Category: Topic Overview Amsterdam 2020

  • AFET

    AFET

    Committee on Foreign Affairs

    “The Authoritarians Next door:  Since Belarus’ fraudulent presidential election in August 2020, protests have raged in the country and state forces have committed countless human rights abuses against Belarusian citizens. What approach should the EU take in response to these events, with a view to promoting democracy in Belarus and ensuring safety and protection for the country’s population?”

    By Mats Meeus (NL)

    Relevance of the topic

    The Republic of Belarus is a state in Eastern Europe bordered by Poland, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltics, founded after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since Alexander Lukashenko was first elected president of the newly democratic Republic in 1994, not one election has proceeded fairly. Mr. Lukashenko has tight control of the economy and media, sidestepping parliament and crushing internal dissent. He has kept much of the Soviet-era state apparatus intact, including the KGB. Belarus has consistently been ranked as the one of the worst countries in Europe for human rights, freedom of the press and corruption.
    The COVID-19 pandemic has brought slumbering dissatisfaction with the ruling regime to a head, after Lukashenko refused to go into lockdown. In an election marred by claims of fraudulence by domestic observers, official results indicated that the incumbent had won more than 80% of the vote. The EU and United States both rejected the election result. Protests immediately erupted across the country, and were violently suppressed by police. Lukashenko’s opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya [efn_note]Tsikhanouskaya ran in lieu of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who had been barred from running by the government. Tikhanovsky is currently in prison in Belarus, and Tsikhanouskaya has fled to Lithuania.[/efn_note], has become the unofficial leader of the protest movement. While western media have mostly moved on, the unrest in Belarus continues to this day.
    The EU has long struggled to form a coherent foreign policy, while Russia seeks closer ties with Belarus. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, has expressed his desire to merge Belarus and Russia into one state. While Lukashenko has been able to resist Putin’s pressure up until now, an unstable domestic situation may force his hand. Belarus and Russia together make up the Union State, a supranational body providing for freedom of movement and a single market. As a post-Soviet republic, Belarus is also a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States along with Russia.

    Key actors

    The European Union exercises foreign policy influence through the common foreign and security policy (CFSP), headed by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (colloquially referred to as the EU’s foreign minister). The High Representative is a Vice-President of the European Commission, meaning that foreign policy is not directly within the jurisdiction of the European Parliament; most control over foreign policy falls under the European Council. In the Council, foreign policy decisions must be taken unanimously, while specific details of established policy may be decided through qualified majority voting [efn_note] A Qualified Majority is reached when 55% of EU countries, representing 65% of the EU’s population, vote in favour of a proposal[/efn_note]. While the Parliament may not be able to craft foreign policy on its own, it can encourage the Council to take a specific course of action through non-binding resolutions.
    The Belarusian government, led by Lukashenko, wants to end the protests and retain the control it has over the country. This means that it is against both merging with Russia and democratic reform; however, the latter option poses a much larger threat to the position of Lukashenko.
    The Russian Federation cooperates closely with Belarus, and the two countries are part of a common market. At the height of the civil unrest, Russia sent riot police to Minsk, and when journalists in Belarus’ state media went on strike, Russia sent its own to replace them. In the 90’s, Belarus and Russia were in negotiations to form a union state. The negotiations stalled, but Putin is still said to be a proponent of merging the countries. While this scenario is unlikely, Putin will almost certainly use his aid to Belarus as a bargaining chip in order to expand his influence.
    The citizens of Belarus have resoundingly rejected Lukashenko’s regime, and want to establish democracy in Belarus. Their constant protests since Lukashenko’s re-election have made a resounding impact on raising awareness both within the country and beyond its borders.
    The Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power was founded by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. It seeks to facilitate a democratic transfer of power by negotiating with the Belarusian government. Its objectives are to annul the last election, release all political prisoners and end the violence against protesters. The EU and United States have pushed the Belarusian government to negotiate with it. 
    Foreign media play a key role both inside and outside Belarus. The Belarusian government clamps down on critical independent media and controls the majority of television channels. The American State Department administers RFE/RL (RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty), a Russian-language outlet that aims to provide a more neutral point of view. Outside of Belarus, foreign media influence how non-Belarusians perceive the situation in the country, influencing their respective governments in return.

    Key conflicts

    The balance of power in Eastern Europe is delicate. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 provided a stark reminder that Russia is not satisfied with its current level of influence. The EU would like to see Belarus transform into a democracy, but the current civil unrest is demonstrating that such a transformation will not come easily. Lukashenko is unlikely to part with his presidency readily, and Russia is standing by to do what it can to prevent the popular uprising from continuing and achieving real change. Indeed, in a situation where Lukashenko’s position seemed untenable, he would likely call on Russia to provide support, in which case Russia could demand a greater amount of influence in return. Taking into consideration Russia’s political reputation in recent years in topics like democracy, foreign policy, and corruption, a potential merging of Belarus and Russia would likely do little to alleviate Belarus’ current issues. 
    A solution to this topic would have to pave the way for democracy without putting the people of Belarus, and the region at large, in harm’s way. This would require walking the tightrope between excessive pressure on Belarus, which would destabilise the country to a dangerous degree, and a hands-off approach that would betray the Belarusians. Lukashenko has condemned western interference in Belarus, and will likely use Western involvement he perceives as excessive as a pretext to step up repression. Liberal protesters in Belarus are aware of this, and are deliberately avoiding explicit associations with the West and condemnations of Russia. Given the fact that the EU’s explicit support of the protest movement within Belarus may give way to greater repression, some argue for shoring up pressure on Russia instead. This would influence the Belarusian situation indirectly, because the regime relies heavily on Russian military and financial support in times of crisis. There are sufficient reasons to sanction Russia; the poisoning of Alexander Navalny has already put strain on EU-Russian relations in recent months.
    The European Union is Belarus’ second largest trading partner, making up 18.1% of the country’s foreign trade. However, this number pales in comparison to the country’s trade with Russia, which constitutes almost half of the total. Belarus is dependent on the EU for high-tech products such as machinery. After Alexander Lukashenko became the Belarusian leader in 1994, the relationship between Minsk and the EU deteriorated, and remains tepid, because the EU has condemned the government of Belarus several times for authoritarian and anti-democratic practices. Belarus participates in the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an initiative by the European External Action Service (the EU’s diplomatic service), intended to provide an avenue for discussions of trade, economic strategy, travel agreements, and other issues between the EU and its Eastern European neighbours. Because of Belarus’ ties to the Russian Federation, the EU’s relationship with Russia can also have a significant impact on its ties with Belarus. 
    However, it is Belarus’ blatant disregard for human rights which remains the biggest strain on EU-Belarus relations. The EU holds that an improvement of Belarus’ human rights record is the only way for relations to become closer, but the regime has consistently decried the EU’s attempts to improve human rights in the country as foreign interference. In addition, the EU has in practice followed a less principled stance in its bilateral relations with Belarus since 2016, when human rights were declared by the Council of the EU to be such a crucial element in the development of a relationship. The EU has spoken unanimously against the atrocities perpetrated by the Belarusian regime. The economic and political interests of member states in Belarus are small, so holding a strong line on the issue is easy. However, the shadow of Russia is ever-present. Internally, Member States are divided in their positions on Russia. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is in favour of alleviating tensions with Russia, and sees a potential ally in Putin. On the other hand, Eastern member states such as Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states are wary of closer ties due to the oppression they faced under the Soviet Union.

