13 July 2010
The Human Rights Committee has considered the third periodic report of Estonia on the measures undertaken by that country to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Presenting the report, Marten Kokk, Secretary General of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that since 2007 the Chancellor of Justice was the preventive state authority (national preventive mechanism) provided for in Article 3 of the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In the performance of his duty, the Chancellor of Justice regularly carried out visits to places of detention. The places were chosen according to the need to inspect places of detention systematically and after regular intervals, probability of ill-treatment, characteristics of detainees, etc. In addition, any information received by the Chancellor (such as complaints by prisoners) indicating the need for immediate inspection was taken into account. As a result of inspection visits, a summary was compiled and publicized, containing recommendations and proposals to the inspected establishment and other relevant authorities.
Regarding trafficking in human beings, Mr. Kokk noted that Estonia had criminalized human trafficking. At the end of 2009 the Ministry of Justice had acknowledged the need to amend the Penal Code and establish a separate paragraph on human trafficking that would most probably be submitted to the parliament in 2010. There were now functioning shelters for victims of human trafficking and a helpline for its prevention. The awareness of the public on the issue of human trafficking had been raised, the cooperation network of combating human trafficking was functioning and the cooperation between different organizations had improved, which also ensured a more effective proceeding of human trafficking cases and assisting of victims by different authorities and organizations. Victims of human trafficking were entitled to medical, psychological, social and legal assistance, provided by non-governmental organizations, but financed by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Over the course of two meetings, the Estonian delegation answered questions by Committee members relating to a number of issues, including compensation to victims of torture, gender equality and the issue of equal pay for equal work, residence permits for victims of human trafficking, legal safeguards for detainees and the living conditions of prisoners. Committee Experts raised numerous questions regarding the office of the Chancellor of Justice, particularly whether the office met the requirements of the Paris Principles, whether it was provided with sufficient resources to carry out its mandate, whether the State had considered applying for accreditation for the office through an international body and whether the office had the ability to enforce recommendations made by the Chancellor of Justice. Committee Experts expressed concern about the right of civil servants to strike as well as awareness among judges, lawyers and prosecutors of the provisions of the Covenant and the implementation of these provisions through case law. The Experts asked numerous questions about allegations of police brutality and ill treatment stemming from an incident of mass disturbances in 2007, and asked the delegation what had been done since that time to provide compensation to victims who might have been illegally detained as well as punishment of perpetrators and training of police to avoid future incidences such as this. The Committee also asked the delegation to elaborate on the issue of intolerance toward sexual minorities in the country.
The Estonian delegation included representatives from various governmental departments and ministries including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chancellor of Justice, the Commission of Gender Equality and Equal Treatment and the Estonian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.
When the Committee resumes its work at 3 p.m. this afternoon it will begin its review of the third periodic report of Israel (CCPR/C/ISR/3).
Report of Estonia
The third periodic report of Estonia states that a programme for ‘Promoting Gender Equality 2008-2010’ has been prepared in the framework of the measure for promoting gender equality under the priority of ‘Good quality and long working life’ of the Operational Programme for Human Resource Development. This programme should encompass Estonia’s main actions towards reducing gender inequality and promoting gender equality in the next few years. The objectives of actions include increasing people’s awareness of their rights and obligations, as well as creating conditions for reduction of wage differences.
The Population Health Strategy 2008-2020 has also been adopted in Estonia. The general objective of the Strategy is to increase the number of healthy life years by decreasing mortality and morbidity rates. The Strategy defines five thematic areas: focusing on the increase in social cohesion and equal opportunities, ensuring healthy and safe development of children, development of a health-supportive environment, promotion of healthy lifestyle and securing sustainability of the healthcare system. The priorities, strategic objectives and measure packages required to achieve the general objective of the Strategy have been grouped under these thematic areas.
Both the UN Committee against Torture and the Human Rights Information Centre have stated that the formulation of Section 122 of the Estonian Penal Code does not seem to comply fully with the definition provided in the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Government agrees with this but is of the opinion that the Penal Code as a whole fully covers the definition of torture in the Convention. Article 18 of the Constitution lays down an absolute prohibition of torture, to which no exceptions can be made even in a state of war or emergency. In addition, according to Section 9 (3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, participants in a proceeding shall not be subjected to torture or other cruel or inhuman treatment and shall be treated without defamation or degradation of their dignity. Statements obtained under torture may not be used as evidence.
In January 2006, the Government of Estonia approved the ‘Development Plan for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings 2006-2009’. The objectives of the development plan foresee continuous mapping of the problems related to human trafficking, prevention of human trafficking by informing the public, development of the skills of the specialists, provision of assistance and rehabilitation to the victims of human trafficking, improving border control and control over employment mediation, and effective reaction to criminal offences related to human trafficking.
