HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE CONSIDERS REPORT OF LATVIA
13 March 2014
The Human Rights Committee this morning concluded its consideration of the third periodic report of Latvia on its implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Presenting the report, Viktors Makarovs, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia and Head of Delegation, reiterated Latvia’s commitment to fully cooperating with international rights mechanisms, including the treaty bodies, and hoped that the dialogue with the Human Rights Committee would help Latvia to improve its implementation of the Covenant.
Kristine Lice, Government Representative before International Human Rights Organizations, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia, provided a summary of Latvia’s replies to the list of issues raised by the Committee. Ms. Lice described efforts to enhance gender equality, improve living conditions and prevent acts of torture in detention facilities, and to combat human trafficking. The procedures for naturalization had been considerably simplified and Latvia was committed to protecting the rights of ethnic minorities and so-called “non-citizens”.
Committee Members commended the improvements in the protection of human rights since the presentation of the previous report. Experts asked for details regarding Latvia’s efforts to combat and prevent gender inequalities and gender-based violence, human trafficking, and appropriate reparation for victims. The Committee also inquired about conditions of detention and pre-trial detention. Experts expressed concerns regarding the rights of minorities, including the right to use and access information in their own languages. The Committee noted with concern the situation of non-citizens and rules regulating the acquisition of Latvian citizenship. Questions were also asked about measures to prevent and punished hate speech and violence based on ethnicity.
In concluding remarks, Viktors Makarovs expressed Latvia’s gratitude to the Committee for the constructive dialogue, noting that the exchange, as well as the Committee’s recommendations, were highly valuable for Latvia.
Sir Nigel Rodley, Chairperson of the Committee, said that Latvia had come a long way since its last review. Latvia seemed really committed to eradicate past violations and challenges resulting from this country’s past history, in particularly, regarding the issue of languages.
The Latvian delegation included representatives from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Office of Migration and Citizenship, the Latvian Language Agency, the Ministry of Justice, the Riga Center of Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, the Ministry of Culture, the Prison Authority, the Ministry of Welfare, the State Police, the Ministry of Interior, and the Permanent Mission of Latvia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in this afternoon, at 3.00 p.m., to begin its consideration of the fourth periodic report of the United States (CCPR/C/USA/4).
The third periodic report of Latvia can be read here: CCPR/C/LVA/3.
Presentation of the Report
VIKTORS MAKAROVS, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia and Head of Delegation, introducing Latvia’s delegation, highlighted the main issues developed in the report concerning Latvia’s implementation of the dispositions of the Covenant. Mr. Makarovs reiterated the Government’s commitment to fully cooperate with international rights mechanisms, including the treaty bodies, and hoped that today’s dialogue with the Human Rights Committee would help Latvia to improve its implementation of the Covenant.
KRISTINE LICE, Government Representative before International Human Rights Organizations, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia, provided a summary of Latvia’s responses to the list of issues adopted by the Committee. Anyone in Latvia making allegations for violations of his/ her fundamental rights, guaranteed by the Constitution or the Covenant, could lodge a complaint with the domestic court of general jurisdiction, an administrative court, or the Constitution Court. The Covenant was regularly invoked by individuals submitting such complaints and was also regularly referred to by judges and the Constitutional Court. Ms. Lice recalled that the Office of the Ombudsman constituted a National Human Rights Institution in compliance with the Paris Principles. The Ombudsman examined claims brought by individuals, including on issues such as detention conditions, health care services in prisons, the right to a fair trial, discrimination, and provided recommendations to States authorities.
Latvia had taken various steps to guarantee equal treatment of men and women and to prohibit differential treatments in employment relations. Complaints about alleged violations were examined by the Labour Inspectorate and Ombudsman. The National Gender Equality Committee operated on a regular basis and cooperation among State authorities continued to improve in order to reduce inequality. Perpetrators of domestic violence could be subject to criminal liability under a variety of offences defined in criminal law, and violence against a spouse or a relative was regarded as an aggravating circumstance. A new legal instrument would be introduced in 2014 in order to ensure the safety of victims of violence or stalking.
