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Human rights protection and COVID-19 in North Macedonia: Patching or rebuilding a system?

The article was originally published on the Politikon Network’s website.

2020 has been a disastrous year for human rights in Europe, in the words of Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. In her speech on Human Rights Day at the end of 2020, she goes on to argue: “While, increasingly, commitment to upholding human rights standards has been faltering all over the continent for several years, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the erosion of the democratic fabric of our society, on which protection of human rights ultimately depends”.

The Western Balkans have not been an exception to this trend. On the contrary, the states in the region, including North Macedonia have imposed strict restrictions and have struggled to keep up with the multiple human rights challenges brought about by the pandemic.

In this context, the pandemic is likely to broaden the already existing gap between legislation and reality in human rights protection in the country. When one looks at the fundamental rights protection in the country over the years it is clear that despite the increasing obligations to implement international standards, the pace of their enforcement at the national level lags behind.

While relevant international instruments are adopted quickly, getting the national system ready for their application has been rather slow. This is particularly noticeable in gender equality, children’s rights, the rights of persons with disabilities, as well as the adoption and implementation of the acquis on procedural rights, including victims of criminal acts. Last, the situation in the prisons is particularly worrisome (especially in some of the penitentiary facilities).

In all these areas there are serious shortcomings in the implementation, due to inadequate planning, lack of capacity, insufficient cooperation of numerous institutions, bodies and the civil society in these areas, although in some cases an improvement in cooperation is noted. Improving the application of standards in these areas, carries with it significant material investments, which are likely to be missing in the post-pandemic era.

Local stakeholders have repeatedly expressed expectations that the EU accession process, foremost with the start of the accession negotiations will provide a much needed push to address some of the concerns mentioned above. While in the pre-negotiations phase, the Commission and the EU member states were primarily focused on the judiciary and anti-corruption policies, the negotiations were seen as a tool to broaden their horizon to the fundamental rights area. Some of the latter are subject to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and are in the mandate of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, which has included North Macedonia in its regular reporting mechanisms since last year.

The improved record would also need to be complementary to the wide platform “Union of equality” of the European Commission. It is important to also recall that the European Union has acceded to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, while at the same time, the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights remains relevant as a horizontal issue. Hence, it is necessary to consider them as foundational documents and guidelines for the standards and conditionality in view of these issues.

Yet, with the negotiations nowhere in sight due to the Bulgaria dispute, the dilemma of pushing forward the fundamental rights agenda in the country remains open. Of course, in addition to the EU there are many international instruments and monitoring mechanisms with a task to assist and embolden countries in improving their records on fundamental rights.

The main responsibility of course lies with the national government and its will and capacity to make sustained efforts in this policy area, coupled with the work of the national human rights bodies (NHRIs) as an essential piece of the human rights puzzle. As to the NHRIs in North Macedonia, at the start of 2021 their structure and organization was overhauled.

A new ombudsman was appointed after a decade and a half and a Commission against discrimination was established after a gap period of 18 months. In addition, new legislation was adopted both for protection of personal data and free access to public information. The actions and positions of all these actors, are likely to shape the human rights landscape in the country in the short and medium-term period.

With or without the EU accession negotiations, the Macedonian government and its NHRIs will need to pick up the pieces of the (post) pandemic period. It is up to them to either patch or rebuild the puzzle of the fundamental rights protection system in the country into something better. All of us hope for the latter.

This text has been prepared within the project “Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Old Tools for New Rules” implemented by Politikon Network, in cooperation with Centre for Contemporary Politics, and with the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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