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The rule of law is sinking in Greek waters

Pavlos Eleftheriadis is a professor of law at the University of Oxford.  

When Russian forces retreated from the area around Kyiv, it was alleged by international media that the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade was responsible for the killing of dozens of Ukrainian civilians. 

In any democratic state, such grave allegations would have led to a judicial investigation — like in the United Kingdom and the United States for the war in Iraq or for Dutch officers in Bosnia. But instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the foreign media, congratulated brigade members for their “great heroism and courage,” and awarded the unit the title of “Guards” for “protecting Russia’s sovereignty.” He used patriotism as a shield against justice.  

This is what sets Russia apart from the European Union. In European countries, the rule of law prevails, however difficult or unpleasant it may be, and criminal investigations proceed regardless of a suspect’s identity or the popularity of their actions. But some EU members don’t seem to understand this, using a similar rhetoric of victimhood or “patriotism” to avoid scrutiny — and some of this is taking place on Greek-Turkish borders.  

Over the past few years, international media and nongovernmental organizations have reported hundreds of instances of what appear to be illegal and violent pushbacks, carried out by Greek officials at the borders between Greece and Turkey. 

These reports started before the present government took office in 2019, but they intensified after March 2020. And since, there have been alarming reports of persons taken by force across the Evros river under acts of extreme and humiliating violence.  

At the sea border, the situation is even worse. Refugees claim the coast guard abandons families and children in tent-like life rafts, letting them float for hours toward the Turkish coast, putting their lives in grave danger. There are hundreds of such reports, some backed by video and photographic evidence.  

The Greek government position is that all these reports are false and that the images are manufactured in a Turkish propaganda war — and the country’s courts seem to agree. Not one of these incidents is currently being investigated by the Greek justice system. 

But international institutions beg to differ. In May 2021, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović asked the Greek government to “put an end to these practices and to ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out.” Refusing to do so, the government said the coast guard’s “unwavering humanitarian commitment” was a fact, and one that was also “supported by FRONTEX,” the EU’s own border force.  

But in its response, the government seems to be missing the point of a criminal investigation. We don’t investigate because we know a suspect is guilty. We do it because we value the public process of establishing the truth. And if the Greek officers are innocent, they’ll benefit from such a process that clears their name. 

To make matters worse, the Greek prime minister said last September that he “can see no conflict between vigilantly defending our borders and, yes, intercepting boats at sea while at the same time behaving in a totally humanitarian manner and taking care of those people whose lives are at risk.” 

What risk desperate families pose to Greek security was left unsaid, but more important was the public statement that the country’s coast guard “intercepts” boats. This is precisely the action international institutions complain of. It’s unlawful to return people to another country without hearing their asylum claims — it’s the very definition of a “pushback.” 

And international bodies are still persisting. 

In February, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi shared that his office was “alarmed by recurrent and consistent reports coming from Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, where UNHCR has recorded almost 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020.” He added that “at sea, people report being left adrift in life rafts or sometimes even forced directly into the water” and that at least three persons had reportedly died during incidents at sea in the Aegean since September 2021. 

Then, came a turning point. In April, the head of Frontex Fabrice Leggeri resigned from his post. He appeared to have lost the support of EU members amid various media reports of his complicity in both the pushbacks, as well as the attempted cover-up of various criminal offenses.  

Moving forward, one thing is clear — the Greek government can’t, in good faith, continue to ignore these international findings. It must act now. 

The government must ask the most senior judicial prosecutors to open the broadest possible investigation into pushback allegations. It must also give prosecutors the resources to interview witnesses stranded in Turkey.  

Additionally, the government has to unblock the overdue ratification of the EU Directive on the protection of persons who report breaches of union law, and explicitly extend its application to border and migration, so that Greece acquires — for the first time — a system for protecting whistleblowers in these sensitive areas. This will allow police officers, military personnel and civil servants who have so far only spoken anonymously to the press to come forward and give evidence without fear of persecution. 

Finally, the government must stop referring to migrants as a “security threat” and criticize members of parliament who use the discredited “replacement theory,” or talk of an “invasion” or a slow “colonization,” or use other racist language. The claim that families and children are a security threat is totally groundless; they pose no risk to anyone. And more importantly, they have rights under the Greek constitution.  

Respecting the rule of law and defending human rights is a net gain for a democracy, not a cost — and the Greek government must say so. 

Non-Western countries often accuse the EU of hypocrisy and double standards. And even if unwarranted, their skepticism must make us pause and reflect. It’s not simply enough for Western powers to declare their allegiance to the rule of law and democracy, they must prove it in practice. 

.And the Greek government’s commitment will be judged by its actions.

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