    Measures in place

    The EU has imposed sanctions, which include asset freezes and travel bans, on forty people believed to have been involved with the repression of protesters this summer. It has also promised to prepare an economic support package that would be given to a democratic Belarus. Plans to sanction Lukashenko himself have been announced, but will be revoked if he commits to negotiating with the Coordination Council.
    The EU has pressured the Belarusian government to negotiate with and accept the demands of the Coordination Council. It has done this both through diplomatic channels and through financial pressure. The EU has also recognised the Coordination Council as the temporary representative of Belarusian people.
    The EU has officially rejected the results of the fraudulent election.

    What now?

    This committee’s topic provides for a number of difficult dilemmas. When doing further research, try asking yourself some of the following questions:

    – Are sanctions an effective tool for the EU to promote democracy in Belarus? 
    – Could enduring civil unrest provoke a military conflict in the region and/or country?
    – How will Russia respond to increased EU involvement in Belarus?

    Links for further research:

    Why Belarus Is Not Ukraine, Foreign Policy: argues that the chance for a real popular revolution, like Ukraine’s in 2014, is unlikely.
    5 reasons why Lukashenko may hang on to power in Belarus, Politico Europe: explains the factors that work in Lukashenko’s favour.
    Putin, Long the Sower of Instability, Is Now Surrounded by It, The New York Times: explains how the Belarusian situation may not bode well for Putin
    EU relations with Belarus, European Council: official EU policy document regarding relations with Belarus

    To find more articles, try searching for protest coverage by RFE/RL. To see how Russia is framing the protests, have a look at Russian state-owned English-language sources like Sputnik and Russia Today.

  • ENVI

    ENVI

    Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety

    “(Mental) health crisis: according to the WHO, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide. How can the EU ensure the continued provision of mental health services to its citizens despite the ongoing battle against the virus?”

    By Júlia Aguilera (ES)

    Relevance of the topic

    The COVID-19 pandemic has affected societies, economies but especially individuals in each and every aspect. Beyond the obvious health impact on those who have contracted COVID-19 throughout these past months, the personal well-being and mental health [efn_note]Mental health conditions include mental, neurological and substance use (MNS) disorders, suicide risk and associated psychosocial, cognitive and intellectual disabilities[/efn_note] of the entire European population has also been affected negatively. At the same time it has also created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders. 

    A new Joint Research Center (JRC) study provides evidence of this by mapping the determinants of self-reported life dissatisfaction and feelings of anxiety in 25 advanced and developing countries during the COVID-19 pandemic throughout March and April 2020. This study shows that personal characteristics, employment-related consequences of COVID-19, the rising number of cases and deaths due to the virus, prolonged lockdowns, substantial restrictions on public life and an economic downturn negatively affect personal well-being

    Despite having clear evidence of the consequences the virus has had and is having on citizens, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently published the results of a  survey showing that out of 130 countries, 93% suffered from disruptions in mental health services during the pandemic. Furthermore, the WHO has previously highlighted the chronic underfunding of mental health;  prior to the pandemic, countries were spending less than two percent of their national health budgets on mental health. Therefore they have not been able to meet their populations’ needs.

    The pandemic is increasing demand for mental health services even further. Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Many people may be facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia, and anxiety. Meanwhile, COVID-19 itself can lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation, and strokes. At the same time, people with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to a COVID-19 infection  ̶  they may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes or even death. 
    As Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, states: “COVID-19 has interrupted essential mental health services around the world just when they’re needed most. World leaders must move fast and decisively to invest more in life-saving mental health programmes  ̶  during the pandemic and beyond.”

    Key actors

    The World Health Organization (WHO) is an organisation that works worldwide to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable. Since the virus struck the world, the WHO has urged countries to allocate resources to mental health as an integral component of their response and recovery plans.
    The European Commission is an EU institution that has the competence to suggest policies on how to tackle mental health during a pandemic. Until now it has only presented the JRC study acknowledging the impact that the pandemic has had on the mental health of individuals.  
    The European Union has a shared competence with Member States when it comes to public health. Member States are responsible for deciding upon the health services they want to offer to their citizens, in response to the needs of their populations.
    The United Nations (UN) is an international intergovernmental organisation which promotes international peace, security and cooperation. It has mediated in the cooperation of countries to fight against the pandemic and has presented online guidelines for those in need of mental health support related to COVID-19. 
    Mental Health Europe (MHE) is a European non-governmental network organisation committed to – among other things – the promotion of positive mental health and advocacy for social inclusion and the protection of the rights of (ex)users of mental health services, persons with psychosocial disabilities, their families and carers. MHE works closely with European Institutions and international bodies to mainstream mental health in all policies and end mental health stigma. Together with its members, MHE formulates recommendations for policy makers to develop mental health-friendly policies.

