Sunday, March 14, 2010

Council of Europe: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights slaps Greece on minority issue

Check out the official document on Greece:

Case study: Greece

77. Since the monitoring procedures set up under the framework convention and the European charter do not formally apply to states that have not ratified them, these states escape scrutiny by the advisory committee (but they are monitored by other Council of Europe bodies). It is nevertheless most interesting to examine how these countries accommodate diversity, whether through minority policies with respect to recognised minorities or through a "non-discrimination" approach when minorities are not recognised, or by combining both approaches. In the context of this report, I therefore decided to visit one of these countries, namely Greece, which recognises only one minority on its territory. From 26 to 28 February 2009, I had a number of meetings in Athens, Thessaloniki and Florina (see the programme of the visit in Appendix III).

78. In its 2004 report on Greece, the ECRI noted, “persons wishing to express their Macedonian, Turkish or other identity incur the hostility of the population. They are targets of prejudices and stereotypes, and sometimes face discrimination, especially in the labour market”.24 In its 2009 report on Greece,25 the ECRI expressed concern about the situation of Roma, which suffer discrimination in particular in education, housing and employment.26 It also noted that the problem of the recognition of the identity of Macedonians and ethnic Turks, and in particular their right to freedom of association, remains. 27

79. Given that other reports of the Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights address the issue of the Muslim minority in Thrace (Eastern Greece), as well as the situation of Roma in Europe,28 I limited my focus to the contentious issue of the Macedonian community in Greece, which has, inter alia, also been recently dealt with, to various extents, by the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner and the United Nations independent expert on minority issues, Ms Gay McDougall. The latter also visited Florina in September 2008. 29

-        The approach of the Greek Government

80. The Greek authorities recognise only one minority in Greece, namely the ‘Muslim’ minority in Western Thrace, by virtue of the Lausanne Peace Treaty of 24 July 1923. In this context, Greece was recently commended by various bodies, including the Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights,30 for a number of measures it had taken to enhance the rights of the Muslim minority in Greece. As regards others, Greece favours the approach to non-discrimination defined by European Union instruments.31

81. The Greek authorities have repeatedly denied the existence of any Macedonian minority in Greece and repeatedly referred to the hijacking of local culture by persons and groups which pursue political aims.

82. Despite the non-recognition of any other national or linguistic minority, the Greek authorities have acknowledged that in northern Greece there exist “a small number of persons who … use, without restrictions, in addition to the Greek language, Slavic oral idioms, confined to family or colloquial use”.32

83. During my visit, the Greek authorities stressed that Greek citizens who claim Macedonian identity are fully represented by a political party, which is free to participate in elections in Greece.

-        Claims of representatives of the Macedonian community

84. First and foremost, I should stress that there has not been any ethnic violence in the Florina area. Greek society is pluralistic and open to diversity. Nevertheless, it seems that still today, persons who express and actively claim a Macedonian identity often come up against the resentment and even hostility of the authorities.

85. Members of the Macedonian community recognised that their situation had improved in the last 15 years, though they were still allegedly subject to individual acts of harassment and intimidation (at work, to get Greek citizenship, when crossing the border with the neighbouring country, for recognition of diplomas, for property issues or in religious matters). They ask the authorities to recognise their right to self-identification as well as the existence of a Macedonian national minority in Greece.

86. During my visit, I focused on the non-execution of the Sidiropoulos and others judgment of 199833 and the situation of persons deprived of their Greek citizenship.

-        The case of Sidiropoulos and others v. Greece (freedom of association and right to self-identification)

87. The Sidiropoulos and others case concerns the refusal of the Greek authorities, even after the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 1998, to register “The Home of Macedonian Civilisation”, a non profit-making association that a number of Greek citizens who identify themselves as belonging to an ethnic Macedonian minority wanted to establish in Florina. The Strasbourg Court found a violation by Greece of the right to freedom of association (Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights). The authorities denied registration arguing, inter alia, that “‘the promotion of the idea that there is a Macedonian minority in Greece … is contrary to the country’s national interest and consequently contrary to law’”. In this case, it is most interesting to stress in the context of the present report, that the Court, in its judgment, in effect, agreed with the applicant that “territorial integrity, national security and public order were not threatened by the activities of an association whose aim was to promote a region’s culture, even supposing that it also aimed partly to promote the culture of a minority; the existence of minorities and different cultures in a country was a historical fact that a ‘democratic society’ had to tolerate and even protect and support according to the principles of international law”.34

88. During my visit I reiterated that Greece should comply fully with the judgment of the Court, as well as with other judgments concerning the Turkish community, in which the European Court found violations of the right to freedom of assembly and association35. Moreover, this issue has been addressed in the ECRI’s 2009 report on Greece,36 in which it recommended that the Greek authorities “take measures to recognize the rights of the members of the different groups living in Greece, including to freedom of association, in full compliance with the relevant judgments of the European Court on Human Rights”.

