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Human Rights Committee reviews the situation of civil and political rights in Estonia

Human Rights Committee

5 March 2019

The Human Rights Committee concluded today its review of the fourth periodic report of Estonia on measures taken to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Annely Kolk, Under-Secretary General for Legal and Consular Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, introduced the report and said that on 1 January, the Chancellor of Justice had taken on the functions of a national human rights institution and that the procedure of its accreditation under the Paris Principles had been initiated.  The main policy for gender equality, the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023 and its Gender Equality Programme, contained a range of measures to promote gender equality, with particular attention paid to the fight against negative gender stereotypes.  Despite the efforts, gender pay gap remained among the largest in the European Union, and was one of the biggest challenges Estonia was facing at the moment.  The amendments to the Penal Code in 2015 enabled better addressing of violence against women, including domestic violence, and stalking and sexual harassment had been criminalized in 2017.  Ms. Kolk stressed the special attention given to promoting the capabilities of the umbrella organizations and cultural societies of the national minorities, while the support to services supporting Estonian language learning and instruction had increased and diversified the opportunities for learning the official language.  Estonia continued to address the situation of 75,191 persons with undetermined nationality and supporting them towards attaining full citizenship, she concluded.

In the discussion that followed, Committee Experts welcomed Estonia’s efforts to implement the Committee’s concluding observations issued after the review in 2010 and the fact that a third of the elected deputies on 3 March were women, although Parliament remained overwhelmingly male.  Experts asked about the direct application of the Covenant in the courts and the fact that, even though Russians were the main minority, the Committee’s official documents were not translated into the Russian language.  Praising the efforts to increase public and institutional awareness on gender equality, Experts urged Estonia to provide steady funding for the campaigns and to consider the adoption of quotas for women’s representation in public and private sectors.  Experts discussed at length the need to broaden the prohibited grounds for discrimination, and protect individuals from discrimination, hatred, and violence based on race and on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to criminalize the promotion of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, as well as organizations inciting racial discrimination.  A serious issue of concern was statelessness, particularly in the light of the fact that the country was not a party to the 1954 Convention on Statelessness, therefore, the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of citizenship could lead to better protection of rights of persons of undetermined citizenship, Experts stressed.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Kolk emphasized that Estonia was very devoted to the protection of human rights and expressed general appreciation for the work of all treaty bodies.

Ahmed Amin Fathalla, Committee Chairperson, in his concluding remarks, praised the numerous positive advancements made by Estonia in the field of civil and political rights.

The delegation of Estonia consisted of the representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Affairs, and the representatives of the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The concluding remarks on Estonia will be published at the end of the session on 29 March.  All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The Committee’s public meetings are webcast live at http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today, 5 March, to start the dialogue with Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the absence of a report.

Report

The Committee has before it the fourth periodic report of Estonia (CCPR/C/EST/4).

Presentation of the Report

ANNELY KOLK, Under-Secretary General for Legal and Consular Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, in the introduction of the report, said that parliamentary elections had been held on 3 March, in which more than a quarter of voters had opted for electronic voting.  On 1 January, as stipulated by the June 2018 act passed by Parliament, the Chancellor of Justice had taken on the functions of a national human rights institution, becoming a member of the European Network of national human rights institutions on 21 February 2019.  The procedure for its accreditation under the Paris Principles had been initiated.  The main policy for gender equality, the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023 and its Gender Equality Programme, contained a range of measures to promote gender equality, from awareness raising to legislative initiatives to temporary special measures to gender mainstreaming, with particular attention paid to the fight against negative gender stereotypes.  Despite the efforts, gender pay gap remained among the largest in the European Union and represented one of the biggest challenges Estonia was facing at the moment, acknowledged Ms. Kolk.

With regard to the protection, dignity and rights of victims, Ms. Kolk highlighted important amendments to the Penal Code in 2015 to better address violence against women, including domestic violence, which included a redefinition of a number of violent crimes.  Thus, physical assault against a person in a close relationship or in a relationship of subordination was an aggravated offence and carried more severe punishment.  The new categorization of domestic violence allowed law enforcement to record and deal with incidents more effectively, improved the understanding of the dimensions of the problem, and increased awareness of the suffering and risks faced especially by women and children and other vulnerable persons such as seniors and persons with disabilities.  Estonia had amended in 2015 the crime of torture to bring it in line with the standards of the United Nations Convention against Torture, and had criminalized stalking and sexual harassment in 2017, which was followed by the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention). 