    Key conflicts

    Prior to COVID-19, the world was not equipped to respond to the mental health needs of citizens. Mental health was not a political priority and was chronically underfunded in most countries, ignoring the fact that mental health conditions account for 13% of the global burden of disease. According to the WHO, before the virus there were an estimated 264 million people with anxiety, and 322 million with depression worldwide. In addition, there are nearly 800,000 suicides per year globally, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15-29. Due to the pandemic, these figures have increased considerably. 
    There is a growing body of evidence of the effect that public health emergencies such as COVID-19 have had on the health, safety, and well-being of  individuals, causing, for example, insecurity, confusion, emotional isolation, and stigma. At the same time, it may also have an impact on communities, owing to economic loss, work and school closures, inadequate resources for medical response, and deficient distribution of necessities. These effects tend to  translate into a range of emotional reactions (such as distress or psychiatric conditions), unhealthy behaviors (such as excessive substance use), and noncompliance with public health directives (such as home confinement and vaccination) in people who contract the virus and also in the general population.
    COVID-19 has had a particularly detrimental impact on the mental health of certain groups; for instance, frontline workers. They are vulnerable to increased stress, burn-out, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This impacts the individual but also the collective response to COVID-19 due to the incapacity or reduced capacity of the frontline workers affected. As reported recently in the British Medical Journal, in the context of comparison between Ebola and COVID-19: “Burnout is associated with a suite of negative outcomes in addition to workforce departure: provider depression; reduced quality of patient care; interpersonal conflict, among others. In the midst of a pandemic, we simply cannot afford this”.
    COVID-19 patients have also suffered from this mental health impact. They have been very affected by the fear, anxiety and uncertainty about their condition, as well as the physical discomfort and separation from loved ones. A study among hospitalised patients in China showed that 35% of patients had symptoms of anxiety and 28% of depression. At the same time, women are under particular stress during the pandemic as carers of the sick, principle bearers of the burden of childcare, and as people continuing to hold down jobs. In addition, isolation and lockdown have also resulted in increases in violence against women, with estimates that globally, “31 million additional cases of gender-based violence can be expected to occur if lockdown continues for at least six months”. It is imperative that Member States’ governments learn from the impact that pandemic measures have had on citizens’ mental health and strive to leave no one behind as the crisis continues.

    Despite acknowledging the many mental health conditions prior to the pandemic and at the same time the impact of COVID-19 on individuals’ mental health, the results of the WHO’s survey show that most countries paused mental health services at the outbreak of the virus. In most Member States’ health systems, only urgent visits and inpatient treatments for severe cases are provided, and, where possible, online treatments (instead of face‐to‐face ones) have been recommended.  Over 60% of the countries in the world reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents (72%), older adults (70%), and women requiring antenatal or postnatal services (61%).

    Measures in place

    On the 13th May 2020 the UN released a policy brief on the need for action on mental health as well as a set of guidelines. In this document it highlighted the fact that the mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by the pandemic and are a priority to be addressed urgently.
    On the 1st June of 2020 the WHO issued a guide for countries on how to maintain essential services  ̶  including mental health services  ̶  during COVID-19. It recommends that countries allocate resources to mental health as an integral component of their response and recovery plans. The WHO also urges countries to monitor changes and disruptions in services so that they can address them as required. They also hosted The Big Event for Mental Health on October 10th which highlighted the need for increased investments in mental health in the wake of COVID-19.
    At the same time, initiatives such as The Help Hub in the United Kingdom have adopted telemedicine or teletherapy to overcome disruptions to in-person services due to the virus. Other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Mental Health Europe have provided online services and helplines to support European citizens who are suffering mentally during COVID-19. 
    Lastly, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee has developed a guide of basic psychosocial skills for COVID-19 responders, a group very affected by the mental health services disruption, to help them deal both with their own mental health conditions during the pandemic and the people who interact with them. COVID-19 responders include health professionals, first responders, food suppliers, pharmacists, funeral workers and managers of volunteers.

    What now?

    – To what extent is telemedicine or teletherapy sufficiently developed to provide mental health patients with their needed treatments?
    – How should the WHO ensure widespread availability of accessible emergency mental health and psychosocial support?
    – After having lived through months of the pandemic, how can we use the knowledge and experience gathered to change and adapt measures to avoid such negative impacts on citizens’ mental health as the pandemic continues?

    Links for further research:

    Mental health services disrupted due to COVID-19 – WHO
    The intersection of COVID-19 and mental health – The Lancet
    The impact of the pandemic on suicide rates – QJM: An International Journal of Medicine
    The global COVID-19 financial response is leaving mental health behind – United for Global Mental Health

  • FEMM

    FEMM

    Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality

    “Domestic violence on the rise: according to the Council of Europe, the policies of isolation and confinement implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to increased levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, with women vastly more likely to be victims. What steps can the EU take to protect and provide solutions for those unsafe in their own homes?”

    By Georgia Tritsini (GR) and Beatriz Cunha (PT)

    Relevance of the topic

    Is Europe having a domestic nightmare? The statistics would suggest so. In Spain, the domestic violence helpline received a 47% increase in calls in the first two weeks of April during lockdown compared with the same period of the previous year.  Meanwhile, Belgium’s listening service of the “Collective Against Family Violence and Exclusion” measured a three-fold increase in calls. Victims of domestic abuse are not only threatened physically, but also mentally, with research finding that women who have been abused by a partner are three times more likely to suffer mental ill health. Isolation and confinement have introduced an extra barrier for domestic violence victims in need of medical help, as they make fleeing from an abuser close to impossible. Additionally, violence poses a threat to children’s safety, security and stability. Societal apathy and indifference in regard to the extent of this issue is another “hidden” obstacle that needs to be tackled in the EU.
    While progress has undoubtedly been made in the EU in regard to raising public awareness and giving women who suffer from violence more places to turn to, women in all Member States continue to suffer violence at the hands of abusive partners. Indifference to the issue will continue to cause serious social, economic and health consequences for women, their families and their communities. Issues closely related to the problem, such as victim blaming [efn_note]Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is told that they are responsible for the crime committed against them, and often occurs in the context of rape[/efn_note] and rape culture [efn_note]Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture.  Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorisation of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety[/efn_note] need to be discussed more openly and on larger platforms in order to get closer to the root of the problem. This environment contributes to the low reporting and conviction rates for domestic and sexual violence, which further discourage victims to report such crimes, thus creating a vicious cycle. How can the European Union and its Member States work towards solving the issue of domestic abuse effectively whilst keeping in mind that it is a very time sensitive matter due to the ongoing COVID-19 measures?