89. As stressed by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights in his report on Greece37:

      “… it is to be noted that the UN Human Rights Committee has clarified that under … the ICCPR38 a state party ‘is under an obligation to ensure that the existence and the exercise of [the above right] are protected against their denial or violation’. The UN Human Rights Committee has stressed that ‘[a]lthough the rights protected under article 27 are individual rights, they depend in turn on the ability of the minority group to maintain its culture, language or religion. Accordingly, positive measures by states may also be necessary to protect the identity of a minority and the rights of its members to enjoy and develop their culture and language and to practise their religion, in community with the other members of the group’. Similar provisions are found in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (see e.g. Article 5), which was signed by Greece on 22 September 1997 but has not as yet been ratified.

      Indeed, the right to freedom of association is one of the fundamental prerequisites for the harmonious functioning of European democratic societies which are characterised by inherent pluralism that, in turn, should always be accompanied by tolerance and broadmindedness. The essential contribution made by non-profit-making associations, such as non-governmental organisations, to the development and realisation of democracy and human rights was recently highlighted also by the Committee of Ministers in its Recommendation Rec(2007)14 on the legal status of non-governmental organisations in Europe.”

90. It should be deplored that the application for recognition of the “Home of Macedonian Civilisation”, lodged on 24 July 2003, was again rejected by the Greek courts. This decision became final after the Supreme Court rejected its cassation appeal by judgment No. 1448/2009, published on 11 June 2009.39

-        Persons deprived of their Greek citizenship (those living in Greece and those living abroad), and in this context, the differentiation in Greek law between people of Greek and non-Greek origin

91. Former Article 19 of the Greek Citizenship Code provided that Greek citizens who were not ethnically Greek could have their citizenship revoked if they left the country and the Greek authorities believed that they did not intend to return. As a consequence of this provision, applied from 1955 to 1998, there were approximately 60,000 Greek citizens, including minors, who lost their nationality. The majority of these persons were of Turkish ethnic origin. However, the repeal of Article 19 does not have a retroactive effect. Although the Ministry of Interior issued instructions to local authorities to accelerate the procedure for naturalising stateless Muslims in Western Thrace and a number of other persons have re-acquired their Greek citizenship, it seems, according to the ECRI,40 that no other measures have been taken to tackle the situation of persons who lost their Greek citizenship under Article 19 of the Citizenship Code, including those who are currently residing abroad and/or have acquired the citizenship of another state. This issue has been addressed by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in his report and I fully concur with his analysis and recommendations. During my visit, my interlocutors recognised that this was a problem and I also had the impression that the authorities were determined to step up efforts to solve it.

92. Moreover, in its recent judgment Zeïbek v. Greece, the European Court of Human Rights also dealt with the situation of a Muslim Greek applicant, who had fallen under Article 19 of the Citizenship Code.41 The Court found that she had been discriminated against with regard to her right to retirement pension (violations of Article 1 of Protocol 1 alone and in conjunction with Article 14 of the Convention).

93. Furthermore, I would like to express concern about the provisions of the Greek law that appear to affect mainly ethnic Macedonians. Indeed, during the Civil War in Greece (1946-1949), thousands of political refugees, ethnic Macedonians and others left the country. Reportedly, at least 28,000 child refugees, mostly ethnic Macedonians, were also evacuated from areas of heavy fighting and relocated to countries such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc. Greece subsequently confiscated the properties of these exiles and deprived them of their Greek citizenship. Finally, in 1982, a provision (Decision 106841/29-12-1982 on the “free repatriation and restoration of Greek Citizenship to political refugees”) permitted the return to Greece of people having fled the country during the civil war, together with their families, provided they were Greek “by genus” (that is to say of Greek origin), thus excluding persons of non-Greek, and particularly Macedonian, origin who had nonetheless left Greece under the same conditions. In 1985, a law (No 1540) provided for the return of confiscated properties of political refugees, again limited to Greeks “by genus”.