Procedures for granting citizenship to children of non-citizens born in Latvia had been considerably simplified, and children were automatically granted the Latvian nationality at the time of their birth registrations, unless parents opposed. All birth were registered, with no exception. The Office of Migration and Citizenship Affairs was responsible for the coordination of naturalization processes and had taken measures to collect and analyse public views and to disseminate information regarding the process of acquisition of Latvian citizenship. Former USSR citizens who were non-citizens of Latvia had full access to social services, the labour market and employment. The only exceptions restricting access to employment were those on the grounds of national security. Considerable measures had been undertaken by the State and local authorities to prevent and combat human trafficking, to protect and assist the victims, and to promote cross-sectoral cooperation on this issue. National support and rehabilitation mechanisms ensured that victims received state-funded social rehabilitation services, irrespective of whether criminal proceedings had been initiated.
In Latvia, acts of torture were criminalized and several administrative amendments helped define and clarify the notion of torture to ensure that no cases of torture remained unpunished. Training on the prohibition of torture and any other form of ill-treatment was also provided to law enforcement officers. Latvia was fully cooperating with international bodies working on the prevention of torture. The law provided safeguards to ensure that no one was arbitrarily deprived of their liberty. Significant construction work had been carried out to improve the overall living conditions of prisoners in detention facilities, including juvenile detention centres. Everyone in Latvia, including non-citizens, persons facing deportation and European Union citizens, had the right to apply for State-funded legal aid.
Freedom of expression played a crucial role in democracy. New legislation on electronic media guaranteed the right for everyone to express their views. National minorities constituted an integral component of society, and their rights to participate in public life and use their native languages were protected. Non-Latvian teachers received trained to ensure access to education for all, and study courses on minority languages and literature were mandatory. Legislative amendments were being drafted to strengthen the fight against racially motivated crimes and increasing sanctions. Ms. Lice also recalled a recent ruling by a domestic court that referred to a General Comment by the Human Rights Committee, allowing for persons naturalized in Latvia to have their name written in its original form in official documents.
Questions from the Experts
Experts appreciated the high quality of the report submitted by Latvia and its efforts to abide by its international human rights obligations.
Regarding the constitutional and legal framework of Latvia, Experts welcomed that international treaties were granted direct effects in domestic courts. Experts asked whether there had been cases in which judges had found that dispositions of the Covenant contradicted domestic legal dispositions. Domestic courts seemed, for example, to have a different view than that of the Committee regarding the spelling of names.
The law gave the Ombudsman a large mandate, however, Experts were surprised by the limited budget allocated to the Office of the Ombudsman, which seemed to be too low compared to its mandate. To what extend have the Office of the Ombudsman had a real effect, particularly regarding its recommendations to the Government or Parliament.
Experts noted with concern that former citizens of the USSR without Latvian citizenship had permanent residence rights but were excluded from certain parts of the public life. Thirteen percent of Latvia’s population were non-citizens, and efforts to naturalize them seemed to decrease. People were reluctant to undergo the naturalization process due to the excessive language requirements. Experts were particularly concerned regarding the situation of children of non-citizens, and recalled that the rights set forth in the Covenant applied to all those on a country’s territory, including non-citizens. Was it correct that prisoners, including non-citizen prisoners, could only file complaints in the Latvian language? Experts asked for clarification regarding the process of naturalization for persons with disabilities. Were persons with intellectual disabilities asked to undergo the same tests?
Noting that the equal treatment of women and men was guaranteed by the law, what remedies were available for women who’s right to equal treatment had been violated? What actions had the Government undertaken to address differences in remuneration between women and men? What measures had been taken to ensure equality in the public sector and the decision-making processes? Experts inquired into the implementation of the national plan on gender equality and measures undertaken to increase the participation of women in the public life.
