25 years of fighting racism and intolerance throughout Europe

As the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) marks its 25th anniversary. Maria Pejčinović Burić takes stock of its successes and future priorities.

Maria Pejčinović Burić is the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

The phenomena of racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance are not new to Europe, as its history tragically shows. But new forms and manifestations of these old evils have developed in recent years – and they are on the increase.

In the early 1990s, many countries that were previously behind the Iron Curtain began rebuilding systems based on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. However, this new era also had a dark side. Along with the optimism of the “wind of change”, war, conflict and ethnic violence returned to Europe. Old enmities were reignited. Racism, intolerance and deep-rooted hatred once again stalked the continent.

This was a ‘wake-up’ moment for the member states of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organisation. In October 1993, Heads of State and Government decided that a specialised monitoring body should be created, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI).

ECRI was different – nothing like it had existed before. Although other international bodies were actively fighting racial discrimination, none had ECRI’s breadth of scope: to combat ‘racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance.

Twenty-five years after it was set up in 1994, ECRI continues to monitor the situation on the ground in all 47 Council of Europe member states. It gives recommendations to governments to help tackle racism and intolerance and to allow diversity to flourish.

With new forms of intolerance emerging, trying to measure whether progress has been made is a challenge. There are, however, grounds for optimism.

Out of 184 priority recommendations addressed by ECRI to Council of Europe member states over the past ten years, almost 80% have been partly or fully implemented. Whilst compliance has varied from state to state, with the EU members and candidate countries generally scoring better than non-EU states, a recent survey showed that a clear majority of policy-makers all over Europe thought ECRI recommendations had a real impact.

From including issues related to immigration in school curricula in France to providing access to free healthcare for children and pregnant women living without the necessary permits in Sweden, from abolishing unlawful fees for filing discrimination claims before employment tribunals in the UK to establishing new transit sites and improving facilities for Travellers in Belgium – numerous ECRI recommendations have been put into practice and have made a difference to people’s lives.

Following ECRI’s advice, and based on the standards it develops, countries have also amended their laws. According to ECRI reports, at least 265 legislative changes – 139 in the field of anti-discrimination and 126 in the field of hate crime – have been made by Council of Europe member states over the past 25 years. Almost all survey respondents said that ECRI had influenced the change.

Tackling racism and intolerance is an area where the Council of Europe has been working hand in hand with the EU: most of the amendments to anti-discrimination and hate crime legislation were made by EU member states in the early 2000s. Many subsequent changes were part of moves towards EU accession by candidate states.

Furthermore, 46 of the 47 Council of Europe member states have put in place at one or more official equality bodies – another clear indicator of institutional progress that ECRI has been pushing for and will continue to promote.

The pace of legislative change has somewhat slowed down over the past ten years, but new legal initiatives on hate speech and equal protection of fundamental rights for LGBTI persons continue to be put forward. By and large, solid legal and institutional frameworks have been put in place in most countries. Now the task of European governments is twofold: to fully apply existing laws and policies to problems that persist – and to think of how to tackle new challenges that emerge.

New racist, xenophobic and homo/transphobic movements have emerged since the 2015 migration crisis. Racism and intolerance are triggered, amongst other things, by populist hate speech and nationalistic rhetoric seeping into mainstream political discourse. In addition, the development of new technologies based on artificial intelligence brings about increased risks of discrimination.

These challenges won’t be overcome simply by passing a law or signing an international convention; changes in attitudes, genuine political commitment and co-operation at the European level are needed. At their Helsinki meeting in May, Council of Europe Ministers of Foreign Affairs stressed the need to address increasing inequality, racism, xenophobia, hate speech and discrimination.

In response, a new intergovernmental anti-discrimination committee – mandated to guide and support the efforts of Council of Europe member states, to reinforce thematic exchanges, to enable peer review of experience and good practices and to ensure an effective implementation of ECRI recommendations –would be a significant and concrete way to help governments shoulder their responsibilities, advance equality and effectively fight racism and intolerance in 21st century Europe.

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