94. Reportedly, most of the ethnic Macedonians affected by these laws are over the age of 70 and now reside in various European countries, Australia, Canada, etc. Representatives of the Macedonian community consider that these laws are discriminatory, targeting Macedonian political refugees, many of whom would now like to return to their birthplace. During my visit, it was alleged that those claiming Macedonian identity experience difficulty in obtaining visas to attend funerals or visit relatives in Greece. The ECRI addressed this issue in 2004 and “strongly recommended to the Greek authorities to reconsider the foundations and the implications of their policy in this respect”.42 In its last report on Greece in 2009, it noted that the Ministerial Decision No 106841 of 1982 and the Law 1540 of 1985 continued to apply only to ethnic Greeks.43 Therefore it recommended again that “the Greek authorities take steps to apply, in a non-discriminatory manner, the measures of reconciliation taken for all those who fled the civil war”.44 Concerning denationalised persons who have remained abroad and are not willing to return, the Human Rights Commissioner called upon the authorities “to consider the possibility of providing them, or their descendants, with satisfaction, in accordance with the general principles of international law”.45 Concerning the remaining stateless persons who now reside in Greece, the Greek authorities have reportedly expressed their determination to proceed promptly to the restoration of their nationality. The situation of persons of Macedonian origin compelled to leave Greece in the civil war when most were only children who wish to return, even for a short time, nevertheless needs further attention. Further gestures, such as the opening of the border for a few days in 2003 for ethnic Macedonian refugees, should be considered.

-        The issue of the ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (signed by Greece in 1997)

95. As in 2005, the authorities reiterated that the Greek constitutional and legislative framework is fully in conformity with the fundamental principles set forth in international instruments, including the framework convention. The scope of application of the framework convention would certainly be controversial, though not an obstacle. Nevertheless, during my visit, no timeframe was given for ratification. In its 2009 report on Greece, the ECRI once called upon the Greek authorities to ratify the framework convention as soon as possible.46 With respect to the European charter, the situation appears more difficult and I was not given the impression that there were any prospects for progress in the near future.

-       A few remarks as rapporteur

96. While fully aware of the sensitive international context in which these issues should be considered, as rapporteur on minority protection in Europe, I am concerned by the rights to self-identification, freedom of expression and freedom of association of minority groups in Europe.

97. As already stressed on several occasions by our Assembly and other Council of Europe bodies, cultural diversity should be perceived not as a threat, but as a source of enrichment and any attempt to impose an identity on a person, or on a group of persons, is unacceptable.

98. I note that in February 2009, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights expressed his deep concern about “the persistent denial by Greek authorities of the existence on Greece’s territory of minorities other than the tripartite ‘Muslim’ one in western Thrace, despite the recommendations made so far notably by the ECRI, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee”. He also recalled that freedom of ethnic self-identification is a major principle in which democratic pluralistic societies should be grounded and should be effectively applied to all minority groups, be they national, religious or linguistic.47 I fully share this view.

99. I also fully support the call of the Commissioner upon the Greek Government to create a consultative mechanism, at national, regional and local levels, which would ensure an institutionalised, open, sincere and continuous dialogue with representatives of different minorities and/or representatives of individual minority groups. During my visit, I indeed also stressed the role of local authorities in accommodating cultural diversity.

100. The Greek authorities should also closely examine allegations of discrimination and intolerant acts against those who claim to have a Macedonian identity and take appropriate measures to punish any such acts.

101. As described below, obligations of Council of Europe member states relating to minority protection do not only derive from the framework convention and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (for details, see Part V below).

102. Finally, the Assembly should again pursue its efforts to promote the framework convention as a truly pan-European instrument and invite Greece and those Council of Europe member states which have not yet done so to ratify it without any further delay.

iii.       Other cases

103. The issue of the Armâns48 has been already dealt with on several occasions by the Assembly. In 1997, the Assembly adopted Recommendation 1333 (1997), in which it expressed concern “about the critical situation of the Aromanian culture and language, which have existed for over two thousand years in the Balkan peninsula”.49 At present, representatives of the Council of Armâns still stress the “critical” situation of the Armân (Macedonian Romanian) culture and language.

iv.       Obligations of Council of Europe member states which are not Parties to the Council of Europe minority instruments

104. A number of Council of Europe instruments or mechanisms establish the principles of equality and respect for diversity in terms of minority protection and entail obligations for Council of Europe member states which are not Parties to the framework convention and the European charter.

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