Turning to the introduction and promotion of the cultures of the national minorities, Ms. Kolk stressed the special attention given to promoting the capabilities of the umbrella organizations and cultural societies of the national minorities, while the support to services supporting Estonian language learning and instruction had increased and diversified the opportunities for learning the official language.

One specific challenge Estonia was working on addressing, continued Ms. Kolk, was the situation of people with undetermined nationality and supporting them towards attaining full citizenship.  As of January 2019, there were 75,191 such persons, representing 5.5 per cent of the country’s population.  Several legislative changes had been adopted to facilitate naturalization procedures, especially for children and elderly, while other measures aimed to increase the interest of people with undetermined citizenship to apply for Estonian nationality, including by offering free language courses or by allowing paid leave for purposes of learning the language to those individuals who wanted to apply for the citizenship and who were residents for at least five years.  According to the Observatory of Integration and its latest survey in 2017, the efforts were bearing fruit, and the knowledge of the Estonian language by non-speakers was improving, especially among young people. 

In conclusion, Ms. Kolk stressed that in Estonia, integration aimed to ensure that all nationalities living in the country were guaranteed a tolerant society where everyone could feel comfortable and safe - to work, to study, to develop their culture, and to be a full member of the society.

Questions by the Committee Experts

At the beginning of the dialogue, the Committee Experts welcomed Estonia’s efforts to implement the Committee’s concluding observations issued after the review in 2010 and asked whether there was a specific system to monitor the implementation of the treaty bodies’ concluding observations and to disseminate them in the country in order to raise public awareness.  In the same vein, was the civil society involved in the drafting of the report, the Experts asked, noting the small number of Estonian civil society organizations present in the room.

The delegation was asked about the specific mechanisms to implement the Committee’s views on individual communication, the progress in the implementation of the Zeynal vs. Estonia case, and whether the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were directly applicable in domestic courts.  The Experts also asked about a change in the legislation to provide for mechanisms to assist the Chancellor in creating the Bureau for the Implementation of the Covenant, to enable it to function effectively since it needed to cover numerous functions.  While Russians were the country’s main minority, there was the lack of translation of some of the official texts into the Russian language, noted the Experts, also expressing concern about xenophobic and racist statements by public figures.

The Experts acknowledged the changes to the Criminal Code and the progress in combatting domestic violence, asking about specific measures in place to encourage the filing of complaints.  They also welcomed Estonia's efforts to penalize torture and ill-treatment, however, the definition remained rather narrow and did not cover all its forms.  The national prevention mechanism against torture had not yet been established, leading to the lack of investigation and prosecution, as in the events during the “Bronze Night”.   How was the independence guaranteed during investigations of allegations of abuse by the state officials?
  
They welcomed that a third of the elected deputies on 3 March were women, and remarked that Parliament remained overwhelmingly male.  The Experts praised the efforts to increase public and institutional awareness on gender equality, and in this context emphasized the importance of providing sustainable funding for the campaigns, since they seemed to rely mainly on foreign financing.  When would the envisaged changes of the role of Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner come into effect, and was the adoption of quotas for women’s representation in public and private sectors being considered?

On the matter of the hierarchy of protection under the Equal Treatment Act, Experts noted that it created “inequalities within equality” and did not provide for an appeal procedure for discrimination outside the workplace.  The delegation was asked to explain the ongoing process to amend the Act and abolish the hierarchy of protection against discrimination. 
A serious issue of concern in Estonia was statelessness, particularly in the light of the fact that the country was not a party to the 1954 Convention on Statelessness.  Therefore, the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of citizenship in the broad sense could lead to better protection of the rights of stateless persons.  Commenting on the impact of Estonian language proficiency requirements on the enjoyment of human rights, Experts asked whether a legislative amendment was being considered to formally enumerate this and other grounds for discrimination the Act.

The Committee then inquired about discrimination and hate speech against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, asking whether such cases had reached the courts and what sentences had been imposed.  Was Estonia considering amending its Penal Code to strengthen the protection against discrimination, particularly with regard to hatred and violence based on race and sexual orientation and gender identity, and to criminalize the public promotion of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and organizations inciting racial discrimination?  Estonia was one of the world’s most wired and technologically advanced countries, but in the absence of criminalization of hate speech or hate crimes, how could it effectively use data generated through the ramped up information technology support, beyond record keeping and statistical purposes.

