- August 7, 2013
„Lithuania is somewhere between Kazakhstan and Sweden” Henryk Mickiewcz talks about human rights
„I am not in favour of dividing people into more and less discriminated. There is a very useful concept of not discriminating on any level” – says in his interview for zw.lt Henryk Mickiewicz – lawyer, human rights defender and one of the founders of Human Rights Monitoring Institute.
Ewelina Mokrzecka: What is the general state of human rights in Lithuania comparing to other members of the UE?
Henryk Mickiewicz: We do not make any comparative research, but whenever someone asks me about human rights in Lithuania, I say that we are somewhere in between – between Kazakhstan and Sweden. I do believe that. Of course, political processes in Lithuania connected with human rights are established in such way that civilised competition is present. We have the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, political opponents are not removed in a physical way, as it is done in Kazakhstan. On the other hand, the quality of our parliamentary elections is lower than in Sweden. In Lithuania, votes are bought in exchange for beer or vodka. Some minorities’, such as homosexuals, basic rights are restricted, such as the right to public assembly.
What is the cause of this?
The way I see it, we are somewhere in the middle, but the direction is clear to everyone. We are slowly – two steps forwards, one step backwards, but surely moving towards the West. Currently, we are experiencing a step backwards which is clearly visible. We are a member of all organisations possible. In 2004, the UE was our last aspiration. Until that moment, we have been observing a stagnation and then a regress in the field of human rights. There is a simple explanation to that – lack of pressure from abroad. If there is no pressure, the truth about who we are comes to light. We are not the representatives of Western culture as we claim to be. We are more similar to Russians than to Germans or the French. Forget Germans – we are even not similar to Poles. We used to fulfil all kinds of requirements, because we wanted to be in the EU. Now, we are in the EU and we are starting to criticise Brussels and comparing it to Moscow.
How are pro human rights organisations perceived by the Lithuanian society?
We are definitely not popular, but it is a part of our job. Organisations defending human rights are not popular even in the western countries with old democratic tradition. We are the avant-garde, we handle unpopular cases and solutions. We guard particular rules that are often against the views of certain group of people.
Undoubtedly, another reason is the iron curtain which separated us from the Western Europe for a long time. We do not have tradition. Civil society, non-governmental organisations – these are all novelties in Lithuania. It comes with time. I would say that we constitute a vertical society.
What does vertical society mean?
Many people, even Lithuanian intellectuals, believe that the concept of human rights is somehow harmful. Through human rights, someone else’s, harmful solutions are transferred to Lithuania. For instance, the rights of intellectually impaired, women, or, God forbids, homosexuals. All of that, to an extent, weakens our tradition, culture… After some time, the aforementioned intellectuals become afraid of these issues and feel the need to distance themselves from them.
How does the state treat you?
It varies, as I mentioned, it is caused by the lack of tradition of society’s voice. Some try to ignore us, but it needs to be said that it is changing with time. Our annual rapport (“Human rights in Lithuania 2011-2012: A Summary” – editorial note) is a good example. It has become a tradition that we visit the Presidential Palace, the Prime Minister, the Seimas, committees, fractions with our rapport. That way, we are being heard. It took a lot of time and effort, we would also like the outcome of these talks to be better that it is.
Do non-governmental organisations have a right to voice their opinion considering ongoing law changes? If yes, it is a common occurrence?
Recently, we have had a successful cooperation with some of the parliamentary committees, especially with the law committee as well as with human rights committee, but to a lesser extent. The committees often seek our opinion. We are also a part of work groups in the Seimas and in some of the Ministries.
The Institute has asked the government and the Seimas multiple times for establishing a governmental institution which would monitor human rights, why? Would not it more favourable for a non-governmental organisation to monitor human rights?