In terms of juvenile justice, the Code of Criminal Procedure provides for procedural specifications both in the case of the accused and witnesses who are minors. The Penal Code also provides for possible sanctions applicable to minors that can be applied instead of a punishment. As concerns proceedings against minors, if at the time of commission of the criminal offence the person was a minor, the participation of a counsel throughout a criminal proceeding is mandatory.
Presentation of the Report
MARTEN KOKK, Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, presenting the third periodic report of Estonia, said the delegation was interested in having a constructive dialogue with the Committee and it would do its best to assist the Committee’s consideration of Estonia’s report to the greatest possible extent.
Mr. Kokk began by addressing a list of issues to be taken up with the consideration of the third periodic report of Estonia. In terms of the application of the Gender Equality Act, since 2005 the provisions of the Act had been invoked directly in courts at least three times; none of the cases concerned the principle of equal pay for equal work and no violation of the act was established. A relevant judgement of the Supreme Court had been referred to in the reply to the list of issues, as well as the description of cases that were currently pending.
With regards to legislation criminalizing attempted crimes against core human rights, Mr. Kokk noted that such legislation had been adopted and thus far no proceedings had been instituted under that provision.
Turning to the prevention of torture, Mr. Kokk informed the Committee that since 2007 the Chancellor of Justice was the preventive state authority (national preventive mechanism) provided for in Article 3 of the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In the performance of his duty, the Chancellor of Justice regularly carried out visits to places of detention. The places were chosen according to the need to inspect places of detention systematically and after regular intervals, probability of ill-treatment, characteristics of detainees, etc. In addition, any information received by the Chancellor (such as complaints by prisoners) indicating the need for immediate inspection was taken into account. During the inspection visits the Chancellor provided an opportunity for a meeting for all individuals held in the place of detention, as well as their close ones and members of the staff. In addition, the detainees could turn to the Chancellor of Justice by means of other procedures (petitions of constitutional review procedure) in the competence of the Chancellor. As a result of inspection visits, a summary was compiled and publicized, containing recommendations and proposals to the inspected establishment and other relevant authorities. The victims of torture were entitled to compensation under the general victim support compensation schemes. However, Estonia did not have statistics regarding allocation of compensation in cases related to specific criminal offenses. The information regarding individual victims of specific crimes was protected under the Personal Data Protection Act.
Regarding trafficking in human beings, Mr. Kokk noted that Estonia had criminalized human trafficking. At the end of 2009 the Ministry of Justice had acknowledged the need to amend the Penal Code and establish a separate paragraph on human trafficking that would most probably be submitted to the parliament in 2010. Also, Estonia had signed the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings on 3 February 2010 and would ratify the convention once the domestic regulations were brought into accordance with the convention. For implementing the Development Plan for Trafficking in Human Beings, almost 7 million Estonian kroons had been spent on the activities foreseen in the development plan instead of the planned 5 million Estonian kroons. There were now functioning shelters for victims of human trafficking and a helpline for the prevention of human trafficking. The awareness of the public on the issue of human trafficking had been raised, the cooperation network of combating human trafficking was functioning and the cooperation between different organizations had improved, which therefore also ensured a more effective proceeding of human trafficking cases and assisting of victims by different authorities and organizations. It was difficult to estimate the actual impact on numbers of human trafficking cases, as there had only been a few each year.
Victims of human trafficking were entitled to medical, psychological, social and legal assistance, provided by non-governmental organizations, but financed by the Ministry of Social Affairs. In addition, all persons who had fallen victim to negligence, mistreatment or mental, physical, or sexual abuse were entitled to victim support as stated in the Victim Support Act. Compensation was also available for victims of crime. The Victim Support Act and the national Victim Support System were available to all victims of human trafficking.
Mr. Kokk then addressed the issue of legal safeguards for detainees. He stated that in general all the legal safeguards for detainees, including access to doctors and lawyers, ability to inform a relative, information on charges brought and access to a judge, were set out in the Constitution and further elaborated in the procedure codes for administrative and criminal proceedings. When a person was apprehended, he or she would be notified immediately of the reasons for doing so; their rights and obligations had to be explained and they would be given the opportunity to notify at least one person close to them, as well as an opportunity to the assistance of legal counsel. No one could be detained longer than 48 hours without permission from the court.
The living conditions of prisoners had improved significantly due to the reform of the prison system. Out of five prisons operating in Estonia in 2010, two had new cell type prisons; the work continued on a third one. Also, changes in the principles of being release on parole were implemented in 2007 along with the possibility of applying electronic surveillance, enabling a further decrease in the number of inmates. Since 2007 the number of prisoners had decreased considerably and was currently 3,507. As of 2015 the Minister of Justice would introduce the maximum allowed number of prisoners per concrete prison facility.
