Italian Governments have long considered human rights protection as a fundamental guiding principle of their foreign policy. In a number of cases, Italy has thus used its diplomatic pressure to criticise human rights infringements committed by other States. In this area, Italy has increasingly acted in coordination with its European partners and in the framework of relevant international organisations, from the United Nations (UN) to the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe (CoE). Moreover, Italy has often referred explicitly to international human rights treaties to remind other countries of their legal obligations in the field.
In 2016, the Italian Government took a stance on a wide range of human rights violations, concerning a variety of countries. The Government’s attention was drawn to the widespread human rights violations taking place in Turkey, after the failed military coup and the heavy-handed response by the Turkish Government; in Burundi, where the suppression of the opposition’s protests escalated into generalised violence; in Somalia, due to the ongoing civil war; and in Egypt, following General Al-Sisi’s takeover. On other occasions, the position expressed by the Italian Government focused on specific human rights issues – such as the limitations on free media in Russia, recourse to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, the recruitment of child soldiers in the Somali conflict, as well as the treatment of non-governmental organisations and their staff in Egypt.
1. The Failed Military Coup and the Protection of Human Rights in Turkey
The Italian approach to the failed military coup of 15 July in Turkey, and to the subsequent reaction by the Turkish Government, is exemplary of the above-mentioned trend. With the stated aim to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of the coup (i.e., members of the Gülen movement), thousands of civil servants, academics, judges, members of the military, journalists, staff of non-governmental organisations, and parliamentary representatives were detained, and their right of access to a lawyer and to a judge heavily restricted. Dozens of associations, schools, universities, and media outlets were shut down. EU and CoE bodies, as well as most Heads of State and Government of European States, expressed their concern for the extensive limitations imposed on human rights by the Turkish Government.
In Italy, the situation in Turkey was the subject of several parliamentary questions to the Government. Few days after the failed coup, on 20 July 2016, Ms Maria Elena Boschi, Minister for Constitutional Reforms and Relations with the Parliament, illustrated the Italian and European position regarding the developments in Turkey, also in relation to Turkey’s path towards EU membership and the future of the EU-Turkey deal on migration, concluded on 18 March 2016. Speaking before Chamber of Deputies, during the 658th Meeting (XVII Legislature), the Minister stated:
The Italian Government clearly and firmly condemned the attempted military coup of 15 July. At the same time, any deviation from and violation of the rule of law as a reaction to the failed coup is unacceptable to us. As Minister Gentiloni has already declared, the door to Europe remains open for a democratic Turkey – but the decisions of the Turkish authorities will be decisive in preventing that door from closing. Our Government expressed in all circumstances its commitment, along with that of our EU partners, to the full and substantial compliance by Turkey with human rights and democratic freedoms, which Turkey undertook to observe within various international fora, including the Council of Europe.
With regard to the possible reintroduction in Turkey of the death penalty, as put forward by President Erdoğan himself, Ms Boschi stated:
Italy is totally opposed to any proposal to reintroduce the death penalty. The abolition of this inhuman and degrading treatment in 2004 was a milestone in bringing Turkey closer to Europe. I would like to refer to the position already expressed by Minister Gentiloni: if Turkey reintroduced the death penalty, EU accession negotiations would be discontinued immediately, since [the death penalty] would clearly conflict with EU principles. We cannot deny that a further deterioration of the domestic situation in Turkey will have an impact on Ankara’s road to Europe.
She then continued:
At the same time, the worsening of security in Turkey in light of the several terrorist attacks underscores the importance of an open dialogue with Ankara regarding counter-terrorism measures, with a view to aligning [Turkey’s] actions with international standards. This is a prerequisite for going ahead with the liberalisation of the visa regime. Italy has urged European partners to keep Turkey close along its road to Europe. Democratisation and the inclusion of Islamic-based groups in the political institutions were welcomed by the EU as a significant step forward. However, many capitals [of Europe] subsequently failed to provide political support. Now we must tell our Turkish partners that there is a willingness to engage in dialogue and to support the path undertaken. Turkey indeed remains an essential interlocutor to restore peace and stability in the Mediterranean and the Near East: but it is up to Turkey whether this path will be possible, in compliance with the international standards on those rights and principles that President Erdoğan himself invoked when calling on the population to thwart the coup.