It is about the functions. In that case, we are talking about the so called National human rights institution. Such institutions exist in many countries under many names. They are created on the Parisian principle (sui generis). They have their own legal status. These organisations are neither non-governmental nor national. The only connection with the state is through the financing from the budget. They are similar in its formation and functioning to non-governmental organisations. They have varied tasks – human rights monitoring in the country, preparing rapports and analyses, identification of the point at issue in terms of human rights, advice to governmental institutions on how to solve a problem and so on.
In a country like Lithuania, non-governmental organisations are not able to conduct such activities because of the lack of financial help from the state. So we proposed to introduce a model. It is an institution necessary to form and implement human right policy in the country. Currently, we are at the discussion stage, some of the politicians expressed their interest; however, it is impossible to tell whether the organisation will be formed. We have been talking about it since at least 2007.
Which minorities are most discriminated in the Lithuanian society?
I am not in favour of dividing people into more and less discriminated. I am also not a supporter of minority rights. There is a very useful concept of not discriminating on any level. All human rights are for every one of us. When we are talking about a particular minority, a competition from other minorities appears. In Lithuania, non-discrimination and tolerance of every otherness is present. We need to assume that the otherness – in terms of race, mother tongue, ethnicity, sexual orientation, needs to be accepted in a democratic society.
What is your opinion on the lack of bilingual topographical signs and the original spelling of surname as well as standardised Lithuanian language exam of Polish minority in Lithuania? Do you think it is an instance of the state discriminating this minority?
The most important argument here is to maintain common sense. I would not think about this issue in terms of human rights. We just need to think and decide. When it comes to the issue of surnames, I cannot see any reason for the people to write their surnames however they like using the Latin alphabet. The arguments of the politicians are ridiculous.
It is a similar situation when it comes to the topographical signs. There are some international standards – if there is a certain percent of national minority living in a town, the signs should be written in the language of the minority. I do not see why not. I must admit that I am not familiar with the issue of education, I did not follow it, I am too far from it, so I cannot comment on that. I do not know who is right – the Polish activists or the state. Although, I must confess that I have some objections to the activity to some of the Polish leaders of Polish minority in Lithuania.
What do you think about European Structural and Investment Funds, are they exhaustively used in Lithuania?
Unfortunately, Lithuania does not use the funds effectively. We, as a non-governmental organisation, keep talking about the reform of children and intellectually impaired care system. Our system is a remnant of the old one. It is completely unreformed. More importantly, we are one of the few European countries which did not conduct a reform of this system.
Huge institutions are still operating – orphanages, pensions and so on. Both children and intellectually impaired people get the same treatment, nobody sees them so the problem does not exist. The situation is very bad from the point of view of human rights, but more importantly, from the point of view of common sense. This system cannot be good for the people living there. Really unpleasant things happen. The scientists claim that if a child spends their first 3 months of life in an orphanage, it is impaired, and if it stays there until it is 3 years old, it is somehow lost. People, who start their lives from spending time in such institutions, in fact remain there throughout their whole life. They are not prepared to function in the society. Additionally, it is very expensive. We are talking about diminishing the number of these institutions, we should be developing community facilities, such as day care centres, and educational facilities, they are almost non-existent in Lithuania. Now is a good time to use the structural funds. Two weeks ago, I spoke with the Prime Minister about it. He heard about it for the first time, I hope that these talks will have a measurable effect.
How did you come up with the idea of establishing the Institute?
It was not just my idea, I was simply one of the people who knew that the niche exists and that something should be done about it. At the time, I worked in Budapest in Open Society Institute, I was travelling a lot, mainly to the candidate countries for the European Union. I could observe that only two countries did not have expert human right non-governmental organisations – Lithuania and Slovenia. I decided to come back from Budapest to Vilnius and establish such organisation. Besides, I had an inner need. I was always a bit of an idealist in the field of human rights. When I discovered them, I was really happy that they exist. Unfortunately, I discovered it rather late into my life, as I used to work as a judge and a lawyer.
Translated by Katarzyna Kosińska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.