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Episode 8 - Human Rights in Europe today - view from the Commissioner for Human Rights

March 18, 2024 Just Access Season 2 Episode 8
Episode 8 - Human Rights in Europe today - view from the Commissioner for Human Rights
Just Access
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Just Access
Episode 8 - Human Rights in Europe today - view from the Commissioner for Human Rights
Mar 18, 2024 Season 2 Episode 8
Just Access

In this episode, we have the opportunity to speak to Dunja Mijatović, the outgoing Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe, a position she served in from 2018 to 2024.

Listen to this episode to find out about her thoughts on the position and the state of human rights in Europe today.

Enjoy listening!

Don’t forget to rate us, recommend us and share on social media!

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we have the opportunity to speak to Dunja Mijatović, the outgoing Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe, a position she served in from 2018 to 2024.

Listen to this episode to find out about her thoughts on the position and the state of human rights in Europe today.

Enjoy listening!

Don’t forget to rate us, recommend us and share on social media!

Support the Show.

Interview with Dunja Mijatović

[00:00:00] Dr Miranda Melcher: Hello, and welcome to Just Access. Too many individuals and groups around the world today are denied access to justice. This access is vital for making human rights effective and securing human dignity, especially for those in situations of vulnerability, including women, children, minorities, migrants, or detainees.

[00:00:25] In this podcast series, we talk to some fascinating people, including legal experts, academics, and human rights advocates, to explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice for all. I'm Dr. Miranda Melcher, a senior legal fellow at Just Access, and in this episode I have the opportunity to speak to Dunja Mijatović, who's just about to step down from her position as the Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe, which she's held since 2018.

[00:00:55] Listen to this episode to find out about her thoughts on the role of the Council of Europe Commissioner and the state of human rights in Europe today.

[00:01:13] Interview

[00:01:24] Dr Miranda Melcher: So could you tell us a little bit please about your background? How did you come to have this position?

[00:01:32] Dunja Mijatović: So, I was born in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I grew up and started really paying attention to human rights only when I saw problems related to the horrifying war that happened in my twenties. And this in a way also always stayed with me as a sort of warning when I talk to others in saying do not wait to see a problem and to start paying attention to human rights of your own, but then even more importantly of people around you.

[00:02:10] And after that I changed, my plans that were very much into issues that are nothing to do with the human rights, but more to do with art and planning and horticulture, and many other things that in a way for me started to be completely irrelevant.

[00:02:30] And I started working on the issue related to freedom of expression and freedom of the media, because during the war, before the war, but also after the war, hate speech and broadcasting, the old traditional analogue broadcasting, was a tool for spreading hate, division and ultimately for people being killed.

[00:02:53] So that was like a huge task and since then, so since 95, I dedicated my [00:03:00] professional interest, but also personal, to human rights in general and I worked as the OSCE representative on freedom of the media from 2010 to 2017, where my focus was freedom of expression, freedom of the media and safety of journalists.

[00:03:18] But before that, I worked for 12 years for the first ever converged regulatory authority in the country, in a post-communist environment and that was for me the biggest sort of challenge in my career before I entered the international arena. And then, I came to do the work as Commissioner for Human Rights. 

[00:03:43] Dr Miranda Melcher: Can you tell us a bit about that work of Commissioner for Human Rights? What does that role involve? How might you explain it to someone who's less familiar?

[00:03:53] Dunja Mijatović: It's a very unique position. It is very powerful in a sense [00:04:00] that you have freedom as an official that is appointed by the Parliamentary Assembly. So it is an appointment that leads to a six years mandate that gives you restrictions only in a sense that you can talk about human rights issues.

[00:04:20] How you want to do it which direction and what priorities is for the person who is holding the office. And that's, the power that comes with the even greater responsibility because it's one once in a lifetime possibility to work and to try to change things for better for people.

[00:04:43] And that's why my mandate was particularly challenging because nobody would even dare to think that there will be a pandemic and then immediately after the war in Europe of the extents like we are now [00:05:00] witnessing in Ukraine. The work and the mandate of the commissioner, I would say, is also an international arena, quite unique.

[00:05:08] It is well known as an independent, autonomous institution within the Council of Europe. So it has a very sort of special place also when it comes to any kind of pressure, political pressure that often comes my direction, but you have tools in order to really avoid any kind of manipulation of the mandate.

[00:05:30] And it is in my view, also the beauty of the mandate that you have this kind of freedom really to work on the most sensitive and most problematic human rights issues in Europe. So I would say it is the only mandate when you look at the international organizations, regional and global, that has this kind of setting. It's also quite different from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [00:06:00] because that mandate holder is responsible to the Secretary General, even though there is independence. 

