Jordi Vaquer: “We are not taking the danger of white supremacism and extreme-right violence seriously enough”

Jordi Vaquer: “We are not taking the danger of white supremacism and extreme-right violence seriously enough”

Jordi Vaquer, regional director for Europe at Open Society Foundations and a co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.

(Miquel Coll)

According to the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), too often the victims of racist crimes in Europe don’t see justice. A new report from the Brussels-based organisation reveals that hate crimes with a racial bias are frequently mishandled by law enforcement across the continent, with hate crimes downgraded, the bias element not taken into account or cases dropped altogether. Hate crimes occur when a victim is targeted because of their ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

For Jordi Vaquer, regional director for Europe at Open Society Foundations and a co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe, this justice gap should be seen against the backdrop of a wider assault on the founding values of the European Union currently taking place in various countries across the continent. Founded by the Hungary-born, US-based billionaire George Soros, Open Society Foundations is a philanthropic organisation that promotes democracy and human rights in more than 120 countries around the world.

Equal Times recently sat down with Vaquer to discuss the improper handling of hate crimes and what can be done to reverse the attacks on the values that have been the bedrock of the European project since 1992 when the Maastricht Treaty was signed to establish the European Union, namely “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.”

The recent 2014-2018 ENAR Shadow Report on racist crime and institutional racism in Europe revealed that subtle forms of racism in the criminal justice system result in a “justice gap”, where a significant number of hate crime cases are not treated as such. What are the wider consequences of the fact that so many hate crimes go unpunished?

First, it results in a sense of impunity in that some people are almost fair game. For instance, if you attack a Roma person in parts of south-western Europe, the chance that you will be held accountable for it in the way that you would be if you attacked a person of the majority population is lower. This [justice gap] also breaks the links of trust between communities and law enforcement, the justice system and public institutions. Because these communities feel there is a double standard and that some crimes are less prosecuted. Third, we are also seeing that the language of racial justice is being perversely used. The idea with hate crime laws and hate speech protections is that some groups are structurally vulnerable, marginalised and discriminated against in society. When you turn this around and say: ‘Oh, but there is also hate speech against white people,’ you’re completely perverting that idea and undermining the whole system of protection.

Various civil society groups have pointed to an increase in the number of hate crimes committed in recent years. In Italy, anti-migrant attacks, for instance, quadrupled in the space of one year between 2017 and 2018, and hate crimes against trans people in the UK tripled between 2013 and 2018. What do you think is fuelling this surge?

Hate speech, derogatory speech [by politicians] and their relativising of racial attacks has created a context that makes hate crimes more likely. There are also severe shortcomings in the implementation of anti-hate crime regulations. Prosecutors in many countries in Europe don’t even know how to use these laws properly; police don’t even know how to record the attacks that occur. Moreover, in some countries recording race and ethnicity data is forbidden so it then becomes even harder [to report hate crimes], which in turn creates spaces of impunity. The third factor is the obvious deterioration of the public discourse around these issues – full of othering, full of stereotyping of racial and ethnic groups, much of which happens on social media platforms.

How has this climate affected Open Society Foundations? George Soros, the chair and founder of Open Society, has been vilified by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. [Editor’s note: Soros, who is Jewish, has been the target of widespread antisemitic conspiracy theories from those who consider his support for issues such as human rights, liberal democracy, a free media and refugees as an attempt to establish a ‘new world order’.]

The most extreme thing that happened was a bomb being sent to our chair, George Soros, in the US. We’ve also had letters sent to our office containing threats. But the most worrying is when these things happens by association – either to grantees or supposed grantees of the Open Society Foundations. The result is crude, severe intimidation, with accusations such as: ‘You are promoting the invasion of Europe by Muslims,’ or ‘you are helping migrants arrive and this is because George Soros pays you.’ These letters are full of classic antisemitic imagery.

How do you view the relation between hate crimes and the growing attack on the rule of law and democracy? Poland, for instance has tried to force 40 per cent of the judges on the Supreme Court bench to retire, while Orbán has attempted to muzzle independent media outlets in Hungary as well as pushing the Central European University, which was founded by Soros, out of the country. Then there is also the rise of nationalist, populist and anti-immigrant movements and figures in countries like France, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. Are these phenomena linked?

Clearly, when Matteo Salvini [of the far-right Lega party] was Interior Minister of Italy, fascist groups felt they had some level of impunity and for instance went around intimidating Roma families in Rome. In eastern Poland, a Pride march in Białystok was violently attacked by supporters of an extreme-right counter march during the summer. Local police did not protect the Pride participants, who were beaten, humiliated and chased by the extreme right. These are not isolated incidents; these are groups feeling empowered because the discourse and world views they profess are being put out in the open, are being legitimised by the government or opposition lawmakers. Some of these governments also have a different relation with security forces than other parties.

What do you mean by a “different relation”?

[These politicians] tend to glorify the role of armed forces and police. In Badalona, in Spain, a mayor created a special unit that engaged in the evictions of migrant families. The creation of this special unit and the whole language around it created a total sense of impunity in this local police force, which in turn became an excuse to condone blatant forms of institutional racism in their police practices.

So, there is the public discourse that empowers these groups and this problematic relationship with law enforcement. When you add to this cocktail the fact that in Poland and Hungary the independence of the judiciary is being eroded, and that these governments are implementing extremely discriminatory measures toward refugees, there’s a double reason for worry. Because the abuses are happening, and on top of that, judges’ [oversight] of these abuses is also being weakened, [reducing the chances] of obtaining legal redress when your rights are violated.

What do you think could be done to reverse this coarsening of public discourse and these attacks on the rule of law and democracy?

Our secret services, police forces, media and politicians have not taken the danger of white supremacism and extreme-right violence seriously enough. The assumption has been that violence and terror tends to come from certain religious groups, particularly Muslims, and that migrant groups are a bigger security threat than native communities. So we need a really serious rethink about where the danger of violence comes from. Second, we need better implementation of anti-discrimination legislation by prosecutors, like I previously explained. Third, the underreporting of hate crimes is a structural problem that needs to be solved institutionally. We also need a head-on confrontation of politicians’ hate speech and the normalisation of racist statements by the media. In southern Europe, a politician will, for instance, say that the spike in HIV/AIDS is the fault of migrants. This kind of discriminatory discourse often goes unchallenged. Journalists don’t ask follow-up questions. ‘Is this true? What is the evidence for this? What does the data say?’

How do you think the new Commission will respond to the rise in hate crimes against religious, ethnic and sexual minorities?

Look, if you ask me what I’m worried about, it’s not exactly the Commission. I don’t want everyone in the anti-racist, in the progressive movement to be putting a lot of effort into making a very small difference in the Commission or in the Parliament when we know where the real problem lies: with the member states. Poland and Hungary are obvious examples, but Estonia’s government also includes a very problematic party [editor’s note: the far-right EKRE party] and so did Italy until very recently. Today we have governments that are either led or conditioned by forces that are questioning issues of equality that were previously agreed in principle, forces that are undermining the basic values of the European Union, including anti-discrimination, and not just ethnic and racial discrimination but also gender and LGBT discrimination.