As regards the conditions of mental health facilities, Mr. Kook said that the Chancellor of Justice regularly visited such facilities and had concluded that the living conditions were generally satisfactory, although there was room for improvement, especially with regard to psychiatric services. There seemed however, to be a lack of regulatory norms and standards.
Questions by Committee Members
One Committee Member noted that Estonia was one of the few countries that had made a very fast transition from a former authoritarian country to a European Union country. In order to be a member of the European Union, a country had to observe the rule of law, be a democratic country and meet the Copenhagen principles so it would be fair to hold Estonia to a high standard for human rights. Having said that, the Committee Member wanted to know to what extent the lack of application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights through the courts had to do with the fact that lawyers and judges were not fully aware of the Covenant or whether the Covenant was overshadowed by European Union laws.
The Committee Member also asked the delegation to elaborate on the imprisonment law and whether it applied to pre-trial detention. The delegation was also asked whether denying someone the right to contact a relative was left to the sole discretion of the prosecutor. The Chancellor of Justice did not review the judiciary, but he could review prosecutors and the Committee wanted to know whether the Chancellor had ever done so. Also of interest to the Committee was the question of whether there had been any effects from the move away from detention and to community service for some offenders? The Committee also asked whether the decreasing number of prison inmates was due to a decrease in crime or the way sentences were applied by the courts or other factors such as electronic monitoring. Also, could the delegation tell the Committee how many cases filed by inmates alleging violations of their rights were successful and had the situation for disabled prisoners improved?
The Committee raised concerns that there did not seem to be a deadline as to when a case had to be heard for pre-trial detainees. How long could someone be held in pre-trial detention?
One Committee Member pointed out that there were criticisms that Estonia’s Chancellor of Justice did not reflect fully the responsibilities outlined under the Paris Principles. According to this view the Chancellor was not to be actively involved in enforcing human rights, did not act as a coordinating body and had no role in facilitating cooperation between different state institutions or state institutions and civil society groups. How did the delegation respond to this criticism?
The Committee wanted to know how the criminal code fully covered the definition of torture as established in the Convention against Torture. While the Chancellor of Justice made recommendations, there was no information in the report or the State’s replies on the rate of implementation of these recommendations by facilities that were inspected. There was also no mention of whether the Chancellor of Justice was authorized to receive complaints from detainees regarding torture and ill-treatment.
The Committee went on to ask what could the State party do to ensure that people were aware of their right to equal pay for equal work and what recourse did they have if that right was violated? Also, concern was expressed that limited resources for the office of the Gender Equality Commissioner compromised the effectiveness of that office and its ability to do its work. The delegation was also asked whether there were any plans to create a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles with a broad mandate and a legal obligation to make sure all human rights were protected.
Regarding human trafficking, the Committee said that many institutions acknowledged this was a problem, not just in Estonia, but it was one they had to respond to nonetheless. Could the delegation provide a more certain answer as to when the penal code would be altered to include a provision regarding human trafficking, rather than just saying likely in 2010? The Committee would be appreciative of more information on what Estonia was doing now since their Development Plan against human trafficking was only from 2006-2009. What plans did the State have to continue addressing this issue and which office took the lead in this issue? If it was the Ministry of Justice, how did the State ensure that the social welfare needs of victims were met and the problem was not addressed as just a criminal offense issue? There were also concerns that the particular issues and problems of children who were victims of trafficking appeared not to receive due attention in Estonia. Also, would Estonia consider delinking residence permits for trafficking victims with the prosecution of the crime and could the delegation also provide information on how many of these residency permits had been granted to trafficking victims?
Regarding the question of equality of women and trafficking, this was something of importance to the international community. What was the treatment of women in minority communities in terms of gender equality? In terms of human trafficking, where was the demand coming from, who was creating these networks, and how could a country like Estonia control these networks?
With regard to the Chancellor of Justice and recommendations from that office, what was the procedure for enforcing the recommendations of the Chancellor? What was done if the recommendations were not implemented? On the question of an independent judiciary, what was the procedure for removing a judge from office?
Several Committee Experts had several additional questions regarding the office of the Chancellor of Justice. What was the status of the office, what means were at its disposal to take action, what was the budget for the office and resources provided to it? Would it be possible to get concrete statistics in terms of how many investigations had been initiated by the office, what follow-up had been taken and what were the results of these investigations?
The Committee wanted to know whether the State was making efforts to ensure the judiciary could implement the Covenant in a more progressive fashion and what was being done to educate judges about international human rights obligations. Also, the State party mentioned that it was working to harmonize the definition of torture to bring it into line with the Convention against Torture. How long would this take?
Additional concerns were raised about the Chancellor of Justice and the role of that office in linking non-governmental organizations with the government, particularly the non-governmental organizations that represented the most vulnerable groups such as prisoners, children, women and migrants. Was this institution accredited by any international body? To what extent were non-governmental organizations empowered to visit prisons?
