Human Rights in Lithuania: Are We Seeking to Emulate Hungary or Northern Europe?

The Human Rights Monitoring Institute has published "Human Rights in Lithuania 2018-2019", its tenth review of the human rights situation in the country.

The Review gives the public an opportunity to evaluate the last few years through a human rights lens, highlighting progress, stagnation, or even regress, where there was failure to ensure respect for human dignity.

The Review was prepared by 19 human rights experts, specifically lawyers and experts in political, social, and medical sciences, although the review is aimed at anyone with an interest in human rights issues.

The publication looks at the implementation of human rights from many angles: from the results of the fight against discrimination, hate crime and violence, to the right to liberty and deprivation of liberty, from the right to family life to freedom of expression, assembly and religion, as well as the protection of personal data. The report covers the now very relevant problems associated with the right to health and its implementation.

Hungary or Northern Europe?

A number of disturbing trends have been visible in Lithuania recently. "Cases from recent years show that, even in times of economic growth and political stability, important aspects of individual rights and freedoms can be conveniently ignored, decisions that have been criticized and commented on by international organizations can be left unimplemented, and past violations can be repeated. Why are human rights not treated seriously or even disrespected? The biggest obstacle is still the fact that society has grown accustomed to conveniently picking topics relevant to the majority, forgetting the interests and problems of smaller groups.” said Paulius Gritėnas, a commentator and philosopher, in the preface to the publication.

Discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, origin and other grounds is regularly seen in the labor market, the service sector, and other areas. Public discussions often uncover a very narrow understanding of what it means to be “Lithuanian”, which rejects any perceived otherness. Such isolation and disrespect for a person’s equal rights often leads to hate speech or even physical violence.

Although 8 out of 10 victims of domestic violence are women, Lithuanian laws still do not follow a gender-sensitive approach, while Parliament has failed to muster the political will to ratify the Istanbul Convention. The authorities are also reluctant to show leadership when it comes to human rights and have not yet dropped the discriminatory provision from the Law on the Protection of Minors Against Detrimental Effects of Public Information (which can be abused by certain groups to censor any public information related to LGBT+ rights).

During the period that was reviewed, the public authorities even took steps to restrict the freedom of expression for various reasons, such as national security, the fight against disinformation, or to protect the country’s leaders.

Although the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on human rights are not analyzed in this Review, many of the challenges in the past few months reflect the long-standing issues discussed.

“Lithuania is still unable to make good use of the unique opportunity given to it by being in the European Union, and to aim for a welfare state and the healthiest society possible while consistently respecting human rights. There is a lack of political, cultural, scientific and business leaders willing to unite society for a common cause – to ensure respect for each individual’s rights and our common values. Citizens are often misled by fake news about values that are purportedly not fit for Lithuania, even when those same values are respected every day by the most successful countries in the world and enshrined in Lithuania’s own Constitution.” says Dainius Pūras, Director of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute.

Is there any good news?

Despite considerable challenges and constant attempts to backtrack, the last few years have also seen significant progress. Despite some initiatives, the authorities failed to restrict freedom of expression due to opposition from civil society and the media.

Due to tighter regulations, personal data protection and privacy issues were under exceptional scrutiny in the reviewed period, which helped to raise public awareness.

Ten thousand people (the highest number recorded) took part in the 2019 Baltic Pride parade in Vilnius. It was the second such parade that passed without incident on the part of the protesters and without any artificial obstructions from the state.

There has also been progress on the right to a fair trial. The European Union raised the standards of the rights of suspects and accused persons, which meant that Lithuanian laws had to be updated accordingly. Law enforcement officials are also starting to use detention more responsibly in pre-trial investigations.

Although politicians failed to show true leadership when it came to legal protections for the rights of LGBT+ people, in 2019 the Constitutional Court held that “family” as defined by the Constitution was gender-neutral. This removed formal obstacles to the passing a law on civil partnerships.

"We welcome the fact that the authorities are becoming more open about, and involve civil society more in drafting, legislation as well as programing documents, and also that they are cooperating more with NGOs when formulating or implementing various policies. This gives us hope that we will shake off the stagnation in certain areas in the long run. Further progress will depend on all of us understanding and defending our own rights. This Review is our – that is, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute’s – and the document’s authors’ contribution to putting us all on the right path for human rights.” says Goda Jurevičiūtė, a project manager at the HRMI.

The Review is available on the HRMI website: https://hrmi.lt/zmogaus-teises-lietuvoje-2018-2019/. The Institute would like to thank EEA and Norway Grants, the Open Society Foundations, and everyone that donated on Aukok.lt. This publication would not have been possible without your help.