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The current human rights situation in Europe on the whole is believed by many to be good. However, there are several human rights alleged problems ranging from the treatment of asylum seekers through police brutality to various infringements of the judicial rights and freedoms of businesspersons under bureaucratic regulatory sub-regimes. Individual European states are mentioned in the yearly Amnesty International Reports for different human rights violations.[1] One of the main culprits is Belarus[2], which is the only country in Europe to be rated "authoritarian" by the Economist. All other countries are considered to have "some form of democratic government", having either the "full democracy", "flawed democracy", or "hybrid regime" ratings.[3]

History of human rights in Europe

The history of human rights in Europe is marked by a contradictory combination of, on the one hand, legislative and intellectual progress, and, on the other hand, violations of fundamental human rights in both the colonies of Europe, and at home.

Pre-1945 human rights developments

1215: Magna Carta

1367: Statutes of Kilkenny

15th to 19th centuries: African slave trade.

1529: Statutes of Lithuania.

1550-1551: Bartolomé de Las Casas debates Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on human rights (Valladolid debate).

1650-1660: Jesuit priest Antonio Vieira fights for the Human Rights of the Indigenous Population of Brazil, and obtains regal decrees that the Brazilian Indigenous populations shall not be enslaved.

1689: The English Bill of Rights, England.

1689: The Claim of Right, Scotland.

1690: The Second Treatise of Civil Government by John Locke.

Between 1750 and 1860: The majority of the Inclosure Acts, a number of United Kingdom Acts of Parliament inclosed common land in the country recognized private property rights to lands which formerly had not been private property. People often grazed animals on these areas when not planted by crops, and their owners continued to do so afterward. N.B: Common usage is enclosure, but this is not the name of the acts.

1772: British court ruling by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield set a precedent that slavery had no basis in law.

1781: Abolition of serfdom in the Habsburg countries through the emperor Leopold II ( Bohemia, Moravia and Austrian Silesia)

1783: Abolition of serfdom in the first German state, Baden, 1810 in Prussia.

1789: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, France.

1790: Rights of Man by Thomas Paine.

1794: France abolished slavery.

1802: France re-introduced slavery.

1804: The Napoleonic code, France and French conquests under Napoleon.

1807: British abolition of the slave trade (but not of slavery itself).

1832: British Reform Act extended voting rights and made trade unions legal.

1833: British abolition of slavery.

1845: Another United Kingdom General Inclosure Act allowed for the employment of inclosure Commissoners who could enclose land without submitting a request to parliament. The private property rights over formerly unenclosed lands expanded.

1848: French abolition of slavery.

1859: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.

1861: Russian abolition of serfdom.

1863: Netherlands abolition of slavery.

1867: British Second Reform Act extended voting rights to all urban male householders.

1884: British Representation of the People Act extended male voting rights from the town to the country.

1906: Finland introduced universal suffrage in national elections as the first European country. In 1917 this was extended to local elections.

1918: Another British Representation of the People Act removed most the restrictions on male voting rights, permitting nearly all men to vote and also granting the vote to women over 30 if they owned property.

1932-1945: The Holocaust.

Universal suffrage was introduced in the following European countries in these years:

  • Finland—1906 (note: Finland gave full parliamentary rights to women as the first country in the world in 1906. New Zealand had given women the vote before Finland but not the right to stand as candidates in elections.)
  • Norway—1913
  • Denmark—1915
  • Iceland -- 1915
  • Russia—1917
  • Lithuania -- 1917
  • Latvia -- 1917
  • Estonia -- 1917
  • After the Central Powers' defeat in World War I
    • Austria—1918
    • Germany—1918
    • Hungary—1918
    • Poland—1918
  • Czechoslovakia -- 1918
  • Luxembourg - 1918
  • Netherlands - 1919
  • Sweden—1919
  • Ireland—1922 (received independence)
  • Romania -- 1923
  • United Kingdom—1928
  • Turkey -- 1930
  • Portugal—1931 (women lost the right to vote under Salazar, and it was reintroduced again in 1975)
  • Spain—1931 (but women lost the vote under Franco in 1936 and did not vote again until 1976)
  • France—1944
  • Italy --- 1946


  • 1954–62: Torture by the French of Algerians during the Algerian War of Independence.
  • 1954-1956: Torture and killing of at least 50,000 Kenyans, perhaps far more, by the British during the Mau Mau Rebellion.
  • Government sanctioned Human Rights abuses leading to massacres in Europe:
  • 1978: Ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that torture by the British government of suspect IRA members constituted "cruel and inhuman treatment."