One Committee Member pointed out that it was difficult to compare Baltic countries that had moved from authoritarian regimes to democratic societies with those countries in Eastern or Central Europe, as the issues were a bit more complex so the Committee was asked to keep that in mind.
Response by Delegation
Regarding the implementation of the Covenant through the courts, people tended to be very aware of their rights under European Union law and judges were well versed in the laws as well, but it did take time. The delegation gave examples of cases that were brought to court under the provisions of the Covenant by complainants who referred to various human rights instruments, including the Covenant.
The delegation then turned to the numerous questions surrounding the office of the Chancellor of Justice. The Chancellor of Justice was a constitutional body; it was not part of executive, judicial or legislative branches of the State. The work of the office was regulated by the act of parliament that established it and the independence of the office was guaranteed through appointment and working procedures. Concerning the independence of the body, it did comply with the Paris Principles. The Chancellor of Justice fulfilled the requirements that were laid out in the law that established it. The office fulfilled ordinary ombudsman functions based on the Swedish model. It stemmed from this that the outcome of the ombudsman procedure was not coercive, so decisions were not legally binding or enforceable through coercion or sanctions. So how could they say the office was effective? The fulfilment of the office’s recommendations was guaranteed through its high reliability and the high authority the office had among Estonians. The media also played an important role by publicizing the issues so that had an effect on the adoption of the recommendations as well. The replies of Estonia to the list of issues also contained more detailed information regarding the Chancellor’s office in terms of actual output, including number of cases under investigation and so on.
The second part of the Chancellor of Justice’s work consisted of conducting constitutional review and if the lower courts did not accept the Chancellor’s recommendations on a case, the Chancellor could go to the Supreme Court and this had been done and cases had been annulled on the basis of these appeals.
The third part of the work of the Chancellor of Justice concerned the mandate given under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. The Chancellor of Justice had been nominated as a national preventive mechanism under this protocol. In this task, the office also enjoyed cooperation with non-governmental organizations who dealt with patients’ rights and the rights of children and they accompanied the Chancellor on site visits.
Regarding the notification of relatives of detainees, this was one of the core rights of persons detained and the delegation wanted to clarify the policy for the Committee. Staff members of detention houses were required to check if a relative had been notified of the arrest or detention of a detainee and if this were not the case they were to then notify a relative. When inspection visits were made to arrest houses or prisons, they checked whether this notification was done. Who was called? When? If the person could not be reached, they tried again or someone else was notified?
The Chancellor of Justice had criticized public prosecutors for not allowing detainees to contact their relatives. The complainants were advised to challenge this with the state prosecutor and then in court, rather than going to the Chancellor of Justice as the first resort since the decisions of that office were not enforceable.
Regarding judiciary independence, the Chancellor of Justice also had the power to initiate disciplinary proceedings against judges in cases of grave violations. A delay in court proceedings were a main complaint. Judges were given a lifetime appointment and could only be removed when they reached the retirement age of 65 or they were convicted of a crime or a disciplinary panel decided to remove them. Whether the person should be convicted or acquitted was decided by a panel of judges from various levels of the judiciary and they also decided the punishment, the gravest of which was removal from office. This had not happened in more than 20 years in Estonia.
Moving on to human trafficking, the delegation said that it had been recommended several times that Estonia include specific language criminalizing human trafficking. They were trying to get this law passed, but there was a parliamentary election slated for next year so that could impact the timing, but in the meantime the State party would do everything in its power to enforce the laws that were on the books. The Minister of Justice was generally responsible for putting the Development Plan together to combat human trafficking and the latest plan had three components: domestic violence; violence against minors and violence perpetuated by minors; and human trafficking. The social aspects of human trafficking were addressed by the Minister of Social Affairs.
The current statistics showed that there had only been three cases of child trafficking in the last few years, but this did not mean there was not a problem. One of the first things the State party wanted to do was to improve its statistical collection procedures, including working with people who came into contact with victims such as social workers, doctors and teachers. There were also information campaigns directed at schools to raise awareness of trafficking among children and teachers as well as information aimed at tourists. These campaigns were done in different languages for those people who did not speak Estonian.
Turning to gender equality, the delegation said studies showed that it was true that Estonian minority women could be the victims of discrimination more frequently and this was being dealt with by the Gender Equality Commission. The delegation said it did not believe that it was the case that minority issues were prioritized over gender equality issues. With regards to equal pay for equal work, Estonia was among the European Union countries with the worst record in this area and it had undertaken a major campaign to raise awareness among men and women about this issue. The pay gap between men and women in Estonia was 40 per cent and this was due in part to the high segregation of the labour market so one aspect of the campaign was to break gender stereotypes to help men and women chose less stereotyped career paths. In terms of recourse, victims could file a complaint with the Gender Equality Commission, turn to the courts or undergo a voluntary arbitration procedure. There had been very few cases filed concerning unequal treatment concerning pay. The budget for the Gender Equality Commission was limited, but it was pointed out that the office was fairly new, having been established in 2005, and the first commissioner was still in her first term. There had been few reports and analysis on the gender equality and equal treatment legislation, due to a lack of resources, but in 2011 they would turn to more complex training and awareness-raising for the government and public sector.