Committee Members inquired about steps to combat violence against women and girls, including domestic violence and marital rape, was data available on such incidents? Experts regretted that gender-based violence did not seem to be considered as a specific crime in Latvian criminal law.
Committee Members welcomed Latvia’s well developed legal framework to combat and prevent human trafficking, as well as providing assistance to victims. Had Latvia identified the most vulnerable groups in the context of human trafficking? What measures had been taken to specifically address and investigate cases of “labour trafficking”? Was the law enforcement system financially equipped to adequately combat trafficking networks?
Experts noted the existence of legislation addressing the incitement of hatred on the Internet. Was there any legislation addressing hatred in general and what remedies were made available to the victims?
Experts welcomed progress made to improve the conditions of detention and to address incidents of torture and other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment, both in law and in practice, including the establishment of a new body in charge of dealing with complaints in this area. Given the low number of complaints filed for allegations of torture in detention facilities, Experts asked to what extend were all allegations investigated. Expert also asked whether the independence of this new body was fully guaranteed.
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation offered examples of cases where the Constitutional Court has found domestic legislation to be incompatible with the Covenant. While noting that the Office fo the Ombudsman played a very important role in Latvia, the delegation recognised that the limited budget allocated to the Office was an unfortunate consequence of the economic crisis. Budget cuts had taken place at all levels and in all Latvian institutions.
Regarding the situation of non-citizens, the delegation underlined the sensitive nature of naturalization, which was deeply connected with Latvia’s 20th century history. Challenges remained as 13 percent of the population were non-citizens and the Government was committed to address this situation, which was also the will of the population. Regarding the issue of language requirements for citizenship applications, the situation could be improved and change was underway. The Citizenship Law had been amended last year and made the procedure for granting Latvian citizenship to the children of non-citizen’s and stateless persons easier. Every time a child was born to non-citizen parents, they had the choice to register the child as citizen or a non-citizen.
Naturalization tests included language tests, as well questions regarding the culture or history of Latvia. Persons with disabilities, persons who had acquired basic or higher education in the Latvian language and persons who had passed centralized examinations in the Latvian language were not required to undergo these naturalization test. Elderly people only had to pass an oral examination. Children of non-citizens enjoyed the same set of rights that other children.
Regarding languages, the Latvian legislation aimed to combine two objectives. One was to preserve the Latvian language, the other was to ensure that minorities were given the right to use their own languages. Latvia had a very liberal education system, and the state directly funded education in seven minority languages. Individuals who were not Latvian residents could interact with public services or information in English and Russian. Public events were all made available in Latvian. For the private sector, the principle was that employees could be required to be able to communicate in Latvian.
Latvian legislations provided definitions of torture and other forms of ill-treatment to ensure that such instances were understood, investigated and punished in line with international standards. The European Court of Human Rights had recently condemned Latvia for the automatic and systematic application of handcuffs to persons serving deprivation of liberty sentences, but this practice had been subsequently eliminated.
Latvian legislation also criminalized rape, and violence against a relative was considered an aggravating circumstance, therefore ensuring that marital rape was fully addressed in line with international standards.
Follow-up questions from the Experts
Committee Members asked for further details concerning the language requirements for granting citizenship and on the use of languages in public events. Experts also inquired further details regarding the implementation of the rights and protection of non-citizen children. Regarding the 2013 Citizenship Act amendment, Experts asked whether the automatic grant of Latvian citizenship would be retroactive and benefit those children who were born before its adoption. Experts also inquired whether the choice of citizenship made by the parents at birth registration could later be challenged by the child.
Experts asked whether the definition of torture provided for in Latvian legislation was fully in line with international standards.
Responses by the Delegation
The Action Plan on Combatting Violence against Women had been recently created, which was why the results of this plan could not yet be measured. By January 2015, sufficient resources would be allocated for social rehabilitation programmes for women and children victims of violence. Latvia carefully studied best practices shared by other countries and United Nations agencies. New kinds of restraining orders would be created to combat violence.