    Key actors

    The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU.  The Commission plays an active role in the development, design and evaluation of the European Union’s overall strategy.  The EU does not currently have a specific binding instrument designed to protect women from violence, but it has established legal instruments to protect women from violence in specific areas, such as a ban on sexual harassment.
    Another stakeholder fighting to combat domestic abuse towards women has been the Council of Europe. This organisation took action in the case of domestic abuse by introducing the Istanbul Convention [efn_note]The Istanbul Convention is a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe against the violence of women and domestic abuse which was opened for signature on 11 May 2011, in Istanbul, Turkey. The convention aims at prevention of violence, victim protection and to end the impunity of perpetrators. The Convention came into force on 1 August 2014[/efn_note], a convention dedicated to preventing and combating violence against women and domestic abuse. As of March 2019, it has been signed by 45 countries and the European Union. The Council of Europe’s general secretary Thorbjørn Jagland characterised it as a ‘top priority’ as ‘violence against women breaches basic human rights’.
    Different EU Member States have followed different approaches to the issue of violence against women. Domestic physical violence and sexual violence are the main types of violence punishable by law, while domestic psychological violence, forced marriage, sexual harassment and FGM are punishable in different ways depending on the country. In recent years, Member States have developed policy strategies to combat violence against women, either in the form of national action plans on all kinds of violence, or by means of action plans targeting specific forms of violence. They have also incorporated measures into other action plans aimed for example at promoting gender equality and social inclusion. Some Member States, however, appear to be going backwards. Poland plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, signifying a great setback in gender equality and protection for women in the country.
    Looking beyond the EU and its Member States’ governments, there are organisations such as the European Womens’ lobby (EWL). The EWL is a long-standing European-level non-governmental organisation (NGO) which, with the help of ambitious women, creates a positive impact on the public with the help of European Institutions and civil society partners. It works closely with the Council of Europe and the United Nations Economic and Social Council in consultative positions, and participates regularly in the activities of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). As the largest European umbrella network of women’s associations representing a total of more than 2000 organisations in 26 EU Member States, the movement has succeeded in combating domestic abuse through a variety of actions and initiatives, such as organising the ‘Week of Action to End Sexual Exploitation
    Lastly, mass media and social networks may constitute a way of addressing domestic abuse towards women through various contexts, either by decreasing the social acceptability of abusive behaviour and gender inequality, or by increasing the willingness of victims and observers to speak up and report cases of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. For instance, the ‘OK’ social network hosted a broadcast for experts and others to discuss the consequences of lockdown, such as family conflict and gender-based violence. The broadcast was seen by 1.7 million users of the network across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It drew the spotlight towards successful solutions around the world in responding to gender-based violence at home, such as the case of Spanish women who set an example by  using a code word in pharmacies to seek help and escape their abusers.

    Key conflicts

    According to an article published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), gaining a better understanding of public attitudes is increasingly recognised in international research as crucial in preventing intimate partner violence against women. With regard to domestic violence, one of the most relevant and influential public attitudes is that of victim blaming. The article highlights that victim blaming not only results in fewer victims reporting their experiences, but also makes observers (people who are not the victim but are aware of the crime) less likely to report known incidents of domestic violence. Victim blaming thus reinforces the isolation and vulnerability of victims, as observers do not become part of an informal social network that can help to keep the violence under control. Furthermore, research in Scotland showed that repeat domestic violence victims suffered psychologically and were socially excluded. In addition, victims often hid the true state of their mental health from family and friends, developing addiction issues and depression.  A European Commission public opinion survey found that more than one in five respondents (22%) believe that women often make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape, and more than one quarter (27%) think sexual intercourse without consent can be justifiable.
    Victim blaming, rape culture, and the gender inequality which has engendered those issues all present monumental challenges in the campaign against domestic violence. For example, many abused women seem to love their partners despite their abusive actions and often fear they will have no support system outside of their relationships. According to the WHO, 1 in 3 women are survivors of sexual violence or intimate partner violence. For victims, it is a constant battle between the abuse itself and the emotional sense of dependence which abusers manipulate their victims into feeling towards them.

    Image Source: European Institute for Gender Equality

    From a legal perspective, there is a large gap between the response abuse victims’ experiences should receive and the responses they actually receive in reality from society and Member States’ legal systems. For instance, the refusal rate for people applying to stay in the UK after suffering domestic violence more than doubled between 2012 and 2016. Additionally, the issue of under-reporting  and low conviction rates constitutes another obstacle for victims seeking justice. According to European Institute for Gender Equality, only one in three women who are physically or sexually abused by their partner contact the authorities.
    Lastly, the enforced isolation and lockdowns due to the COVID-19 crisis have raised new challenges for victims of abuse at home. An epidemic within a pandemic, domestic violence has risen alarmingly in Europe. The anxiety caused by health concerns and financial hardship related to the pandemic  has played an important role in the rise of reported cases, increasing tension in relationships. The UN entity characterised this phenomenon as the ‘shadow pandemic’.

    Measures in place

    In order to tackle the ongoing problem of gender-based domestic violence,  the Member States of the European Union have created detailed strategic plans in the hope of lowering the rates of domestic violence throughout Europe.  For example, France produced  the 3ʳᵈ International Strategy for Gender Equality (2018-2022), a powerful instrument created to coordinate the current situation of the issue. The strategy pertains to development assistance policies and outreach initiatives and is a steering tool designed to coordinate work over the 2018-2022 period and improve the situation of women around the world.
    One step forward in tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is the rise in popularity of social justice movements. Perhaps the best-known of these movements is the #MeToo movement, founded as a way to empower women who had endured sexual violence by letting them know that they were not alone. Due to its worldwide impact, Sweden passed a law on consent on the 1st July 2018, with which it became the tenth country in Europe to explicitly recognise any non-consented sexual act as rape. The Netherlands is following suit, with a proposal for a similar law currently being prepared.
    One example of the EU’s strategy plan towards combating domestic abuse is the Daphne Programme, one of the building blocks of the European Commission‘s fight against violence. The programme’s goal is to contribute to the protection of children, young people and women against any form of abuse taking place both in the private and public domain, including sexual exploitation and human trafficking, by taking preventative measures and providing support and protection for victims and groups at risk. The Daphne Programme offers funding to NGOs for projects which fulfil the objectives of the Programme. It also provides a toolkit which includes project descriptions as well as reports, studies, tools and awareness-raising and training materials. The third incarnation of the Daphne Programme, Daphne III (2007-2013), had an average annual budget of 16.7 million euros.
    The United Nations has taken action towards ending violence against women by creating a Trust Fund. Since 1996, the UN Trust Fund has donated 128 million USD to 462 initiatives in 139 countries and territories. Thanks to the Fund, the implementation of laws and strategy plans on domestic abuse has been more efficient, since data collection and analysis have been made possible.
    The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has designed an online mapping tool on administrative data sources, statistics and research based on domestic abuse. Building on such information will enable Member States to shape comprehensive  action plans to tackle the problem of domestic violence.