Universal suffrage granted in these countries in the following years:

  • Italy—1945
  • Yugoslavia -- 1946
  • Malta -- 1946
  • Belgium—1948
  • Greece—1952
  • Cyprus -- 1960
  • San Marino -- 1960
  • Monaco -- 1960
  • Switzerland—1971
  • Portugal—1975
  • Spain—1976
  • Liechtenstein -- 1984

Beginning of the European Committee of Social Rights Human right protected by national laws (Constitutions...)


Following the collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union, its history of severe human right abuses were laid in the open. The situation has since improved in the majority of former-Communist states of Europe, mainly those in Central Europe. These Central European states aligned themselves with the EU (most of them becoming members in 2004), and underwent a rigorous reform of human rights laws, most notably regarding freedom of speech and religion, and the protection of minorities, particularly the Roma. However, the former USSR states have made far slower progress. Despite all but Belarus becoming members of the Council of Europe, constant conflict between minority group separatists in the Caucasus has meant that successive governments in these states have passed strict laws with the aim of limiting the chance of rebellion.

In Latvia, Citizenship, usage of mother tongue and ethnic-based discrimination are the main acute problems for Latvia's Russian minority. At present, one half of the Russian-speaking community of Latvia are Latvian citizens, while those belonging to the other half do not have citizenship of any country in the world. They form the unique legal category of "Latvian non-citizens". In some spheres their status is similar to that of citizens of Latvia (for example – consular support abroad), in some spheres the non-citizens have less rights then foreigners (recent immigrants from EU countries can vote at municipal and EP elections but Latvian non-citizens cannot).

Since 2004 most subjects in Russian minority secondary schools have had to have been taught in Latvian. This practice is called "bilingual education". Over the four years since bilingual education was introduced, the process of education in Russian schools has deteriorated. The state did not introduce mandatory bilingual education in Latvians’ majority schools in order to prevent the same problems for Latvian children. The state has discontinued the training of teachers who can instruct in Russian (excluding teachers of Russian language and literature).

The ruling Latvian parties never take into account the opinion of the local Russian minority in the decision making process related to the issues of citizenship, language or the future of minority schools. Democracy in Latvia is limited and is ethnic in character.

Latvian citizens of Russian origin have very little representation at the higher levels of state administration. For many years the Latvian government has not had any minister of Russian origin, rare exceptions are Russian judges, heads of government departments or professors at state universities. This situation is as a result of the unwritten rules of ethnic preferences.

The Russian minority in Latvia is in decline because of emigration and the negative birth rate. The death rate among Russians in Latvia is higher than that of Latvians in Latvia and Russians in Russia. This can be explained in part by the unfavourable social conditions that have come about in Latvian cities, following the enforced destruction of the industrial economy in the beginning of the 90s.

Belarus itself, often described as "Europe's last dictatorship", has retained a shocking record on human rights, at least compared to its European neighbors. The press is strictly censored and controlled by the government, and the freedom to speech and protest has been removed. Although Belarus' post-independence elections match the outward forms of a democracy, election monitors have described them as unsound.

Russia has done some questionable policies itself, (such as replacing of elected governors with appointed ones, and censorship of the press) claiming many of these measures are needed to maintain control over its volatile Caucasus border, where several rebel groups are based. However it is still rated to be a democracy by the Economist having a "hybrid regime" rating.[3]

Following the collapse of communism in Yugoslavia, the state held together by the strong rule of Josip Broz Tito, several of the nations which made it up declared independence. What followed was several years of bloody conflict as the dominant nation, Serbia, attempted at first to hold the state together, and then instead to hold onto Serb-populated areas of neighbouring nations, in order to create a "Greater Serbia."[citation needed] Within Serbia itself there was conflict in the region of Kosovo, where Serbs are a minority.