[00:06:05] And soon we are going to be celebrating again the anniversary since the office was established. I'm the fourth commissioner. The first time, woman, which I say also with this sort of very important comment that it is great, that I was appointed, as a first woman, but I find it also quite embarrassing that we are nowadays celebrating each time we hear that there is a woman there and woman there and that's some kind of achievement which needs to be recognized. 

[00:06:37] But then, when I think that we are in the 21st century, it is quite extraordinary. The mandate is also a way to show that we are close to people to citizens of member states and I've chosen to be extremely approachable and available for people to address any issues, even though I cannot work on individual complaints.

[00:07:03] But at the same time, for me, this was extremely important to show that we are actually working in order to assist them. And of course, you need to work with the governments. That goes without saying. But at the same time, this sort of difference. And here I think the member states of the Council of Europe needs to be really recognized as a driving force, but also leaders at that time had enormous, I would say, courage and wisdom to establish such an office and to really recognize that it is important.

[00:07:41] If you ask me, nowadays, if it would be possible to establish this kind of office, I would unfortunately say no. And that's why I think it's extremely important to preserve the mandate and the autonomy of the institution.

[00:07:55] Dr Miranda Melcher: That's a fascinating understanding of the office and the role it can play. And of course, we're speaking to you as very much the expert on the office, as your mandate is coming to an end quite soon, is there anything you know now that you wish you had known when you took on the role? Any advice to future holders of the office? 

[00:08:14] Dunja Mijatović: I already mentioned the fact that you never know what is behind the corner. You never know what is waiting in the next sort of period and which kind of challenges so you make your plan and strategy and then you have to change everything.

[00:08:30] For me, what I find extremely important is, for the future is that this adaptability and readiness to act quickly, rapidly if there is a need. So there, I think, is something that you cannot be prepared for. You don't know. You can predict, you can plan, you can research.

[00:08:51] But who would think that the pandemic is going to block us extremely and that we would have to address issues of basic rights of all people? I would say, no, that's not possible, it cannot happen so quickly. Now I know it can. The war is something I knew and experienced myself, but still, you always have this sort of, no, it is not going to happen.

[00:09:17] And then when it happens, you need to be ready and you need to be able to address issues that are extremely painful and problematic in many ways. But what I can say that we managed and I can say I managed because of extremely important, but also visible dedication, knowledge and really passion for human rights of my team, a very small team, we are very small office that actually was giving me power as commissioner, but also individually to be able to do this job in a very extreme circumstances and in very extreme conditions as well.

[00:09:59] Dr Miranda Melcher: I'd love to ask you about another aspect that is hard to predict and has a big impact, which is the rise of social media and AI contributing to concerns around disinformation, polarization, misinformation. Given your expertise, especially in freedom of expression, how do you assess Europe's media landscape today?

[00:10:22] Dunja Mijatović: The media landscape in general, I think, has changed significantly over recent decades. And this is something I really followed closely. We are navigating a much more fragmented, but also complex media environment which extends well beyond traditional media and the use of social media has contributed to the extents well beyond traditional mass media.

[00:10:48] But I think that the use of social media has also contributed to the if we can call it inclusivity, or diversity of media, but also exposes us to various kind of disinformation online, which is constant topic and all this is making it even more challenging in ensuring some kind of proper pluralism and also protection of democratic process from manipulation which is another issue that is discussed globally. And then, the issue related to the elections, which plays an extremely important role and we can already see that there is some kind of backlash there and the problems that are faced in relation to this.

[00:11:36] The use of personalized news feeds which automatically also select the news that are provided to an individual based on their digital profile and choice makes it even harder for people to be fully informed and gain a broad understanding on many complex issues worldwide.

[00:11:55] So that is already shifting away from your own sort of decisions on what you want to see and what you want to really assess and then make your own sort of opinion about it and media also have the important role to inform the public and also to really enable the free formation, the expression of opinions and ideas and to scrutinize also the activities of public and private actors and provide a forum for pluralistic debate.

[00:12:26] And here I would also mention, the media literacy, which constantly is something that is mentioned, but we were all previously talking about internet literacy. And nowadays we come to a situation where we have to talk about AI literacy and the AI is opening so many boxes that were closed for a very long period of time, and here I'm talking about AI being used for the benefits of the society and then on the other side distinctive threat to democratic dialogue that algorithms are presenting.

[00:13:05] We tried to look at it from the human rights, of course, perspectives, and we already in 2018 started talking about it when we offered some kind of recommendations on issues that are very much related to the work the office has been acting for four decades and then, recently, we had, discussions with the National Human Rights Institutions, which, in my view, are the first instance for citizens when they face problems related to AI development in the countries.