The delegation was asked to inform the Committee on the use of constraints in penal institutions and to explain how internal control units in prisons and the Ministry of Justice promoted impartiality and independence in the investigation of complains.  How was solitary confinement limited to being the last resort measure? 

As for the situation of persons with mental and psychosocial disabilities, the Experts inquired about the procedure guaranteeing the right to fair trial, their free and informed consent to treatment, and the criteria guiding decision to apply coercive psychiatric treatment.  What measures were in place to improve inclusive education of children with disabilities from an early age?

Replies by the Delegation

Responding to questions raised, the delegation explained that the Committee’s concluding observations, as well as the recommendations made during the Universal Periodic Review process and the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, were disseminated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to all Government offices and educational facilities.  They were also disseminated to civil society organizations, however there was a lack of reaction on their part.  Estonia had consulted with civil society in the run up to this review.  The concluding observations were disseminated in Estonian and English, the delegation said, acknowledging the need to translate them to all minority languages, including Russian, however, this was not financially feasible at the moment. 

The Constitution gave primacy over the domestic law to the ratified international treaties and agreements.  It was therefore possible to appeal to the courts by invoking the Covenant, even though, as a general rule, complainants relied on domestic legislation.  It was increasingly common for Estonian courts, including the Supreme Court, to base their decisions on the provisions of international instruments.  There were regular trainings for the judges on the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

Turning to questions raised on persons with undetermined citizenship, the delegation said that one third of the population did not have Estonian nationality in the aftermath of the restoration of independence in 1991. All such persons had the right to stay in Estonia and were treated as citizens.  The percentage was now only 5.5 per cent, and 57 per cent of people with indeterminate citizenship said they wanted to acquire Estonian citizenship.  The 2016 Amendments to the Citizenship Act enabled the children under the age of 14 whose parents resided in the country for at least five years to become citizens of Estonia by the way of naturalization; that citizenship could not be revoked.  The language examination for the citizenship procedure had been simplified for persons over the age of 65, who now had to only pass the oral language exam.

Several amendments of the Criminal Code had improved the collection of evidence and the protection of the victims of domestic violence.  All victims of abuse had the right to access support services, and tailored-made programmes were developed to support individuals.  Medical and psychological services for victims of sexual abuse were available in four hospitals in Estonia.  Domestic violence was the most common form of violence, said the delegation, accounting for more than 80 per cent of the reported cases.  In 2018, a total of 3,607 cases of violent offences had been registered of which 86 cases of marital rape.  Also in 2018, 485 persons had been convicted of the offence of the physical abuse committed in a close relationship or relationship of subordination. 

Efforts were being made to encourage victims to seek help, which meant protecting them from double victimization; protective measures were being provided for in this context.  Starting in 2017, the victim had the right to request that the complaint be examined or investigated by a person of the same sex.  A support service for women victims had been created and Estonian society was now more aware of the problem.  The implementation of domestic violence legislation was effective and awareness on the issue had substantially grown, concluded the delegate. 

If torture was not specifically defined by law, Estonia's justice was based on the definition provided by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the delegation explained.  The European Convention on Human Rights was another source of Estonian law in this area, and those international standards were binding in Estonian law.

There was a steady increase in duties and the budget of the Gender and Equal Treatment Commissioner, from €51,000 euros in 2016 to €897,000 in 2019.  The volume of the external resources depended on the specific projects but it did not influence the fixed funding of the Commissioner’s Office by the State.  The position of the Commissioner was independent and impartial, however there was not as yet tangible progress in mandating the position the authority to bring cases before the court.  There were several public awareness raising campaigns on the Commissioner, whose success could be measured by the rise in the number of complaints from 59 in 2009 to 440 in 2017.

Estonia regularly monitored the effectiveness gender equality policies and measures.  Gender stereotypes were quite persistent and were one of the issues that needed to be worked on, including through the media.  As part of the wider gender equality campaigns in 2010 and 2013, seven videos had been produced and continue to be used.  Estonia’s gender pay gap was 25.6 per cent, the highest in the European Union.  Different events had been organized in close cooperation with civil society organizations, including public debates workshops, in order to raise awareness on the importance of the gender pay gap problem.

Following the latest elections, women represented one third of Members of Parliament, which was a small step in improving their political representation.  There was a slow but steady increase in the number of women in managerial positions, from 31 to 39 per cent, while around one third of entrepreneurs were women.  A number of measures were already in place to promote political and economic representation and participation of women, while the introduction of quotas was also being discussed.