    What now?

    As European citizens, it is our duty to find an answer to these challenging questions:

    – How can the European Union solve the raised key conflicts effectively whilst keeping in mind the issue’s time sensitivity and the victims’ vulnerable position, especially during the lockdown period caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?
    – How can the European citizen raise awareness and contribute to the elimination of the problem both on a personal and national level?
    – What approach(es) should the EU and its citizens take towards ending victim blaming and tackling rape culture?

    Links for further research:

    France fears fresh wave of domestic violence amid second Covid-19 lockdown – France 24
    Domestic abuse surged in lockdown, Panorama investigation finds – The Guardian
    Violence against women: an EU-wide survey; Results at a glance – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights

  • EMPL

    EMPL

    Committee on Employment and Social Affairs

    “Racism at work: According to a report by the European Network Against Racism, people belonging to ethnic minorities have a much higher unemployment rate and are overrepresented in certain job positions or sectors. What can the EU do to address and prevent racial discrimination in recruitment?”

    By Chengji Zhao (NL)

    Relevance of the topic

    Discrimination in recruitment has been a topic of academic and political debate for many years. Due to globalisation and therefore demographic changes, racism is an ever-present issue, and its effects on ethnic minorities in Member States call for a rapidly evolving response. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing racial inequalities: structural racism [efn_note]This term refers to racism being a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist. It allows privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “colour” to endure and adapt over time[/efn_note] in employment has become more severe and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately contracting the coronavirus, given that they frequently work in low-paid and informal jobs. This means they are not able to work safely from home, as those with less practical, hands-on jobs can. This is shown in the ENAR’s Policy Paper on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore the unemployment rate amongst these groups is much higher in comparison to the majority. For women of colour, the circumstances are even worse. Given that they are also subject to sexism, they are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and sexual harrassment. In Romania, 35% of women are housewives. This demonstrates that there are still many barriers preventing women from joining the labour market.
    Further, research has shown that there is an ethnic wage gap and an ethnic employment gap. There are differences between Member States and different ethnic groups. A good example is the Dutch labour market in which there is a noticable difference between the average pay of ethnic minorities and the majority of the population. This ethnic wage gap was observed at the end of the last decade. Turks earned 2% less than the majority, Surinamese 13%, Antilleans 19% and Moroccans 22%. Even in countries where we have disaggregated data, we see that being a member of an ethnic minority is a disadvantage. As shown in the ENAR shadow report, regardless of their educational background, people from ethnic minorities in the Netherlands are more likely to be unemployed. Despite the economic growth after the crisis, this gap has not been closed. Those who are employed, are victims of wage disparities. In Belgium, citizens of native descent possess on average more money and have a higher income compared to other citizens.

    Key actors

    The European Commission is one of the main legislative bodies of the European Union. It has the power to propose new legislation, and implements the decisions of the European Parliament. The Commission coordinates and monitors national policies and implementation of EU law and promotes the sharing of best practices in areas like rights at work, coordination of social security schemes, training, skills and entrepreneurship. The European Commission published the EU’s Social and Employment Policy in 2018. 
    European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA): It advises EU institutions and national governments on fundamental rights. Many problems including discrimination, racism and xenophobia are addressed by this agency. By providing independent, evidence-based advice and consulting with a wide range of stakeholders, they help safeguard the fundamental rights of people who are victims of these problems. Their strategic plan for 2018-2020 sets out what it aims to achieve.
    Member States: Because the EU has a special competence with the Member States on Employment and Social Affairs, the Member State governments are mostly responsible for their employment policies. The European Commission provides funding for projects relating to employment, social affairs and social inclusion through a range of programmes.
    Private Businesses: They make decisions regarding their internal working in regards to their employees. Furthermore, the interests of private businesses are inevitably discussed when an issue requires some form of governmental intervention. They play a big role in fighting institutional racism [efn_note] This term refers to the policies and practices within institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes which put a racial group at a disadvantage[/efn_note]. Anti-racism initiatives also have a role in fighting institutional racism. Because private businesses are bound to the legislative framework of their respective countries, the institutions can exercise their influence through the policymakers of the Member States.
    Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) such as the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) or the European Network of Equality Bodies (Equinet) assist in making decisive progress towards racial equality in all  Member States. This is done by adopting anti-racism policies and measures that recognise structural and specific forms of racism or by creating legislation that is legally binding in all Member States such as Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.
    The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) is a human rights monitoring body which specialises in questions relating to the fight against racism and discrimination. In 2012, they made a general policy recommendation on combatting racial discrimination in employment.

    Key conflicts

    Racism is a reality for many ethnic and religious minorities in the EU. However, the extent and manifestations of this reality are often unknown and undocumented, especially in official data sources. This means that it can be difficult to analyse the situation and to establish solutions to it. Although the accumulative effect of micro-incivilities [efn_note]Micro-incivilities, also known as micro-aggressions, are commonplace behaviours or aspects of an environment which signal, wittingly or unwittingly, that someone doesn’t belong, or is not welcome. The intent to harm can be ambiguous in these instances[/efn_note] on individuals can be staggering, it is hard to take this to tribunal. Installing additional surveillance in the workplace however, limits the privacy of employees. Furthermore, it does not prevent micro-incivilities outside of the workplace. Therefore it only prevents racist behaviour from occurring at the workplace, but it does not eliminate it out of the system.
    The ENAR Shadow Report shows that labour participation of immigrants and descendants are such that they are overrepresented in sectors such as trade, transport, hotels and restaurants and the service sector. Furthermore, social research conducted in Denmark by The National Centre for Social Research concluded that immigrants find it difficult to use their education in high quality jobs compared with Danes and, in general, have a lower salary return on their education. Educational programmes which slowly close the knowledge gap only increases the number of overqualified employees with an ethnic background. This demotivates a large part of the ethnic minorities to continue further education and that results in overrepresentation in aforementioned sectors.
    Additionally, ethnic minorities have fewer chances of getting through recruitment processes, especially for highly skilled professions. Quantitative research in Ghent By Prof. dr. Stijn Baert showed job applicants with foreign sounding names (Turkish, Moroccan or Ghanaian names) have 30% less chances of being invited to a job interview compared to applicants with a similar profile but with Flemish sounding names.
    Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on Europe’s economy. Many people working in the catering industry for instance have become unemployed. Because of the high supply and low demand of employees in these and other low-skilled industries, it makes it very difficult for these people to find a new job. Black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be unemployed and in precarious work than their white counterparts. When forced to reduce the workforce, companies also take racial features into account. This is shown as a result of a recent report from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Carnegie UK Trust, and Operation Black Vote, which concluded that millennials from ethnic minorities are 47% more likely to be on zero hours contracts. Therefore existing economic disparities could lead to a profoundly devastating impact of COVID-19 on people from ethnic minorities.
    Finally, the aforementioned inequity is the result of institutional racism. The problem lies with the policies and practices of institutions. The roots of the problem when talking about structural racism are not so obvious however. As the awareness regarding this issue is lacking, many people do not dwell upon it. Nevertheless, action is required to increase balanced representation of people from all races in the workplace at all levels. In order to take action, it is necessary to identify the disparities. This proves to be a challenge. According to research conducted by YouGov, only 38% of employees feel that their employers are comfortable talking about race.