Italy will endeavor, together with the other EU and NATO partners, to drive Turkey in the right direction. As Minister Gentiloni has already clarified, the EU will not be influenced by the agreement on refugees. We will continue to act in accordance with the European principles of freedom and democracy which are at the core of the European integration itself, and which could never be called into question.
On 21 July 2016, within the 3rd Permanent Commission – Foreign and European Community Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies, Mr Vincenzo Amendola, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, answered another question on the human rights situation in Turkey and on the relations between the EU and Turkey in the aftermath of the attempted coup:
[The Italian Government, together with the other EU Member States] asked Turkey, in an unequivocal manner, to fully respect the country’s constitutional order, underlining the importance of the primacy of the rule of law. Any violation of and deviation from the rule of law is absolutely unacceptable to us, as Minister Gentiloni reminded again today in relation to Ankara’s reaction to the failed coup. We asked the Turkish authorities to ensure full respect for all democratic institutions of the country, highlighting the need to uphold democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms – including the freedom of the media and of the academic and cultural institutions, and the right for everyone to a fair trial in full compliance with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its Protocol concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty. This stance has been firmly and unanimously adopted by the EU Member States on the occasion of the Foreign Affairs Council of last Monday, which Minister Gentiloni attended.
Mr Amendola then reiterated Italy’s firm opposition to the reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey and the immediate disruption of the accession negotiations if that were the case. As regards the EU-Turkey deal on migration, the Undersecretary stated:
“Clearly, we will continue to monitor, in the relevant European fora, the agreement between the EU and Turkey on the management of the migration crisis. This agreement allowed to institutionalise a common approach to a sensitive and complex matter such as that of migrants and refugees. Nonetheless, as Minister Gentiloni declared, “in this agreement we do not give up on EU principles, otherwise the EU foundations themselves are called into question”. In other words, there is no way the EU could be influenced, in its relations with Turkey, by the deal on refugees”.
Italy will, together with its allies, continue to carefully monitor the developments of a situation that clearly is in a phase of adjustment. We will play our part to promote Ankara’s progress in the right direction, in full compliance with the vital European principles of freedom and democracy which are at the core of the European integration itself.
On 5 August, during the 668th Meeting (XVII Legislature) of the Chamber of Deputies, a parliamentary question was raised in the plenary on the specific issue of the condition of women in Turkey, allegedly further deteriorated after the failed coup. Mr Benedetto Della Vedova, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, highlighted the constant and firm commitment of the Italian Government to uphold women rights and to fight against gender-based violence, both inside and outside Italy. He then referred to the existing international instruments in this area:
We have two specific instruments, two treaties […], whose monitoring mechanisms and procedures Italy supports. They are the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. The Italian Government has long based its monitoring of women rights in Turkey on these two instruments, and not only after the failed coup. We strongly support the work of the independent CEDAW Committee.
Having outlined the concluding observations recently issued by the CEDAW Committee on the situation in Turkey, Mr Della Vedova added:
We will make sure to carefully monitor the follow-up to these recommendations by Turkey, in the knowledge that this process will require long-term support.
He then referred to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as another important instrument to monitor the situation of human rights, including women rights, in the UN Member States. On the basis of this mechanism, the human rights records of each State are reviewed every four years by the other UN Member States, within the Human Rights Council:
In this context, back in January 2015, Italy addressed specific recommendations to Turkey, including that to implement effectively the Law to Protect Families and Prevent Violence against Women, adopted in 2012 in light of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in the same year. This recommendation was accepted by Turkey, which committed to implementing it over the next few years. To conclude, Italy will keep supporting the instruments provided by international law to strengthen the protection of women rights, aware that now more than ever, after everything that has occurred in Turkey in the last weeks, from the attempted coup to the reaction of the Turkish Government, careful monitoring is required to follow the development of the situation and allow a continuing dialogue with the Turkish Government, including on important matters such as [women rights].