[00:13:40] And we can already see that there are so many issues that are quite visible when it comes to social and economic rights, but also when it comes to algorithm and media and the influence of disinformation and also certain kind of media that are shaping policies that are directly affecting human rights of people, fundamental values, everything that democratic world for decades work in establishing an environment that is a human rights for all.

[00:14:13] So all this is at stake and the next period is going to be extremely important in really looking and following the developments, but at the same time being extremely vigilant and active in protecting our rights.

[00:14:29] Dr Miranda Melcher: So in terms of how rights are protected, we see young people protesting in the streets about climate. We see courts handing down opinions, but governments not necessarily implementing them as instructed. Where do you think the balance is in protecting our rights between protest on the street? How do we hold governments to account in order to address these concerns that you're identifying?

[00:15:00] Dunja Mijatović: I am quite allergic to this word of balance and for me, it's quite dangerous sometimes, to try to please all in a sense to offer some kind of view that is quite shady I would say or, not really being very clear. And when it comes to human rights, I'm of the opinion that we really have to be very clear that, starting from myself, I need to hear views that I do not agree with. So sometimes, I think we are crossing the line of, I call it a red line and allowing certain censorship because of sensitivities.

[00:15:40] But by now, I think we all know which kind of speech is not free speech and which kind of speech is crime. So I don't think, we need to go into this, but when it comes to the role of the government, they need to ensure the citizens can have a possibility to protest. They need to make sure that they can enjoy their rights.

[00:16:04] It needs to be peacefully. Organized. That's, of course, is the important issue. Governments, they have their role in ensuring safety in the States, but this doesn't give them, carte blanche, to stop any kind of dissent or critical voices that we see that authoritarian regimes are quite eager to use as a sort of, suppression of differing than critical voices.

[00:16:30] That are mainly happening not only on online media, but on the streets, even with all the technological advancements, you see still this urge of people, going out and protesting on different issues and that needs to be preserved and protected because that's the price we have to pay if we want to live in a democratic society. There is a need for the rule of law.

[00:16:56] Of course, none of this, we cannot enjoy human rights without the rule of law. And the problem I see as commissioner, particularly in the last few years is that we are really seeing and witnessing quite problematic moves by democratic states when it comes to the rule of law.

[00:17:17] And this is something that I think will continue to be a huge challenge in the future.

[00:17:24] Dr Miranda Melcher: As a final question, do you have any advice for young people who are looking to get involved in this work?

[00:17:30] Dunja Mijatović: I think, there are already so many young people and I would say children that are participating in a debate on human rights worldwide. I met many approached me. There are driving force behind the action when it comes to the environment. I simply do not accept not only governments, but some societies in general having very patronizing way of looking at their engagement and involvement. 

[00:18:02] And I think that is a key issue for the future because if we, people that are working for international organizations, if the governments, democratic governments around the world do not win hearts and minds of young people and new generations showing why human rights are important, then, we are going to enter a very different and very problematic world that we will be facing or people will be facing that at a certain stage of the advancement of many issues that we are following globally. Young people are also seeing this office as a place where they can express their views which I think is extremely important I worked on the issues related to the environment.

[00:18:52] I even had a submission. It was a grand chamber hearing in the case of young people from Portugal against 33 Council of Europe member states. Is it still something that the court is deliberating and we are waiting to see the judgment on this, which I think, is going to be very important for the future.

[00:19:13] But my advice would be, never to give up or give in on, on, on human rights, even though, we do not see very promising world at the moment. But it is more exposed and more visible than it was before. Generations of our grandparents could not see it so clearly, but they still had wisdom and courage to fight for better world.

[00:19:39] And somehow I have a feeling that nowadays it is the same sort of crossroads, that we will have to move in a very different direction than before because of everything that we have at our disposal, which is, related most of the time with the new technologies.

[00:19:58] We mentioned AI. But are we going to be able to use it for the benefit of the mankind? It is really responsibility for all of us.

[00:20:07] Outro

hDr Miranda Melcher: What a great way to end our conversation. Thank you so much for speaking with us, Commissioner Mijatovic. 

[00:20:15] To listeners, thank you for being with us as well. In our next episode, we'll be speaking to Amy Caslow, an amazing storyteller, writer, and photographer who has spent her career shining a light on some of the darkest places in our world.

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[00:20:44] We'd love to hear what you think, and we really do read every single review. It helps us a lot to get the word out about the podcast and to know what listeners are enjoying about our work. Please also stay tuned for future Just Access interviews and do get in touch with us with your comments, reflections, or suggestions for people or topics we should cover. You can get in touch with us at podcast at just-access.de. That's podcast at just-access.de to get in touch with us by email.

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