    Measures in place

    In 2000, the Member States transposed the EU’s Nondiscrimination Directives [efn_note]2000/43/EC and 2000/78/EC[/efn_note]. This is the first time there has been an individual rights-based approach in order to enforce the rights of ethnic minorities. Not only does it aim to eliminate inequality between people from different backgrounds, but it also aims to help women of colour by promoting equality between men and women. This is done by ensuring that everyone has equal access to social protection such as social security and healthcare.
    The previously mentioned NGO ENAR undertakes advocacy based on the expertises and experiences of their members. By engaging with decision makers at national and EU levels, ENAR aims to influence the EU to implement anti-racist policy. Through the platform, POC are given the opportunity to report their experiences of racism at national or EU level, and participate in EU decision-making and consultation processes. For instance, they have launched the [email protected] Platform where many people from different corners come together to find solutions to ensure equality in the labour market.
    By conducting interdisciplinary research combining legal and social aspects and conducting surveys, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) provides evidence-based advice on numerous subjects, covering the impact of the economic crisis, to intolerance targeted at ethnic minorities. The agency works closely with EU institutions and with Member States. With their high-quality publications they have a lot of influence on legislation. Together with the Commission they work to encourage diversity in the workplace. In a survey, they have concluded that 83% of European companies profit from having diversity in the workplace. This diversity gives them the opportunity to select from a wider range of people and thus find the most suitable employees. More than half of the companies in the survey, however, still have to implement a policy that stimulates diversity. The delay lies in the fact that those companies need more information about the development of such a policy. The FRA together with the Commission supports those companies and thus ensures equality in the workplace.

    What now?

    – The European Commission published the EU’s Social and Employment Policy in 2018. Could this be adapted and modernised to address the problem of racial discrimination in recruitment?
    – Talking about personal experiences related with racism is difficult. A lot of employees are scared to speak up because they fear this might affect their job negatively. Given that a lot of victims are working low-paid and informal jobs, they cannot afford this. What can we do to address this discomfort?
    – The recent COVID-19 pandemic has left many people unemployed. Keeping in mind the importance of preventing the growth of an ethnic employment gap, how can we tackle this current shift in the labour market?
    – How can we provide education for people from ethnic minorities in order to give them a chance to escape poverty and therefore start closing the ethnic knowledge gap? An article about possible ways to tackle the ethnic minority gap: https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/voices/comment/tackling-ethnic-minority-employment-gap

    Links for further research:

    ENAR Shadow Report: Racism and Discrimination in Employment in Europe 2013-2017
    Being black in the EU often means racism, poor housing and poor jobs – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights
    Renewed efforts needed to eliminate racial discrimination, especially in the workplace, say Heads of Europe’s human rights organisations – European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)

  • IMCO

    IMCO

    Committee on International Market and Consumer Protection

    “Decolonising fast fashion: The abuse of human and labour rights is rife in the fast fashion industry, and many brands have been refusing to pay their garment workers in the wake of the pandemic. With 80% of the 74 million textile workers worldwide being women of colour, these unethical practices implicate layers of injustice. What can the EU do to eradicate such practices and improve worker protection while keeping clothing accessible to customers?”

    By Lidewij Mes (NL) and Sasuke Ikemizu (NL)

    Relevance of the topic

    Modern society, fueled by a world economy largely reliant on capitalism, is characterised by a constant need for consumption, and fashion is one of the branches of the economy where it is most apparent. Fast fashion is the term used to describe the low-cost mass production of clothing, designed to provide consumers with on-trend pieces as quickly and as cheaply as possible.  Thanks to the fast fashion industry and its 52 micro-seasons a year, keeping up with trends has never been more difficult, and has never offered bigger money-making potential.
    To be able to sell clothes at a low price, most fashion retailers outsource their production to low-income countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and China. In these factories, where most of the employees are women, garment workers work under “sweatshop” conditions; they are underpaid, work very long hours and are constantly exposed to health and safety risks. Furthermore, many factories are not enforcing the necessary measures required to make environments COVID-safe for employees. Very little testing is being done and social distancing is not being made possible.

    To make matters worse, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, garment workers have been further underpaid or not paid at all. 80% of Bangladesh’s exports and 10% of its GDP depend directly on the textile industry. In March, in Bangladesh alone a total of 3.18bn dollars’ worth of orders were cancelled or put on hold – nearly one-tenth of the country’s annual textile exports. Since coronavirus shutdowns began in the retail industry in March, millions of garment workers in some of the poorest parts of Asia have lost their jobs.

    Key actors

    Consumers, by buying their products, contribute to the fast fashion industry by creating demand and therefore, knowingly or unknowingly, contribute also to the abuse of human and labour rights.
    Fast fashion companies rely on cheap and fast labour, in order to be able to sell their clothing at a low price. Because of this, they outsource their products to factories where human rights are often abused. However, slow fashion companies play an equally important role. Slow fashion is the movement against fast fashion, focusing more on sustainability, quality and fair wages.
    The International Labour Organization (ILO) is an organisation that unites employers, workers and governments of 187 member states to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men. By giving each actor an equal voice, they ensure that the views of each social partner are included in the making of labour standards and policies. Their main goals are to enhance social protection, encourage decent employment opportunities and make the dialogue on work-related issues stronger.
    In today’s world where social media plays a big role in the daily life of many people, influencers hold an important position in affecting people’s purchasing behaviour. By promoting certain brands, they have the power to change consumers’ habits and push them to not support fast fashion companies. 
    When it comes to legislation and issuing directives and regulations, different bodies of the EU play different roles. The European Commission has the responsibility and initiative to propose legislation; the Commission submits proposals to the European Parliament and European Council, who must agree on the proposal for it to become European law.