A few months later, on 9 November, during the 704th Meeting (XVII Legislature) of the Chamber of Deputies, the views of the Government were sought on the ongoing restrictions on human rights in Turkey and, more specifically, on the arrest of nine representatives of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party). The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, noted in this latter regard:
Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidency of the Council of Ministers immediately expressed their concern for and condemnation of [the arrest of various leaders and parliamentarians of the HDP]. The same was done in the following days by our ambassador in Ankara. We consider the arrest of the parliamentarians simply unacceptable and you know that the arrest took place after a new law abolishing parliamentary immunity was adopted by a majority last May. We have supported and continue to support Turkey in countering the military coup, and we show our solidarity to Turkey against terrorist attacks, including those carried out by the PKK, which we consider, along with the EU, a terrorist organisation. However, arrests like these cannot be justified in any way. On the other hand, the HDP, whose parliamentary leaders have been arrested, should be an interlocutor, as I told Demirtaş himself [one of the HDP leaders] during our last meeting in Ankara; it should be a key to the solution of Turkey’s problems, certainly not a target of criminalisation. Therefore, those who like Italy have always supported the path of dialogue between Turkey and the EU, and maintain in these months that the deal concluded between the EU and Turkey on migration should be preserved, cannot in any way accept the escalation of witch hunt and arrests, nor the treatment of the leaders of the third party in the Turkish Parliament […].
The issue of the human rights situation in Turkey, and its impact on the accession of this country to the EU, was raised again on 23 November, during the 708th Meeting (XVII Legislature) of the Chamber of Deputies. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation), Mr Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, replied as follows:
Turkey is clearly a country under attack, a country that underwent an attempted coup, a country that is the victim of repeated terrorist attacks, but it is also – not only in the last months, but particularly in this period – a country where the violations of the rule of law as we understand it are frequent, and where, most notably, a very serious incident took place, namely the arrest of almost the entire steering group of the third opposition party. […] At the same time, it is true that we – as EU or Italy – would not benefit in any way from closing the door to Turkey. Therefore, it is in this undoubtedly complicated scenario, and along this undoubtedly narrow path, that we must operate: on the one hand, by condemning extremely serious incidents, such as the most recent one concerning the HDP leadership, and at the same time by allowing Turkey to decide [as to its road to Europe].
2. The Human Rights Situation in Burundi
The human rights records of other countries and the stance of the Italian Government on the matter were also scrutinised by the Italian Parliament in 2016. In Burundi, the decision of the outgoing President, Mr Pierre Nkurunziza, to run for a third term, in violation of the country’s constitution, triggered violent outbursts, and a more violent reaction of the Burundian Government. The victims of the government’s crackdown on the opposition being mainly ethnic Tutsi, the issue was raised, during the 553rd Meeting (XVII Legislature) of the Chamber of Deputies on 22 January 2016, whether a genocide was indeed taking place in Burundi, and the Government was asked to illustrate the initiatives that it intended to take to put an end to violence. Mr Della Vedova explained:
Notwithstanding the extreme seriousness of the country’s situation, I believe it is premature to refer to a full-blown “genocide”, also in light of the assessment made by the United Nations.
As to the steps taken by the Italian Government, the Sottosegretario stated:
Faced with this complex situation, Italy has long and strongly supported ongoing diplomatic efforts to get the parties around the negotiating table. Already on 20 November , Minister Gentiloni, on the occasion of a bilateral meeting with his Burundian counterpart Mr Nyamitwe, insisted on the need for the warring factions to put an end to violence and start an inclusive dialogue between government forces and the opposition, to be held out of the country. The [Italian] Government, also in light of the principle of African ownership of the management of local crises, believes that the regional mediation must be supported. This mediation is currently being carried out by Mr Museveni, President of Uganda, under a mandate from the East African Community, and might be complemented by stronger support from the African Union, which has consistently and resolutely condemned the Bujumbura regime throughout the crisis.
Mr Della Vedova then turned to the action undertaken by the European Union, essentially based on the Cotonou Agreement. This Agreement, concluded between the EU on the one hand and 79 countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific on the other, is not limited to economic and trade cooperation, but covers a wide range of areas, from development aid to security, including human rights:
At the EU level, we are working with our partners to conclude, between the end of February and the beginning of March, the EU-Burundi consultations, which have been triggered by the violation of human rights, in accordance with Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement. These consultations represent an intermediate stage before the adoption of actual sanctions, such as the suspension of EU development aid. In this context, the European External Action Service is considering possible measures to pursue cooperation with Burundi through channels other than the governmental one. Furthermore, the EU reserves the right to take new restrictive measures, in addition to the one adopted on 1 October  against individuals responsible for acts of violence, human rights violations, and obstruction of political dialogue.
Finally, he referred to the measures adopted at the UN level:
Also in a multilateral context, we strongly support the action of the UN, particularly that of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Within this framework, on 17 December , we supported, together with our partners, a resolution asking the urgent deployment in the country of a mission by independent experts, as well as recommendations on technical assistance to support the reconciliation process and the implementation of the Arusha Accords.
