.

But, to put it mildly, she was not impressed with what she saw from the Greek government.

Much of this piece is simply her statement, broken into smaller pieces, followed by a few lines on what is likely to happen next, and what should.

In her ‘concluding press conference’, Ms Lawlor said:

What I have understood from my meetings is that the nature of cooperation between the Government and civil society, and the overall perception about the role of civil society and human rights defenders in Greece, has undergone a significant shift since 2019.

Of course, the current Greek government took power on Sunday 7 July 2019.

She continued:

Since then, human rights defenders have found it increasingly difficult to carry out their work, especially in fields that might be considered controversial or geopolitically complicated or sensitive.

This visit has confirmed that a restrictive legislative and administrative environment, combined with negative attitudes towards civil society, has also resulted in decreased monitoring, transparency and oversight of government action in a number of areas. This ability of civil society to document, and if necessary, denounce violations by the executive branch is crucial in a vibrant democratic society.

Regarding people working on the refugee response, she was scathing of the government’s approach.

She said:

This is particularly tangible in relation to those who defend the rights of asylum seekers, migrants and refugees, including those providing humanitarian assistance, legal aid, participating in search and rescue operations and documenting pushbacks.

I also note the sense of pervasive fear that is felt by a significant segment of human rights defenders, which seems to be a direct result of the criminalization of migration and their legitimate, peaceful work for the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

I fully respect the Government’s right to seek to prevent people trafficking and smuggling and prosecute those involved in these acts. However, I feel that the efforts aimed at curbing these practices have come at a great expense to human rights defenders, who have seen prosecutions and criminal proceedings initiated against them in some cases merely for providing water or food for people landing on shores of Greece, or for carrying out search and rescue operations.

While it is important to prevent and punish trafficking in persons, such efforts should not be deployed in a manner that generates fear among human rights defenders and leads to self-censorship and withdrawal from certain activities. In order not to be wrongly pursued or painted as complicit in illegal activities, many of them have scaled back their operations.

She also noted that the government had simply failed to enact EU law relating to people movement correctly.

She said:

Greek law does not define which acts or omissions constitute the ‘facilitation of irregular entry and transit of third-country nationals as well as the facilitation of residence’, as EU law requires.

Article 29 of the Greek Migration Code, for instance, merely provides that ‘persons who facilitate the entry into or exit from the territory of Greece of third-country nationals without performing the controls provided by law’ are punishable. Due to this overly broad provision, a broad range of otherwise legitimate conduct by human rights defenders can become the target of enforcement authorities.

Coordinating humanitarian assistance, for example, by organising to be present in an area where refugee vessels arrive in order to provide first aid, is a key activity of human rights defenders and extremely critical for the lives of those that arrive on shore. Putting human rights defenders on trial for such conduct undermines their work, The provisions of the Migration Code provide an exception from punishment (although not from prosecution) for humanitarian actions.

And she noted that the Greek government’s attitudes to and public attacks against NGOs and NGO workers had encouraged the public, too, to attack them.

She said:

I am concerned by reports of human rights defenders, in particular those supporting migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, being targeted by hostile comments, including by key stakeholders in the government.

They are described as traitors, enemies of the state, Turkish agents, criminals and smugglers and traffickers.

Such statements, especially when coming from high level officials, contribute to overall negative attitudes towards the role and work of human rights defenders, both by the larger population and by the police and other relevant agencies.

This in turn further diminishes the available space for human rights defenders to operate in and may impact upon their activities and contribute to their self-censorship. Vilification of individual human rights defenders in the media, smear campaigns and death threats online and offline place serious burdens on those who the State should be championing as allies in complying with their obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.

And she noted – quite correctly – the increasing difficulty the government creates in allowing aid workers even to do their jobs.

She said:

Access by civil society to landing sites and facilities where migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are held has been progressively limited over the past two years. Only NGOs included in the Migration Ministry’s registry are able to access RICs and CCACs.

Furthermore, at the moment, civil society and humanitarian actors have virtually no access to asylum seekers on landing sites. Some organisations have been forced to provide their services outside of the camps, including food distribution and medical services.

Of particular concern is the limited access by lawyers and organizations providing legal aid to asylum seekers and migrants. While lawyers are able to enter the facilities in their individual capacity, albeit only after having notified the competent authorities a day in advance, they are prevented from doing so as member of their organisation, in the case that the organisation has not been admitted to the NGO Registry.

I welcome the activities of NGOs who are currently providing legal aid in the facilities, as well as lawyers working tirelessly on behalf of the beneficiaries, but there should be a broader scope and facilitation for access these facilities.

And she noted the government’s ongoing efforts to prevent reporters from doing their jobs.

She said:

Journalists who counter the government’s narrative on the management of migration flows are often under pressure and lack access to mainstream media outlets. Their access to information is limited, requests for information and data from authorities, including from local governments, often go unanswered.

Journalists also have very limited or no access to facilities where migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are being held, further contributing to a general lack of transparency regarding the government’s policies in this area. Journalists reporting on corruption are sometimes facing threats and even charges.

In her post-conference statement, she included a relevant and sensible criticism of the use of the National Transparency Authority and demands the government must:

- Bring the current law on anti-smuggling (Migration law) fully in compliance with the UN Protocol against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea and air. The legislation currently in force is overly broad and vague, which gives the opportunity for its misuse in criminal proceedings and in some cases has led to the prosecution of human rights defenders for their legitimate human rights work

- Publicly acknowledge and commend the legitimate work of human rights defenders and the innumerable contributions they have made to the promotion and protection of human rights. Creating an enabling environment, free from intimidation, restrictive administrative and criminal laws is key for a thriving civil society.

- Ensure the Registry for CSOs supporting asylum seekers, migrant and refugees is simplified and made more transparent, with clear timelines set for all steps in the process and a clear time framework on when a decision on being included on the registry may be expected. Registering NGOs may be necessary for quality control and protection purposes, but such a registration system should not be discriminatory and apply to only one specific segment of civil society.

- Establish an independent monitoring and oversight mechanism to oversee the overall handling of the migration situation by the government. While the National Transparency Authority has made some welcome contributions in the fight against corruption, it is not equipped to conduct independent investigations into the management of migration flows.

- Ensure the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is implemented and consider transposing it into national law, in order to clarify the misconceptions currently prevailing about the role and rights of human rights defenders.

We feel it is worth noting that this is the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. She represents the world’s sole supra-national political organisation, and is its only expert, entitled to comment with authority on the activities of those defenders, as well as governments’ actions with regard to them.

We are therefore very sorry to say that we are absolutely certain that the government will dismiss her findings. Some members will ask what right she has to comment, while others will say she has been ‘misled’ by ‘unreliable NGOs’ (and yes, we should and do recognise the irony of the Greek government responding in this way to her comments about the government’s active public denigration of NGOs) who are ‘paid by Turkey’.

This should be an opportunity for the Greek government. If it were mature or intelligent, it would be. It would draw a line under its vicious and illegal activities, and use this visit and its conclusions to improve.

This Greek government, however, has so far offered no indication of being either mature, or intelligent. It will instead attack Mary Lawlor, her conclusions, and human rights defenders, while pretending to be ‘defending itself’ from those defenders and ‘Turkey’.

But we should make no mistake. This is the world’s leading figure on human rights workers and their treatment and conditions, and she has stated clearly and at length that what the Greek government is doing right now is not only unacceptable, but is actively damaging Greece, as well as other countries.

The Greek government has a chance to act. We must hope, for the sake of Greek people as well as others, that this, finally, will be the wake-up call to which it pays proper attention.


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