There were also questions about the relationship of the Chancellor of Justice and the Gender Equality Commissioner. If the case involved a public body it was usually referred to the Chancellor of Justice. Remarking on the budget issue and funding for the Chancellor of Justice’s office, the delegation pointed out that Estonia would be switching to the euro next year so the State had to cut the budget of all ministries to meet their European Union obligations, but the hope was this was a temporary situation.
The delegation then addressed the issue of pre-trial detention, which was a maximum of six months and which could be prolonged only on very strict grounds. There had to be extraordinary circumstances for this to happen. But a distinction had to be made between pre-trial detentions and detentions during court procedures. There were no limitations for detentions during court proceedings. According to the delegation, it was possible in very limited cases to hold a trial in absentia, but the delegation could provide more information to the Committee at a later point.
On the topic of torture, the delegation said there were numerous provisions in the Estonian penal code that covered the definition of torture. The Committee against Torture concluded this was not sufficient, so the Ministry of Justice was looking into this and if it agreed Estonian law would be amended to bring it in line with the Convention against Torture.
It had been a long standing goal of the Government to reduce the number of prisoners in the country; the introduction of methods such as probation and electronic monitoring had decreased the prison population by more than 50 per cent in 20 years.
Many of the requirements for the Chancellor of Justice under the Paris Principles were met including independence, but it was not accredited by an international body as a national human rights institution because it did not meet all the requirements under the Paris Principles, for example the office did not have the power to write reports on the situation of human rights in the country. This did not mean that the other functions described under the Paris Principles were not being met. They were being met by non-governmental organizations or other government ministries.
Follow-Up Questions Raised by Committee Members
The Committee wanted to know why the office of the Chancellor of Justice had not been accredited, as there were different levels of accreditation and the office could probably be accredited at some level, even if it was not the highest level. This conferred great benefits.
It was pointed out that a number of countries seemed to wait to implement laws under the treaty body system until they had met European Union requirements and the Committee was interested in hearing why the European Union requirements seemed to be more pressing or carried more weight than obligations under various United Nations treaties.
The Committee asked the delegation to elaborate on what access to medical services disabled prisoners had while incarcerated.
Response by Delegation
As to the issue of accreditation of the Chancellor of Justice, the State had considered the question of accreditation and done its homework. They had listed all the requirements of the Paris Principles to see which functions they fulfilled and which ones they did not, and decided they would not meet the status for A accreditation so they asked themselves whether they should apply for B or C level status. Estonia was a bit afraid that if they applied for B accreditation it would seem like the office of the Chancellor of Justice was not really solid. But this was something that they had considered and would continue to consider.
Regarding the Development Plan for human trafficking, it dealt with other issues besides violence and the latest plan was actually centred on prevention of human trafficking through awareness raising and other methods.
The delegation duly noted the Committee’s concerns about the passage of European Union laws taking precedence over the implementation of treaty body laws. The delegation said it would also try to provide statistical data on pre-trial detainees.
In terms of access to medical treatment for disabled prisoners, there were medical facilities in prisons and if there were special needs that could not be met in prison, the inmate could be treated by a specialist outside the prison.
MARTEN KOKK, Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, reading out responses prepared by Estonia in response to the list of issues presented by the Committee concerning items 15 through 27 on the list of issues, said that in terms of migration, an alien who was in a same-sex relationship with a partner already residing in Estonia could not rely on family migration, as Estonia only recognized marriages, not partnerships. They could however, apply for a residence permit on other grounds, such as sufficient legal income (a residence permit could be issued on the condition that a person’s legal income ensured his or her subsistence). In such a case, the annual immigration quota for all aliens immigrating to Estonia would be applied to them.
With regards to asylum seekers, each application for asylum in Estonia was reviewed individually and impartially. The veracity of information provided was verified and the credibility of the statements made by the applicant was assessed. In addition, the existence of circumstances which would lead to granting of international protection or rejection of an application for asylum was assessed. When a decision was made to reject the application of asylum, the decision was issued in writing and the person had the right to effective remedy, thus the decision to reject an application for asylum and to expel an alien could be contested with an administrative court. The contestation of the decision to reject an application for asylum did not postpone expulsion, unless the court had suspended the execution of the precept to leave. In practice, the court had always suspended the execution of the precept to leave, if the decision to reject an application for asylum had been contested.