The amendments of the Equal Treatment Act had been sent to Government for approval in 2018 which aimed to broaden the current focus on protection from discrimination in employment, and include prohibited grounds such as age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion.  More focused data collection on minorities, including sexual minorities, enabled the improvement of policies to support their equal treatment and the enjoyment of human rights.

Hate crime cases could be addressed through the combination of the specific offence section and section that provides for aggravated circumstances in the Criminal Code.  Online world was a particular centre of the attention for law enforcement who started using an application in 2016 to identify cases of online hate, as well as to better categorize and record hate crimes and classify them as motivated by race, religion, origin, sexual orientation or identity, or other form of hatred.  Since 2015, data on hate crimes were being included in the annual report on crime in Estonia.

There was no regulation for informed consent in applying coercive psychiatric treatment which nevertheless remained a last resort measure and was applied only in the person posed danger to self or others.  Coercive psychiatric treatment order was provided by the court based on the forensic psychiatric examination by the National Forensic Institute or under its supervision. 

The prisons and the Department of Prisons were responsible to ensure the respect of human rights of detainees and to address any breaches.  The Chancellor of Justice monitored places of detention, including through unannounced visits any institutions announced and unannounced.  Prison officials received training on the permitted use of restraint.  solitary confinement was used in the most severe cases and the punishment was determined based on the nature and gravity of offence.  Detainees had the right to complain for the punishment enacted on them.

With regard to juvenile delinquency, Estonia had taken the rehabilitative and restorative approach and aligned the goals of the criminal policy and child rights policy, and deprivation of liberty was the last resort.  The decision to place a child in an institution was guided not only by the act committed but by the problems that lied underneath, such as psychosocial and family problems, and sometimes had undiagnosed disabilities.  Young offenders were considered to be in need of assistance rather than punishment.  Those placed in closed institutions were safe and had good support, with the standard of one professional for three children.

Questions by the Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, the Committee Experts addressed the issue of human trafficking and asked the delegation to explain the amendments of the Victim Support Act, and especially how those would support early victim identification, and remedy.  It appeared that legal aid for refugees and asylum seekers was inadequate, and the efficiency of the system as a whole was questioned.  The delegation was invited to explain the issue of registration of applications, which with a three-days deadline seemed excessively short, and whether the number of the border officials was sufficient to address the issues in a timely manner.

The delegation was requested to explain how it implemented the Committee’s previous recommendations concerning the integration of the Russian minority in all areas of life in the country.  The Experts remarked that their participation in the labour market was still at a low level, both in private and public sector, which could affect the enjoyment of their civil and political rights.

The Committee welcomed the amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure concerning the right of detained persons to a notification of custody, which however did not seem to be uniformly applied.  Which were the specific cases in which detainees were deprived of their right to notification and for which reasons?  Were the Ministry of Interior regulations on medical care of prisoners binding on prison authorities and what were the sanctions for those who failed to provide a medical examination upon arrival?  What was being done to ensure full confidentiality in medical information and examination in accordance with the Mandela Rules?

The Committee had received numerous reports on poor detention conditions in the Haapsalu Police Detention House and the disciplinary unit of the old Tallinn Prison, as well as reports on prison authorities refusing to accept complaints that were not in Estonian.  What was being done to address those concerns, on steps taken to put an end to the practice of holding remanded prisoners in police detention, and the initiatives to address prolonged pre-trial detention?  Would the blanket ban on prisoner voting be lifted?

The Committee noted a difference in legislation concerning a warning and a sympathy strike and asked the delegation to explain the purpose of such drastic differences in duration and required notification required before those strikes took place.  Had there been measures taken to bring the strike regulations in line with the Constitution?

Committee Experts welcomed the adoption of the Child Protection Act in 2014 and other improvements made in the area of child protection, and asked the delegation to explain the steps taken to support parents to raise children without violence, and especially to outline the measures to address the spread of sexual violence against children and young people and implement the strategy to prevent the violence.  Was corporal punishment explicitly forbidden in all settings?

Response by the Delegation

In response, the delegation explained that trafficking in persons and victim support legislation had been amended on several occasions.  The definition of victims of human trafficking had been amended in 2017 and it now enabled a better identification of such cases.  In the new Act, not just victims, but the potential and suspected victims of trafficking, had the right to support such as safe accommodation, financial, legal, medical and psychosocial services, and translation services, to name a few.  The Social Insurance Board was a central body in charge of regulating and coordinating the support to victims of trafficking.