    Key conflicts

    In today’s world of consumerism, as mentioned before, fast fashion companies try to produce as many clothes and styles as possible in order to keep customers happy and to fuel the market. To do this, they rely on garment factories in low-income developing countries where their products can be produced quickly and cheaply. However, these manufacturing companies are officially not authorized by or affiliated with the fast fashion companies that outsource their production. This way, the fast fashion brands are not obliged to ensure a safe working space and decent working conditions.
    Fashion companies put huge amounts of pressure on suppliers, demanding more and more clothes for less and less money.  This creates extremely high levels of competition in the industry, and results in suppliers sacrificing workers’ rights in order to keep up. Margins are thus unsustainably small and companies, suppliers and garment workers are constantly vulnerable. We saw the consequences of this at the beginning of the coronavirus shutdowns. Companies stopped being able to pay their suppliers the minute the crisis began, demonstrating the lack of ethics in the fast fashion business model. Garment workers’ livelihoods are seen as dispensable, as they are the first to suffer when problems arise. Garment workers are often forced to work overtime and through breaks without being paid, in order to meet targets. When targets are not met, garment workers are often physically and sexually abused as punishment. 
    One of the main things to keep in mind when tackling this problem is that clothes should stay affordable. Most ethical slow fashion brands  that don’t outsource their production to developing countries are often much more expensive than fast fashion brands. Making the fast fashion industry more ethical and sustainable should not come at the cost of its affordability. UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises have set standards of corporate social responsibility for Western brands that outsource their production to developing countries. However, these standards are not binding, and therefore companies that don’t follow these standards are not sanctioned. Meanwhile, when it comes to the supply chains and impact on the environment of fast fashion companies, there continues to be a lack of transparency in the fast fashion industry. A lot of companies don’t share details about where and by whom their products are made and how sustainable their companies are, making it hard to make changes in the industry from the outside.

    Measures in place

    CARE is an organization committed to saving lives, defeating poverty and achieving social justice. With help of the EU and the Austrian Development Agency, they set up the ‘Oikko’ project. The aim of this project was to improve the working conditions of women in the garment industry in Bangladesh by helping them realise their fundamental rights, as many of them were unaware of the rights they had. 
    WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) is a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on empowering the working poor, especially women, who work in the informal economy. The informal economy comprises economic activities, enterprises, jobs, and workers that are not regulated or protected by the state. In the informal economy, earnings are typically low but costs and risks are high. WIEGO creates change by building capacity among informal worker organisations, expanding the knowledge base, and influencing local, national and international policies. WIEGO’s work includes its Core Programmes, which, among other things, involve assisting informal workers’ organisations in their advocacy for social protection, and informing policy debates and increasing the political visibility of informal workers by improving the quality and quantity of statistics about their work.
    After the accidents that happened in garment factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan and the repression of protests of textile workers, the European Parliament has adopted multiple resolutions, such as a resolution on “Labour conditions and health and safety standards following the recent factory fires and building collapse in Bangladesh”. Amongst the many commitments made in this resolution is an endorsement of the reforming the labour laws so as to allow workers to form trade unions without prior permission from factory owners.

    Clean Clothes Campaign is a global organization focused on improving working conditions and empowering workers in the garment industry around the globe, by, for example:

    – Putting pressure on companies and governments to take responsibility to ensure garment workers’ rights are respected and implemented
    – Raising awareness
    – Urging people to take individual or collective action.

    During the pandemic, Clean Clothes Campaign started a campaign that introduced the hashtag #PayYourWorkers  to raise awareness around the fact that garment workers were being underpaid or not paid at all, and to put pressure on companies to take responsibility for their garment workers.

    What now?

    – How can it be ensured that clothing stays affordable and accessible for everyone?
    – Is it possible for the EU to create better and safer working spaces, even though the factories are located outside of the EU?
    – Can consumers and influencers be held responsible for perpetuating an unethical fashion industry by participating in it? Do they have the power to effect change or should all the focus be on the companies themselves?

    Links for further research:

    Covid led to ‘brutal crackdown’ on garment workers’ rights, says report – The Guardian
    Fast fashion, slow destruction: this is the price other people pay for the cheap clothes we buy – The Correspondent
    How Instagram Influencers Fuel Our Destructive Addiction To Fast Fashion – Huffington Post
    Factory Exploitation and the Fast Fashion Machine – Green Business Network

  • LIBE

    LIBE

    Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs

    “Privacy or public health: Where controlling the pandemic in order to protect citizens’ health appears often to come at the expense of those citizens’ privacy, governments must walk a thin line. What should the EU do in order to minimise the impact of the pandemic while taking into account the right to privacy of all citizens?”

    By Thijs Verdam (NL)

    Relevance of topic

    Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, governments have been searching for the best ways to contain the virus. Naturally, they first looked towards traditional measures such as mandatory quarantine and manual contact tracing. However, governments are also looking at more innovative ways to combat the virus. Numerous countries have, for instance, come up with apps to track close contacts of their citizens. These forms of digital surveillance might be essential in winning the battle against the virus, though many civil rights groups, citizens and national parliaments have expressed their concern about the threat to the right of privacy many of these digital surveillance techniques pose.
    The area in which governments run the greatest risk of compromising their citizens’ right to privacy in the context of the pandemic is digital contact tracing. Digital contact tracing can be executed through apps working with GPS and/or Bluetooth, and through QR codes that you scan to fill in personal details or to map out your route before leaving the house, as in Moscow. Manual contact tracing presents several issues, including recall bias and delays in communicating with high-risk contacts, not to mention its potential to compromise personal freedom, as we see in France with the attestation form system. Digital contact tracing apps have come under scrutiny with regard to the potential for governments and other groups to access personal information, and use it for other purposes. The lack of confidence in the security of these apps is a crucial challenge, as in order for them to be effective they must reach significant levels of adoption, which requires widespread public trust.