Turning to the issue of the length of criminal proceedings, Mr. Kokk said that according to legislation that entered into force on 15 July 2008, courts had to hear a case in its entirety and reach a decision as fast as possible. Other measures concerned the summoning of witnesses (as in practice proceedings were often held up because witnesses were unavailable), the possibility of starting a criminal hearing immediately after the preliminary hearing and the prohibition of members of a criminal court panel on hearing multiple criminal matters at the same time, thus ensuring their availability to deal with the matters effectively and quickly. The statistics from the Ministry of Justice indicated that during the first half of 2009 the courts were much more effective than in previous years and the duration of a procedure had been reduced roughly by half. For example, if the average criminal procedure lasted for 992 days in 2008, then in 2009 it lasted for 448 days. In addition, a new set of measures was envisaged and presented to parliament, including the possibility of requesting that criminal and civil proceedings be sped up by performing a certain procedural measure or other act that had been withheld unnecessarily in the opinion of the applicant.
The Committee had also specifically asked whether illegally obtained evidence was admissible in criminal proceedings. The law set out conditions for collecting evidence, it did not specify grounds for omitting evidence; instead it stipulated that the court had to estimate evidence in its entirety and according to the conscience of the judges. In several cases the Supreme Court had confirmed this principle of case-specific assessment and it had also indicated that evidence may be admissible even in cases of non-significant procedural violations.
On the issue of freedom of assembly, it was noted that restrictions on the organization of a meeting, parade or any other event may be imposed only on grounds of national security, public order, morality, traffic safety and granting the security of the participants in the meeting and to prevent the spread of contagious disease.
In terms of the right to strike for public servants, while the prohibition on strikes for state officials was still in force, the new Public Service Act that had been presented to parliament would considerably restrict the circle of officials providing that a state official was only a person who executed public authority at his post. Persons who were employed by the State or local government, but did not perform such functions were not considered state officials and the prohibition on strike would not apply to them.
On the matter of measures to promote Estonian citizenship, Mr. Kokk said that in 2007 an active campaign was initiated aimed at reducing the number of children in Estonia with underdetermined citizenship. The target group was minors with undetermined citizenship as of their birth. At present, finding more efficient ways of information division as well as finding possibilities for creating a system for people of undetermined citizenship to receive personal counselling was also being planned. In 2009 a project was launched with the aim of collecting data on all children born in Estonia and their parents and on the basis of this information parents of newborn children would be informed of the need to legalize the residence of their children in Estonia. Under the project it was planned to inform parents that they had the opportunity to apply for Estonian citizenship for their child during the child’s first year without the necessity of first applying for a residence permit. Children under 15 made up 40 per cent of all citizenship applications and there were relatively no refusals to grant citizenship in such cases. Thus, relatively all children under the age of 15 received Estonian citizenship when their parents decided to apply for it. Due to the above reasons, the number of children with undetermined citizenship aged 15 and under had been steadily decreasing. In 2005 there were 6,451 such children, in 2009 the number was 2,305 and by June 2010 the number had dropped to 1,914.
Mr. Kokk also touched on Estonia’s implementation of the Language Act and integration programmes. Estonia had adopted a new integration programme for 2008-2013, the most important aims of which were the language proficiency of adult non-Estonians and the increase of the common ground of the Estonian and Russian information field and the existence of a sufficient amount of competent teachers at all levels. Practical results of the integration programmes had been assessed on the basis of the study on monitoring integration, which was last conducted in 2008. The assessment showed that in general the indicators of the structural integration of the Estonian society had been improving step by step; this applied to the Estonian language proficiency, the share of Estonian citizens in the population as well as several other socio-economic indicators. Differences in income between the Estonian and Russian speaking populations had somewhat decreased over time. The existing differences in incomes were mainly the result of the significantly lower representation of Russians with higher education in the group of largest incomes.
The new integration strategy was more individually centred compared to the previous programme which was based on the principles of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of the Council of Europe, the main emphasis of which was on individual rights. The enhancement of welfare and security, as well as broadening the people’s opportunities for participation and self-realization and the related raising of self-esteem and clarification of identity for every person were viewed as desired results of integration. The objective of integration was to support the feeling of belonging to Estonian society, through sharing common values and command of the state language. As the result of successful integration, everyone had the opportunity for self-realization and felt safe, and also participated in the economic, social, political and cultural life of society.
Follow-Up Questions by Committee Members
The Committee asked if the delegation could explain the State’s position on not recognizing same sex partners for residency purposes given the Convention’s stance on non discrimination and freedom of movement. Also, would the State party be willing to develop a clear policy document dealing specifically with same sex partners of immigrants? It was noted that the report failed to provide comprehensive statistics on migrants in transit and unaccompanied migrant minors.
The delegation was asked to explain the distinction between long term residents and third country nationals in terms of the right to participate in political life. Also, would the State party reconsider its enforcement of the law of languages for areas of the country where Estonian was not widely spoken, and if not would the State pay for all language courses?
