Last January (2019) I had the opportunity to get in contact with the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels. There, I discussed the current situation of women’s right in the European Union, focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
The EWL, which is the biggest European network of women’s associations, aims at influencing the general public and the EU decision-makers in support of women’s human rights. It is continuously working to ensure every woman’s dignity and the respect of SRHR in the Union.
Here are some reflections following my contact with them.
Looking back at the events and debates that occurred across Europe in 2018, we are likely to notice that, on some issues, the European puzzle is rapidly falling apart. For several decades, the different puzzle pieces have been struggling to get closer through a long and demanding process of integration, but recently many of them have started to outdistance and even to crumble. Brexit was just the most evident expression of breach and disagreement, yet the EU appears quite fragmented also in other domains, including women’s rights – and especially SRHR.
Gender-based violence, surrogacy, pornography, abortion – the facets of SRHR are numerous and intricate and thus require a deep analysis. This article will concentrate on violence against women and right to abortion in Europe, as these topics have been in the limelight during the past year and have caused great disagreement among the member states, contributing to the breakdown of the puzzle.
First of all, it is important to recall the strong commitment of the EU to women’s rights. The Treaty on the European Union (TEU) upholds the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination (Article 2), whereas the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) confirms the political commitment of member states to fight against all forms of domestic violence (Declaration 19 on Article 8). The Charter of Fundamental Rights warrants people’s right to dignity (Title I) and equality (Title III) and includes specific provisions on people’s right to physical and mental integrity, outlawing any form of discrimination on the grounds of sex.
These (founding) documents present concepts and positions in a dreamlike manner – but do the reality of the EU and the actions of its decision-makers correspond to them? Continue reading “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: The EU’s failure on violence against women and abortion”→
“Don’t Panic” has become the motto of the Democratic Party in the days following the 2016 Presidential Election. The surprise victory of the self-described outsider Donald Trump has divided the nation and experts are scrambling to come up with clear predictions of the President-Elect’s future policies. Among his many campaign promises were a bevy of foreign policy goals promising an “America First” foreign policy. But what does this mean?
In dozens of interviews, speeches and debates over the past year, President-Elect Trump has pledged to renegotiate trade deals, take a hard line on China, eliminate ISIS using a Cold-War style strategy and a wide array of other lofty goals. With a Republican House of Representatives and Senate and the potential to influence the make-up of the Supreme Court, President-Elect Trump has the possibility to enact real change at home and abroad. Still, since many of his proposals, especially in the foreign policy realm, have been met with skepticism by veteran members of his own party, the question becomes whether President Trump will be able to unilaterally carry out his vision.
In order to assess what the Trump administration is capable of, we must first look at what foreign policy power the president actually has. The answer to that, as is the answer with many constitutional questions in the US, is very vague. The actual powers delineated in the constitution are as follows: he is the commander in chief; he appoints ambassadors; he can negotiate treaties, and he appoints the Secretary of State. Every President has interpreted these powers differently. President-Elect Trump is fortunate to follow in the footsteps of two presidents who expanded the executive authority over foreign policy decisions immensely.
Can we continue relying on internet hosts to be solely responsible for taking down offensive content or hate speech?
Last week’s headlines traced the scuffle between Norway and Mark Zuckerberg when one of Norway’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten, criticised Facebook for removing their photos of the ‘napalm girl’ on account of child nudity. The photo of the ‘napalm girl’ or Phan Thị Kim Phúc, from Vietnam and now a Canadian citizen, was taken on 7th June1972 during the Vietnam War. It shows her as a nine year-old-child, running away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack which left her severely burned. Taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, the image is world famous for its depiction of the violence of the Vietnam conflict. Zuckerberg later reneged on his decision to remove the photo and acknowledged the iconic status of the historical image. Whilst this incident might primarily raise alarm bells about the power that Facebook wields over our modern lives, it is also symptomatic of the arbitrariness of online content monitoring.
Alongside its status as one of the most democratic exercises in information sharing, the internet is home to an increasing body of offensive content and unchecked manifestations of hate speech. Whilst some self-censuring is taking place, (for example in the form of ‘NSFW’ indications and ‘content notes’), such warnings are essentially used in a humorous manner. If there’s to be a concerted effort to tackle hate speech and offensive material which transcends the old adage of turning a blind eye, how is this to be achieved?
Should governments and the international community have a role to play?
Simply put, the answer from the European Convention on Human Rights is a resounding no. Article 10 ECHR guarantees freedom of expression for all and goes on to say that:
‘This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’
This freedom is extended to internet users and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has confirmed that ‘the state [must] not exercise surveillance over Internet users’ communications and activity on the internet except when this is strictly in compliance with Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention.’ The Court’s case law confirms a support for freedom of expression, even if the article does allow some margin of appreciation for states to take restrictive measures, as was the case in Delfi v. Estonia , where the court held that there had not been a violation of Article 10.
Similarly, Article 11 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’.
This is inherently a good thing. Of course there are some countries in Europe where the systematic blocking of whole websites has severely reduced freedom of expression and access to internet material to an unacceptable level. Consider the recent ECHR case, Cengiz and others v. Turkey, where the court unanimously held that there had been a violation of article 10 due to the blocking of access to Google over a long period(Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey ). And yet, the question we must ask ourselves is, if governments aren’t checking online content, then who is?
Net neutrality: a commercial myth?
The hands-off approach taken to internet monitoring by national governments (as advised by the Council of Europe and EU) results in a two-fold problem:
this leaves internet providers and website hosts – i.e. private companies – in charge of monitoring content;
these companies are sensitive to legal threats, as well as their reputation among their users and end up haphazardly take down content without serious reflection.
In the case of the former, the crux is this: when we leave it to web hosts to decide what is suitable content and what isn’t, we are allowing organisations with their own commercial, social and political agendas to act as the moral arbiters for all society. Is this democratic?
And in the case of the latter, this is exactly what happened with Facebook napalm incident. Is this double burden of total freedom and total responsibility not actually counter-productive to freedom of expression online? As the 2016 Annual report on state of human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe concludes:
‘the fact that internet intermediaries fear being held liable for the content they transmit may have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression online.’
If we’re serious about blocking hate speech and inappropriate content, we need more explicit guidelines from governments and IOs. As it stands, we hail our freedom from government censorship but are trapped in an online game where private web hosts write their own rulebooks.