Regarding gender equality, the delegation said that women were well represented at senior political levels. Several women served as ministers or under-secretaries of state. Concerning the private sector, Latvia was seeking to reduce gaps, including through an action plan on gender equality. Training sessions had been organized at the local level in order to reduce gender stereotypes. For the first time, education addressed the links between climate change and gender equality. Several guidelines had been created and were being implemented to ensure economic independence and equal opportunity on the labour market. In a very near future, new guidelines on gender equality would be drafted.
Years of work had also been undertaken on the issue of human trafficking, including on the issues of prevention and support for victims, in collaboration with non-governmental organizations. Regarding the identification of victims, new guidelines had been adopted and promoted a multi-sectorial approach. These guidelines were essential to identify the most vulnerable groups, as well as the risk factors. Several social campaigns had been planned and information materials about the risk of becoming a victim, the rights of the victims, and rehabilitation mechanisms, had been distributed.
Most victims of trafficking were young women sent into prostitution, forced labour or forced marriages. Latvian criminal law provided a general definition of human trafficking similar to the one contained in international law. Sending a person into prostitution was a criminal act that amounted to trafficking. Persons recognized as victims were eligible to receive State-funded support and, in fact, all victims receiving State-funded support were women. The National Strategy for the Prevention of Human Trafficking had been allocated the necessary financial and administrative resources.
An effective procedure was in place for granting the Latvian citizenship, and the rights of the children of non-citizens were protected. Persons with disabilities could apply for naturalization without restrictions, and those with disabilities from groups one and two were not require to sit knowledge tests.
Persons from minorities presenting their candidacies in legislative elections were required to self-evaluate their knowledge of Latvian, which was the working language of State institutions. Voters were the ones to decide whether the candidate’s proficiency level was sufficient to represent them in Latvian.
The right to file complaints in a language other than Latvian was ensured in case of necessity, if the complaint required immediate attention. Most examples concerned the Russian language, but there had also been other cases, for example, a person who only spoke an African language. In these cases, the authorities hired private translators to facilitate the filing of complaints. Language legislation established obligations for public institutions rather than for the Latvian people; for example, public institutions were required to provide translation services for public events. Freedom of speech and for persons to use their languages was protected.
All deaths in detention facilities were investigated and investigations in penitentiaries were directly supervised by the head of the Prison Authority rather than the individual prison institution, which ensured their independence. Regarding cases of deaths in health-care and mental health institutions, the delegation said that the most common causes of death in Latvia were cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
Victims of crimes had the right to seek financial compensation at all stages of the judicial procedure, including in cases of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment.
Questions from the Experts
Concerning the situation of asylum seekers, Experts inquired whether decisions on the issue of admissibility or concerning the decision to grant refugee status were issued in the applicant’s native language. Experts expressed concerns about the need for effective remedies regarding decisions on the refoulement of migrants. Was due consideration given to the fact that migrants could face violence if sent back to their countries of origin? What was the role of the Ombudsman in refoulement procedures?
Experts noted that a maximum of 48 hours was set for pre-trial detention in the Latvian law. They asked whether this applied to both criminal and administrative offenders. Was it true that administrative offenders could be held in pre-trial detention for up to 15 days? Experts expressed concerns regarding the situation of remand prisoners and prisoners serving under life sentences, including the systematic use of handcuffs. There had been complaints about delays in the arrangement of visits doctors or transfers to health institutions for prisoners. What steps were being taken to address this issue? Was Latvia considering making available 24-hour nurse services in detention facilities?
Experts noted efforts made to enhance the representation of national minorities in the public sphere, to what extend had these efforts been effective? Had minority groups expressed their views regarding languages and education? An inadequate knowledge of the official language seemed to prevent national minorities from undertaking higher education. Regarding the use of different languages in the media, Experts inquired about allegations that official radio and television had cancelled or reduced programming in minority languages. Did legislation restrict broadcasting in languages other than Latvian in public media? How were such provisions compatible with article 19 of the Covenant?