    Key actors

    The World Health Organization (WHO) is the body of the United Nations (UN) concerned with issues of health. As such, they monitor the development of the pandemic worldwide, undertake research into the virus and give guidance to national Health Departments.
    Google and Apple play a major role in the development of contact tracing apps, as software developers for some of the most used mobile phone operating systems. Surprisingly, they have even collaborated with each other in releasing the basic software for Bluetooth-based contact tracing apps. This software could then be used by national Health Departments to develop their own apps.
    The Council of Europe (CoE) is the main European human rights organisation. The main achievement of the Council was the establishment of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR established fundamental human rights such as the right to freedom of expression, the right of assembly and also the right to privacy. It is also the initiator of Convention 108 on data protection. The Council of Europe has put together a coronavirus toolkit to guide governments as they make difficult decisions with regard to human rights in their responses to the pandemic.
    The European Commission, the Council (of Ministers of the EU) and the European Parliament are the principal European lawmakers. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was instituted by the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament. Changes to the GDPR would have to undergo the same legislative process again.
    The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) is a European body tasked with ensuring consistent application of the GDPR and promoting unity between national Data Protection Authorities (DPAs). DPAs are tasked with ensuring compliance with privacy regulation, especially the GDPR, and provide expert advice on data protection issues. The Chair of the EDPB has said that data protection rules (such as GDPR) do not hinder measures taken in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, and that even in these exceptional times, the data controller must ensure the protection of the personal data of the data subjects.National governments are the institutions taking measures to attempt to mitigate the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. These are often limitations of essential freedoms, such as freedom of movement (e.g. in the form of lockdowns) and, of course, the right to privacy. While public health is a competence shared between the EU and its individual Member States, primary responsibility for health protection and, in particular, healthcare systems continues to lie with the Member States. These healthcare systems are responsible for testing, quarantine and contact tracing policy.

    Key conflicts

    It is in the interests of all parties to work as quickly as possible to combat the pandemic. Some say that the health data gathered through digital surveillance is essential for fighting the pandemic as manual contact tracing is too slow: once all contacts have been tracked down, they could already have passed on the virus. In South Korea, Singapore and China mobile apps have been used to great effect. However, the used methods of digital surveillance can mean a significant breach of our right to privacy and the apps in South Korea and China have come under data protection scrutiny.

    Two main methods are in use for contact tracing: GPS and Bluetooth. Users’ GPS data is collected by apps or is provided by telecom providers. While all EU governments claim that the data is anonymised, it can be quite easy to attach a person’s name to anonymised data. Bluetooth contact tracing is more anonymous and seems to be more effective and precise too, but can provide a malicious government with even more valuable information about a person’s close contacts. Even in the case of a benevolent government, there is still a risk that the data will be used for other purposes than to fight the pandemic. How can we ensure that citizens’ movement data is kept anonymous, while the data essential to digital contact tracing is collected to help monitor and control the spread of the virus? 

    The EU has released an interoperability gateway (see under Measures in place) in order that digital contact tracing apps can work across borders. This gateway now works for the German, Irish and Italian apps. However, this platform may risk citizens’ data falling into the hands of national health departments or governments that are not their own. Could this risk decrease citizens’ willingness to use such apps?
    A breach of the right to privacy via these tracing apps may pose future risks to other rights, such as the right to freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly. Montenegro, which is a candidate Member State, is a good example of the possible effects of the breach of privacy. There, the government puts up listson the internet of people who are or should be in quarantine, asking citizens to help enforce it. ‘People whose health status, identities and location are publicly exposed are at greater risk of stigma and discrimination, which can have detrimental effects on their private and family lives and social and professional situations’, according to the United Nations Development Programme. While the UN states that tracking without violating the right to privacy is possible, the topic is controversial and public trust in the concept of mobile tracing apps has already been eroded. This poses a significant threat to the success of digital tracing apps, as it is important for their efficacy that they are used by a large part of the population.

    Measures in place

    The first measures on a European level on the topic of data protection were taken by the Council of Europe in the form of Convention 108. Because this Convention was instituted by the Council of Europe, it is binding for more countries (47 countries) than the law of the European Union discussed below. The Convention is an elaboration on the right to privacy laid down in Article 8 of the ECHR.
    In 2018 the EU launched the General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR). Its main goal is to give individuals control over their personal data and simplify the regulatory framework for international business by unifying privacy regulation in the EU. Under the GDPR, data controllers must clearly disclose any data collection, declare the lawful basis and purpose for data processing, and state how long data is being retained and if it is being shared with any third parties or outside of the European Economic Area (EEA). Public authorities, and businesses whose core activities consist of regular or systematic processing of personal data, are required to employ a Data Protection Officer (DPO), who is responsible for managing compliance with the GDPR. There are provisions in the GDPR that allow for the collection, use and necessary sharing of personal data related to health in the context of an epidemic. However, these provisions are vague, while the GDPR as a regulation is quite rigid. This means it is very difficult to balance the provisions with the requirements of the fight against a pandemic.
    The WHO has released a guide on essential and recommended surveillance. It lists several key actions for COVID-19 surveillance. Among them are the use of surveillance and contact tracing systems, expanding testing capacity and the implementation of immediate reporting (of statistics).
    The European Commission has published guidance for the data protection standards of apps fighting the pandemic. This guidance sets out various standards, including that the use of the app should be voluntary; that data is not kept longer than necessary; that data should be stored on an individual’s device and encrypted; and that DPAs be consulted in the development of an app.
    The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the Council of Europe have released similar statements on the question of privacy in the times of the pandemic. They state that the GDPR and Convention 108 do not pose a restriction to measures taken to fight the coronavirus. They do emphasize that these measures are proportionate and limited to an emergency period.
    Many national Health Departments have now already introduced apps which trace your close contacts. For instance, the German ministry of Health launched their app in June. The Belgian app was launched in September and the Dutch launched their app in October. All three of these apps work with Bluetooth technology. The European Commission has also brought out an interface so that national contacting tracing apps could work cross-border.

    What now?

    It is clear that it is and it will be difficult to strike a balance between individuals’ rights and health surveillance. Some questions we could pose in this regard are:

    – Should we go back to or stay with manual contact tracing to maintain the right to privacy?
    – Should digital contact tracing track movements in more detail and notify people further down the contact chain in order to to further improve its efficacy?
    – If implemented, how long should digital surveillance measures stay in place and could these measures not pose a risk to our privacy after the pandemic?
    – Should it be monitored more carefully (possibly using location data) that people are observing quarantine rules, and how will this impact the mental welfare of citizens?

    Links for further research:

    Your Data Privacy During a Pandemic – The Medical Futurist
    Ensuring data privacy as we battle COVID-19 – OECD
    In a global pandemic, do we still have a right to privacy? – United Nations Development Programme