With regard to the length of criminal proceedings, did the reduction in criminal trial times include a reduction in detention times as well? A non-governmental organization had also raised concerns that in cases where mentally ill people were accused of a crime, psychiatric evaluations were not done in a proper way and these defendants had trouble with access to proper legal representation. Also, relatives could be appointed as the legal guardians of mentally disabled people in civil trials without the full understanding of the person as to what was happening.
In terms of the ability to strike, the new law broadened the range of state employees who were allowed to strike, but the prohibition on strikes in the workplace still seemed to be in place. Could the delegation elaborate on this?
A Committee Member suggested that Estonia utilize the Internet to help disseminate more fully the Covenant and to help the citizens of Estonia familiarize themselves more fully with their rights under the Covenant.
Regarding the issue of alternative service in lieu of military service and conscientious objection, the Committee asked if the delegation could inform it of the criteria used to determine approval for alternative service because the information provided in the report suggested that very few applicants were approved for alternative service.
Also, how were the police better monitored today after allegations in 2007 of ill-treatment, false arrest and police brutality? How did the delegation respond to findings from the Chancellor of Justice that police did not do an adequate job in protecting marchers in a Gay Pride Parade, and as a follow-up to that what was the State doing to promote inclusiveness in society as a whole?
The Committee asked if the delegation could be more specific on what was being done to promote awareness of the Covenant in society. Relative to similar States Parties, the involvement of civil society groups was low and the Committee wanted to get an idea of why this sector of society was not as vigorous as in other countries. Also, was information, including reports and concluding observations from the Committee, disseminated in Russian?
Response by Delegation
The delegation began their response by addressing the issue of same-sex partnerships and said it was true that Estonia did not recognize same-sex marriages the same way it recognized heterosexual marriages. The delegation did say that broadening the rights of same-sex couples was under consideration in order to give the same rights to same-sex marriages, but nothing could be promised at this time.
Regarding the Gay Pride Parade of 2007, the police underestimated the needs of the parade, but procedures had changed and since then there had not been any further incidents. In terms of intolerance of sexual minorities and what the State was doing about this issue, in the fall of 2010 there would be an awareness raising campaign, including a film festival, to help combat intolerance. Taken as a whole, Estonia was very liberal.
Turning to language legislation, Estonia was once a monolingual society until 1940 with 99 per cent of people speaking the language. The Estonian language suffered a great deal under the occupation. Estonian was the official language of the State and this was not likely to change. Estonian language instruction was completely free and available to anyone who wanted it. There were areas of the country, the northeast in particular, where one could get by without speaking Estonian, but the younger generation was completely fluent in Estonian so this was a matter that was changing.
Regarding events surrounding what became known as the “Bronze Night” and allegations of ill-treatment by police in April 2007, 50 complaints were filed with the Chancellor of Justice and three main topics came out of these complaints. The first issue concerned detention. The law at the time did not allow detention on administrative grounds so there were serious doubts about whether there were legal grounds to detain over 800 people arrested during the disturbances. Another issue concerned identity badges by police. This was the first time mass disturbances had occurred in Estonia and the police were unsure how to deal with it. Police were concerned that their lives could be endangered if they wore badges so their names were taken off their uniforms and there was no time to replace them with numbers or other identification. The problem was that victims of police brutality could not identify the perpetrators when they wanted to file a complaint. The legislation and practice were changed so that now if a name was taken off a uniform it would be replaced by a number. The third issue was a lack of handcuffs during the mass arrest and so plastic cuffs were used and when used for long periods of time they can be harmful. Now there were laws in place determining when these cuffs could be used and for how long. There was no intention to pay compensation to anyone detained during this disturbance. No one was held more than 24 hours.
Turning to conscientious objection, the delegation said that one of the reasons that only 11 of 64 applications had been approved was that alternative service lasted longer than military service so many people eventually opted to go into the military. Also, the State had to be sure that people were truly conscientious objectors and not just saying that to get out of military service.
With regards to political participation, non-citizens could participate in local elections, but could not belong to political parties or work in public service. It was not so difficult to obtain Estonian citizenship so most people met the criteria and could obtain citizenship if they wanted to vote and belong to political parties. There were some people who had a foreigners’ passport that allowed them to travel visa free to Russia and Europe and if they gave this up for a Russian passport they would then be unable to travel without a visa to Europe. If they got an Estonian passport they would then be unable to travel without a visa to Russia so for some people this was a practical choice and not a structural or administrative barrier to obtaining Estonian citizenship.
In terms of the length of general criminal proceedings, only 7 per cent of criminal procedures took 488 days. The vast majority of criminal proceedings were simplified procedures that lasted maybe 50 or 100 days. On the question of admissibility of evidence, all evidence was put before the judge and he or she would decide on the admissibility based on certain case and in some cases the evidence could be used and in other cases it could be thrown out. There was a clear rule that information obtained by surveillance activity could be used as evidence if such information was obtained in compliance with the law.