Experts welcomed the efforts to raise awareness on ethnic minority issues, particularly, with regards to Roma people. What steps had been taken to improve access to the labour market and equal access to education at all levels for the Roma? Had European Union provisions regarding the protection of the Roma been all implemented? Experts also asked for clarification regarding the Ombudsman’s response to complaints issued by members of the Roma community. Was history about Roma people, including relating to the crimes of genocide committed against them during the Second World War, included in official education programmes?
There seemed to be a lack of consolidated case law, as well as a narrow interpretation of the notion of incitement to hatred. This had also been noted by European institutions dealing with that issue and had led to the exclusion of certain conducts from the scope of this crime
Responses by the Delegation
Regarding short-term detention places, persons under 18 could not be administratively detained. The length of a short term detention depended on the crime committed and was, in average, four days long. There were 22 short term detention places, with a total capacity for 694 detainees. There was a trend toward a decrease in the number of detainees, the delegation said. Improvement of such facilities was undertaken on a regular basis, depending on available resources. The Audit Commission monitored living conditions in prison cells, and would publish its findings and recommendations in April 2014. Some facilities would be closed because of inadequate living conditions, and legislation establishing higher minimum standards for living conditions in detention facilities, for example with regards to cells dimensions. Special training for medical personnel in detention facilities would be conducted this year, with an emphasis on the identification of body injuries.
In accordance with legislation on asylum, persons fearing to return to their own countries could apply for asylum. The law included provisions on non-refoulement to countries where a threat existed. Exception existed if asylum seekers of refugees constituted a threat to national security or were found guilty of a serious crime in Latvia. Asylum seekers could challenge decisions made on their application within a limited period of time, and were entitled to receive information on their cases in a language they could understand.
Regarding the integration of national ethnic minorities in Latvia, the delegation said that new guidelines for social integration had been adopted for the period 2012 – 2018. Several consultative committees were in charge of coordinating social policies addressing the situation of minorities. Policies aimed at supporting social integration had had a positive impact. The Government endeavoured to actively involve representatives of non-governmental organizations and ethnic minorities.
Special measures had been carried out for the integration of Roma people. The European Union framework for the integration of Roma people had been transposed into guidelines adopted by the Government. Projects were being implementing at the local level, including awareness raising in the field of education. Part of the integration guidelines included measures to commemorate crimes committed against the Roma population during the Second World War. The quality of education for Roma people was monitored by the relevant ministry and support was provided by teachers, including additional classes and activities in foreign languages. Some schools provided specific Roma language courses; and examination results in minority schools were equal or better than results in regular schools.
Concerning the use of languages in the media, the delegation said that only the public television and radio were financed by the State, and both had programmes in Russian for non-Latvian speakers. Their budgets had been expended to provide better coverage around the country and to improve the content of broadcasting. In addition to public media, a number of private channels broadcasted in Russian with minimal restrictions. In public libraries, about 40 percent of the available materials were in languages other than Latvian. There were numerous cases for which the law explicitly required that information was available in other languages, such as in the areas of health and education.
For the last two years Latvia had seen intense debates about hate crimes and hate speech. Latvia relied significantly on case law and decisions by international and regional human rights bodies on how to address hate speech. The challenge was to draw the line between criminalizing hate speech and protecting freedom of expression. National debates related to questions such as how to prevent hate speech in political debates and in the media. Latvia was well aware that this was an important issue and would continue its efforts in cooperation with the international human rights bodies.
VIKTORS MAKAROVS, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia and Head of Delegation, expressed Latvia’s gratitude to the Committee for the constructive dialogue, noting that the exchange, as well as the Committee’s recommendations, were highly valuable for Latvia.
Sir NIGEL RODLEY, Chairperson of the Committee, said that Latvia had come a long way since its last review. Latvia seemed really committed to eradicate past violations and challenges resulting from this country’s past history, in particularly, regarding the issue of languages.
For use of the information media; not an official record