The now six states of the former Yugoslavia, (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) are in various stages of human rights development. Slovenia, which suffered least in the Yugoslav wars, has since joined the EU and is widely considered to have a good human rights record and policy. Croatia, the Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro, which have formed stable government, have a fair human rights record, with only a few criticisms of the treatment of Serb and Albanian minorities.[citation needed] Croatia is also an EU applicant.

However, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia retain poor questionable rights records, the former is entirely governed under UN mandate, while the latter's Kosovo region is too.[citation needed] Bosnia-Herzegovina is the most ethnically diverse of the current states of former Yugoslavia, with large groups of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. This is what has made peace hard to come by in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and has restricted the growth of human rights. Although several laws are in place, policing them is a difficult task. However, Bosnia and Serbia are both rated to be democracies by the Economist (with the former being rated a "hybrid regime, and the latter,a "flawed democracy").[3]

The states of the EU, as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the European microstates, have world-class human rights records. The prospect of EU membership (which also entails subscription to the European Convention on Human Rights) has encouraged several European states to improve their human rights, most notably Croatia and Turkey, and especially on key human rights issues such as freedom of speech and the banning of the death penalty. However, certain laws passed in the wake of the fears over the War on Terrorism have been condemned for encroaching on human rights. There has been criticism of the French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools and the French legislation for protecting the public against certain cultic groups. In the UK, a new indigenous British Bill of Rights has been advocated to protect a far wider range of economic, political, judicial, communication, and personal rights and freedoms than are currently protected under basic rights laws and conventions; extend normal rights and freedoms before the law to various presently disprivileged and exploited business-economic minority classes; generally strengthen and extend the liberal social order; and establish a new independent Supreme Court with the power to actually strike down government laws and policies that violate basic rights and freedoms.

Known issues

Human trafficking

The end of communism, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and easier global travel has contributed to an increase in human trafficking, with many victims being transported into forced prostitution, hard labour, agriculture and domestic service.[4][5] The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia have also been a key factor in the increase of human trafficking in Europe.[6][7][8]

The problem is particularly severe in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey (these countries, along with Thailand, Japan, Israel and the USA are listed by the UNODC as top destinations for victims of human trafficking).[9]

The The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings was adopted by the Council of Europe on 16 May 2005. The aim of the convention is to prevent and combat the trafficking in human beings. Of the 46 members of the Council of Europe, so far 23 have signed the convention and none have ratified it yet (15 December 2005).[10] Amnesty International has called on European states to sign and ratify the convention as part of the fight against human trafficking.[11]

Minority languages

In Slovakia, a country with 10% of Hungarian population, a new law came into force in 2009 about using state language:

The State Language Act, which came into force on 1 September, makes Slovak the mandatory language to be used by all civil servants, including teachers and doctors, in their official capacity. Any public official caught flouting the law will face a €5,000 fine - the equivalent of nearly a year's average pay in Slovakia,

Council of Europe / European Union

The Council of Europe is responsible for both the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. These institutions bind the Council's members to a code of human rights which, though strict, are more lenient than those of the United Nations charter on human rights.[citation needed] The Council also promotes the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the European Social Charter.

The Council of Europe is separate from the European Union, but the latter is expected to join the European Convention and potentially the Council itself. The EU also has a separate human rights document; the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.[12]. Since March 2007 the EU has had a Fundamental Rights Agency[13][14] based in Vienna (Austria).

Human rights articles by country

Template:Human rights in Europe

See also


  1. Amnesty International
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 The Economist.
  5. "A modern slave's brutal odyssey". BBC News. 3 November 2004. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  7. Traynor, Ian (7 May 2004). "Nato force 'feeds Kosovo sex trade'". The Guardian (London).,,1211214,00.html. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  9. "UN highlights human trafficking". BBC News. 26 March 2007. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  12. Junker, Jean-Claude (2006). "Council of Europe - European Union: "A sole ambition for the European continent"" (PDF). Council of Europe. Retrieved 2007-07-28.
  14. See on the latter: The EU Fundamental Rights Agency: Satellite or Guiding Star? Raison d'etre, tasks and challenges of the EU's new agency (a policy paper by SWP Berlin)


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