When it came to asylum seekers, the delegation said that all cases were investigated within three days.  In order to guarantee sufficient legal support, information was provided in language they understood as soon as possible and no later than 15 days upon the application had been made, and legal and medical assistance were provided at the borders.  The deadline for the asylum procedure was six months, extendable for another three months.  A migrant detention centre with a capacity of 100 places had been opened.   Estonia respected the principle of non-refoulement and police and border guards were trained to determine who could apply for international protection.  Any indication by the foreigner that the return to his or her country was impossible was sufficient to guarantee the registration and acceptance of the application.  Legal aid was provided to applicants whose demand was rejected, to enable them to contest the decision in the court.

More than a hundred languages ​​were spoken in Estonia, the delegation said, explaining that the language of instruction was regulated only on the upper level of public secondary education, where 60 per cent of curricula had to be in Estonian.  The language of instruction in private school was decided by the schools themselves.  Knowledge of the Estonian language was constantly improving, with only ten percent of non-Estonians not speaking the national language.

The lack of knowledge of Estonian language was the biggest obstacle to integration in the labour market, and Estonia was taking concerted efforts to support language learning and aid job creation in areas where Estonian was not widely spoken, particularly the Northeast.   "Estonian houses" had been opened in the capital and in the Narva region, which was mostly Russian-speaking, the Ministry of Culture subsidized 300 cultural associations of the minorities, and people who had difficulty finding work because of a poor knowledge of the language could take free language courses – over the past three years, more than 70,000 persons had expressed a wish to learn Estonian.  Within the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023, there were campaigns to raise awareness of employers of the advantages of the multicultural working environment and increase the employment of the residents that spoke other languages; financial aid was available for employers who recruited at least 20 new employees.  Finally, the mobility support helped increase the employment possibility and was paid during the first four months of the commencement of the employment.

Turning to the questions raised on the rights of detainees and condition of detention, the delegation outlined the legislative and policy measures that reduced the number of detained persons.  In Tallinn prison, a new building had replaced the old one at the end of 2018, and all the prisons in the country – three at the moment - had new buildings and were well equipped.  The arrest house had also been renovated, and was now being used only as a temporary detention facility.  Many of the complaints by prisoners had reached the Supreme Court, the delegation said, reaffirming that they were received regardless of the language they were lodged in.  The translation was paid for by the prison authorities, while the Chancellor of Justice was also available to prisoners if they wished to lodge a complaint.  The matter of voting rights for prisoners was being widely discussed lately, said the delegation, noting that hopefully, the analysis prepared by the Ministry of Justice would be on the agenda of the next Government. 

Estonia aimed to ensure that prisoners’ medical care was equal to health care provided to the general population.  The provision of health services in prisons was covered by three regulations which provided for specific requirements of adequate medical care in places of detention, including patient privacy and the doctor patient privilege.  The regulations of the Ministry of Interior were obligatory for all prisons, and provided for medical screening of all new detainees.  The arrest houses were covered by the regulation of the Ministry of Justice and, if necessary, the screenings were granted on case to case basis. 

The Collective Labour Dispute Resolution Act provided that employees and their associations or federations had the right to organize warning strikes lasting up to one hour, and hold a solidarity strike with other strikers of up to three days.  A strike notice must be submitted in writing to the employer and to the territorial collectivity, at least three days in advance for a warning strike and at least five days in advance for a solidarity strike.  Civil servants did not have the right to strike.
 
The Child Protection Agency had been set up in 2016, with the mandate to advise child protection workers and police on situations in which children were at risk.  Temporary separation from the family was only done when that was in the child’s best interest.  Parenting education was a priority for the Government and the municipalities, and a number of such programmes had been put in place, as well as a webpage that addressed parenting issues and disseminated the best parenting practices.  Estonia had wide-reaching campaigns on prevention of sexual abuse of children and the importance of reporting of sexual abuse cases.  Corporal punishment was punishable under the Child Protection Act, while physical punishment was also punishable under the Criminal Code.  Anti-bullying was a high priority topic and there was a steady funding of the programmes to strengthen the competence to detect, address, and resolve such cases.

Concluding Remarks

ANNELY KOLK, Under-Secretary General for Legal and Consular Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, in her concluding remarks, thanked the Committee for the fruitful discussion and emphasized that Estonia was very devoted to the protection of human rights.

Ahmed Amin Fathalla, Committee Chairperson, praised the numerous positive advancements made by Estonia in the field of civil and political rights and expressed hope that the recommendations given by the Committee would be seriously taken into account.

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