Top Human Rights Official Censures Italy

UPDATE September 21: Nils Muižnieks has just released a report criticising the lengthy procedures and human rights abuses in Italy’s treatment of Roma and migrants, the conclusion of his visit as the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner.

Nils Muižnieks, who took office as the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in April, chose Italy as one of the first countries to visit after assuming his new position. During a four-day trip this month to review human rights issues in the country, he focused on Roma and Sinti, as well as migrants, asylum seekers, and the issue of judicial delays.

He didn’t like what he found. Muižnieks was outspoken in his assessment that Italy’s repressive state policies—many of them holdovers from the Berlusconi era—continue to take a toll under the new government of prime minister Mario Monti.

“I saw a window of opportunity in this government to push for a more complete break with past practices,” Muižnieks told a Financial Times journalist.  While visiting a woefully inadequate building illegally occupied by refugees outside Rome, he observed, “Italy is relatively generous in giving refugee status but very little after that.”

In a strongly worded statement issued following the visit, the commissioner referred to recent positive signals from the current government, but stressed that more needs to be done. He stated “what Italy needs now is for these signs to be transformed into concrete, unambiguous policies and actions.”

Muižniek’s major concerns align with issues raised in the litigation and advocacy efforts of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which began working in Italy in 2009. These include the plight of Roma in Italy, migrant rights, the controversial “push back” policy which prevents migrants—predominantly asylum seekers—from landing on Italian shores.

On Roma, despite committing to the development of a “National Roma Integration Strategy”—a European Union initiative signed up to by member states—Italy continues its forceful and public crackdown on Roma. During the commissioner’s visit to Italy, the Municipality of Rome evicted without prior notification 200 Roma from an informal but well integrated settlement in the peripheral neighbourhood of Rome known as “Tor di Quinto.”

On July 5, the city municipality invited the evicted Roma families to transfer to a newly constructed camp recently opened on the outskirts of the city. The camp, La Barbuta, is miles away from the usual schools, facilities and jobs and is a product of the “Nomad Emergency”, a state of emergency declared in five Italian regions that gave local authorities special powers with respect to Roma and Roma settlements. Under the terms of the decree, the presence of Roma was defined as a threat to public security. The Nomad Emergency measures, which included an ethnic census, were adopted by the Berlusconi government between 2008 and 2011. La Barbuta, which is surrounded by high fences and monitored by video-surveillance, enforces a specific code of conduct for its Roma population, including admission checks and a 10pm curfew.

In his official statement, Muižnieks joins the Open Society Justice Initiative, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and local NGOs in their criticism of the Italian government’s recent attempt to overturn a November 2011 ruling by the Council of State, the highest administrative court in Italy, which found the Nomad Emergency unlawful.

Looking at the issue of migration, Muižnieks visited Rome’s migrant detention centre, Ponte Galeria, the largest of Italy’s thirteen Centres for the Identification and Expulsion of Foreigners (CIE), where migrants are held while procedures for their identification or expulsion are carried out. The previous government, under Berlusconi, instigated a series of measures that prolonged the maximum length of detention in migrant centres—from two up to eighteen months. Muižnieks expressed deep concern about the conditions of detention in such institutions and stressed that “many arrive in these facilities after serving a prison sentence. It must be possible to proceed with their identification while they are still in prison.”

In addition to delays, there are the conditions of such centers. A recent NGO report on Ponte Galeria shows that conditions in CIEs are often worse than in prison. The law exerts little influence on conditions of detention and everything from access to healthcare or visitors rests on the goodwill of center managers, who are usually employees of the private company contracted to run the establishment.

Another aspect of Muižniek’s visit, undertaken in conjunction with the Open Society Justice Initiative, was a visit to Rome’s Salaam Palace. Ambitiously named, the “palace” is in fact a neglected ex-university building in the southeastern periphery of the city, illegally occupied by 800 refugees from Sudan and the Horn of Africa.

Having been granted asylum or subsidiary protection by the Italian authorities, the inhabitants of the Salaam Palace are effectively abandoned by the state. Italy lacks any comprehensive law on asylum. Although the system for granting asylum or international protection has proven technically effective—provided refugees manage to land on Italian shores and avoid the push back policy enacted by the past government—asylum seekers benefit from little to no integration measures once they obtain permission to stay.

The inhabitants of the Salaam Palace face difficulties in securing a legal domicile, accessing healthcare, and can wait up to 18 months to have their permits of stay renewed. All these conditions severely restrict their job prospects and any real integration into Italy society.  For most asylum seekers, their sole hope lies in cheating the Dublin system, which states that only the member state of arrival is responsible for examining an asylum application. This encourages asylees to head to northern European countries where they see better integration opportunities.

Finally, Muižniek’s visit focused on judicial delays in Italy, a 40-year-old problem with an enormous impact on the budgets of both the Italian courts and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Despite successive attempts by the Italian government to reform the administration of the country’s justice system, about 15 million Italians still await judgments.  Many Italians have turned to the ECHR in Strasbourg for redress due to these protracted delays. In 1,155 cases, the ECHR found that Italy had violated Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights because of the excessive length of proceedings. The ECHR also found that the 2009 Italian law enabling victims to claim compensation for these delays was not effective. As a result of these numerous claims, Italy is among the biggest contributors to the ECHR backlog of 150,000 cases.

In working towards a solution, Muižnieks considered particularly promising the approach favouring active case management by judges, as promoted by Council of Europe bodies. “The effectiveness of this practice was proven by the very positive results obtained in certain courts, such as the First Instance Court of Turin. At a time of economic crisis, this approach has the undeniable advantage of not requiring additional resources” he stated.

The visit to Italy by Muižniek and his follow-up statement are a welcome addition to ongoing efforts to implement the European Convention on Human Rights in a country home to the world’s eight biggest economy. Continuing this national and international engagement and pressure, alongside the ongoing activities of civil society organizations on the ground, will be key to bringing lasting change.

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Following on this, Mr Muižniek spoke on Monday at the launching event of the third thematic commentary on linguistic rights, prepared by the Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the protection of National Minorities. As a speaker on the panel on linguistic rights and full and effective equality Mr Muižniek highlighted that governments needed substantial guidelines to regulate linguistic rights, and focused on two particular problems of inequality across Europe, related inter alia to lack of proper application of linguistic rights: a) statelessness and lack of identity and other civil status documents (often made problematic because of language requirements) and b) segregation and feeling of exclusion of persons belonging to linguistic minorities because of their language differences. He stressed that such inequalities are often faced by Roma, at the same time committing to follow the issues closely in his future work. His speech was following Mr Rudko Kawczynski, who highlighted the importance of the language as identity marker, and the inequalities that were created in the past by forbidding Roma to freely use their language and persecuting them also on the grounds of linguistic differences.

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