Some Committee members had asked about the expulsion of asylum seekers, no one was expelled on the spot and all applications were reviewed individually and in all cases people had the right to contest the decision within 10 days. The point made by the Committee was that if the person had been expelled already then the ten day period was not helpful, but this was why border guards were trained so they would know how to handle the issues, including those of minors and vulnerable groups. Estonia received very few applications for asylum so this issue was very rarely brought up.
The right to strike was a topic the Chancellor of Justice had taken up under constitutional review. There was a draft law pending in the parliament that would change the definition of a public official to decrease the number of people defined as public officials and thus increase the number of people who enjoy the right to strike, which was dependent on the post and not the institution.
Regarding psychiatric care and treatment of the mentally ill who were accused of a crime, they were informed of all their rights and the delegation was unaware of any cases where someone was denied their rights or could not participate in their own trial and defence because of mental illness. The delegation said that perhaps this was an area in which judges and prosecutors could use more training.
The Estonian Government was working on disseminating more fully reports online and in Russian. Due to budgetary constraints last year they were unable to do all that they wanted to in this regard, but they were hoping to improve in this area. As to the participation of non-governmental organizations, the civil society in Estonia was quite young and they would be quite happy to see more participation from them. They were also training social studies teachers in the field of human rights and integrating a human rights curriculum in school coursework so it was hoped that this would increase the knowledge of human rights in the country.
In response to the question raised regarding why Estonia had so few discrimination cases, one reason given by the delegation was that the legislation governing labour discrimination and gender equality was relatively new so judges, lawyers, legal aid workers and other actors in the legal field were not as aware of the laws as they could be. The office of the Chancellor of Justice would launch an awareness raising campaign to help educate relative actors about the law.
Follow-Up Questions by Committee Members
A Committee Member commented that for those people who were eventually convicted of a crime, but had been detained for longer than their sentence required based on the conviction, it was all well and good to pay them for the extra time they spent in jail, but the better approach might be to fast track certain cases to avoid this all together.
The Committee expressed disappointment that there would be no compensation paid to those people held after the mass disturbances of April 2007, despite the fact that people were held for up to 24 hours and in inappropriate restraints.
Returning to the right to strike, there were currently 24,000 civil servants in Estonia including military and law enforcement personnel, and 10,000 were affected by the current law. How many people would be affected if the draft law were adopted and the number of civil servants allowed to strike was increased?
One Committee Member wanted to know if there were any religious movements underway in Estonia and any religious extremism in the country. If so, how did the Government deal with this?
It was pointed out that while it might be easy to obtain Estonian citizenship, as Estonia did not allow dual citizenship this was a high price to pay for some people who wanted to fully participate in the political life of the country, but did not want to give up their citizenship.
Response by Delegation
With regards to Estonian citizenship, the laws related to the country’s history of occupation and some day this could be revised, but the for time being they would like to keep the citizenship picture a bit clearer rather than having a large number of people with dual citizenship.
Concerning the right to strike by civil servants, the delegation said they could provide further information in writing but estimated that if the draft law were adopted between 4,000 and 6,000 civil servants would be affected, not including military and law enforcement personnel.
The delegation agreed that the length of time for criminal proceedings was long and the courts were well aware of the problem and they were taking administrative and legal steps to address the issue.
On the question of compensation for people who felt they were detained illegally, the Government had no intention of paying, but these people could always sue individually and file their own cases. They were not denied remedy in this sense.
Freedom of religion was guaranteed in Estonia by the Constitution, but there could be restrictions placed on the exercise of religion if it were in the interest of public safety, but this had never been done. None of the nine churches or 17 church associations were considered extremist. There was no state religion in Estonia. There were a number of Christian sects including Russian and Armenian Orthodox, Lutheran, Protestant and Catholic churches.
In concluding remarks, MARTEN KOKK, Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, stated that he had been involved in the preparation and presentation of the initial periodic report of Estonia in 1995 and many things had changed since then. Mr. Kokk said he felt very proud and happy that they had this extremely fruitful and useful conversation with the Committee and the State could draw a lot of inspiration from it. They were aware that there were things that needed work in Estonia and he assured the Committee that the delegation took all of their recommendations seriously. He thanked the Committee for their time over the last two days.
YUJI IWASAWA, Committee Chairperson, said that it had been a productive meeting and even though the dialogue was brief, it was rich and focused. The Committee would issue its concluding observations at the end of the session and any additional information the delegation wanted to add in writing would have to be submitted within 48 hours. He thanked the delegation for their report and presentation and wished them a safe journey back to Estonia.
For use of the information media; not an official record