The situation in Burundi, and the initiatives taken at the international and European levels with a view to solving the crisis, were followed up by way of another parliamentary question on 13 September 2016, during the 671th Meeting (XVII Legislature) of the Chamber of Deputies. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation), Mr Mario Giro, declared that the Italian Government reminded multiple times its Burundian counterpart of this latter’s international obligations regarding human rights, as well as of the importance of an open and inclusive political dialogue involving all parties concerned, both within and outside the country. As regards multilateral initiatives, the Deputy Minister stated:
Italy is committed to raise, in any relevant forum, the issue of respect for human rights, which, as is well known, is a fundamental guiding principle of our foreign policy. I would like to mention here the most recent first Italy-Africa Ministerial Conference, held at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 18 May , where the issues of peace and human rights were put forward. Minister Nyamitwe had also been invited to the Conference but, contrary to most of his counterparts, cancelled the participation of his country’s delegation at the last minute. Consequently, his meeting with Minister Gentiloni was also cancelled.
Mr Giro also mentioned Italy’s action within the UN Human Rights Council, including the adoption of Resolution 30/27 on the human rights situation in Burundi (2 October 2015), and of the above-mentioned Resolution S-24/1 on the deployment of an expert mission in the country (17 December 2015). In this regard, he noted:
It was also because of these two resolutions that the human rights situation in Burundi has been under the constant supervision of the Human Rights Council until now, and we are working to keep it that way over the next months.
He then added, with respect to the EU level:
We are committed to support, with the EU, the mediation efforts by the East African Community and the African Union for a solution of the crisis. Nonetheless, after the encouraging signs from the Inter-Burundi Dialogue session of last May, no progress has been made, also because of the support that the Burundian Government received by the African Union. In so far as politico-economic means of pressure are concerned, the EU suspended its development aid to Burundi on the basis of the Cotonou Agreement […], as a sanction for the failure of the intensified political dialogue on human rights, as provided for by Article 96 of the Agreement. In any case Italy, together with its European partners, shall ensure that this sanctions regime does not exacerbate further the economic and social situation of the Burundian population – one of the poorest in the world. As an additional means of pressure on the country, Resolution no. 2248 of the UN Security Council provides for the possibility to adopt restrictive measures against individuals responsible for serious crimes.
3. The Human Rights Situation in Somalia
On 30 June 2016, within the 3rd Permanent Commission – Foreign and European Community Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies, the security situation in Somalia was dealt with. Mr Della Vedova illustrated the views of the Government on the matter in the following terms:
We believe it necessary to continue to support the reform process of Somali security forces, through an approach that is inclusive of the various political and social components of the country, and in accordance with the relevant international provisions, with particular regard to those concerning the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. These principles have always been and will continue to be at the heart of the Italian action in Somalia.
The scourge of child soldiers in the country was also discussed. In this regard, the Undersecretary referred to Italy’s action at the UN level, specifically within the UPR framework:
As far as human rights are concerned, Italy actively participated in the UPR second cycle concerning Somalia […]. In this context, at the beginning of this year, Italy recommended Somalia to ratify the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (thus including the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict) and to step up its efforts to prevent and put an end to the phenomenon of child soldiers. Somalia took note of this recommendation.
4. The Human Rights Situation in Saudi Arabia
On 14 July 2016, the 3rd Permanent Commission – Foreign and European Community Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies debated the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia. The case of Ali Mohamed Al-Nimr was specifically addressed: Al-Nimr was arrested during anti-government protests in 2012, when he was still a minor, and then sentenced to death (a first time in May 2014, and definitively in September 2015). The case of Al-Nimr gave Undersecretary Della Vedova the opportunity to set out the Italian Government’s position on the death penalty more generally:
Italy raises the issue of recourse to the death penalty both on the occasion of bilateral meetings with the Saudi authorities and in the appropriate multilateral fora, in line with Italy’s commitment to promoting a global moratorium on the death penalty. […] On the occasion of the UPR second cycle, to which Saudi Arabia was subject in October 2013, Italy recommended the country to implement a moratorium on executions (recommendation which Saudi Arabia took note of) and to strengthen the transparency and publicity of trials that can lead to the death penalty (recommendation accepted by Saudi Arabia).
As regards the specific case of Al-Nimr, the Sottosegretario noted:
The Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, also through our Embassy in Riad, is monitoring the case in close coordination with the diplomatic missions of the other EU Member States and with the EU delegation on site. Together with our European partners, we are also engaged in identifying – in a coordinated manner – the most appropriate methods of intervention, in relation to both the Ali Al-Nimr case and other highly sensitive cases. In this affair, Italy has also strongly supported the steps taken informally by the EU vis-à-vis the Saudi authorities, with a view to obtaining updated information on the situation of Al-Nimr and to calling for a positive solution of the case.
5. The Human Rights Situation in the Russian Federation
That Italy acts within the relevant international organisations to promote respect for human rights by other countries is also clearly illustrated by the reply given by Sottosegretario Della Vedova to a question raised, during the session of 6th October 2016 of the 3rd Permanent Commission – Foreign and European Community Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies, on free media in Russia:
Italy strongly supports international initiatives, developed within the competent international organisations, aimed at protecting the freedom of expression and information, including in the Russian Federation. We especially support the action of the Council of Europe for strengthening fundamental rights, the rule of law, and democratic institutions across the European continent. In April 2015, the Council of Europe created, with Italy’s support, the Platform for the protection and safety of journalists. […] At the EU level, the issue of respect for the freedom of expression and for the pluralism of the media is raised within the bilateral meetings with Russian counterparts – most recently on 19 September, within the ongoing session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. On that occasion, we supported the action of the EU which, in the course of its statement regarding human rights situations that require the Council’s attention because of their seriousness, reiterated its concerns for the implementation of the laws on “foreign agents” and on “undesirable organisations”, as well as for the increasing limitations on the freedom of assembly and expression online and offline in the Russian Federation, which are restricting the scope available for the independent civil society. Furthermore, the EU condemned the attacks against the opposition, journalists, and human rights defenders. Along with Italy’s support to the above-mentioned initiatives at the multilateral level, our country is committed to raising the issue of freedom of expression and information in the course of bilateral political dialogue with Russian counterparts.
6. The Human Rights Situation in Egypt
The arrest of Ahmed Abdallah, Egyptian human rights activist and consultant for the family of Giulio Regeni (the Italian Ph.D. murdered in Cairo at the beginning of 2016), triggered a debate, within the 3rd Permanent Commission – Foreign and European Community Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies, on the state of human rights in Egypt. Undersecretary Della Vedova thus outlined the Government’s position during the Commission’s session of 30 June 2016:
The Italian Government is well aware of the complexity of the political transition in Egypt and of its challenges. These include the limitation on freedoms in the country, the troubling human rights situation, the risk of excluding large sections of society – especially young people – from the political process. All these issues are constantly monitored by the Italian Government, both at the bilateral level and within the wider framework of the UN and, notably, of the EU. Both Italy and the EU regularly refer to the problematic situation of human rights in Egypt within the relevant international fora. Italy largely coordinated, in Cairo also, with its European and international partners with a view to highlighting the human rights situation in Egypt through appropriate requests to the Egyptian authorities.
He then added, in relation to the case of Ahmed Abdallah:
As regards the specific case of the Egyptian activist Ahmed Abdallah (who started a hunger strike in detention to raise awareness on his conditions), at the instigation of the Italian Embassy in Cairo and in coordination with the local EU delegation, steps were taken vis-à-vis the Egyptian authorities. We expressed our deep concern for the arrest and asked that the fair trial guarantees enshrined in the Egyptian constitution be fully upheld. An official of the Italian Embassy has constantly attended the hearings of the trial against Ahmed Abdallah, where his detention on remand has been extended. Reflection on further initiatives is under way, jointly with our European partners.
The Italian Government had the opportunity to illustrate further its stance on the human rights situation in Egypt on the occasion of a parliamentary question specifically concerning the condition of the staff of human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country. Undersecretary Della Vedova thus addressed the 3rd Permanent Commission – Foreign and European Community Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies on 3 November 2016:
Notwithstanding several converging interests on crucial matters, such as the fight against terrorism and the solution of the main crises in the common neighbourhood, Italy is engaged in an open discussion with Egypt on the significant [human rights] challenges. This applies to both bilateral relations and the wider EU and UN frameworks. […] During the last September session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as in previous sessions, the EU statement, which Italy clearly fully supports, expressed grave concern for the situation of human rights in Egypt.
With specific regard to the situation of Egyptian NGOs, Mr Della Vedova added:
Firm support to a free and plural Egyptian civil society is an important objective of the Italian foreign policy. On this matter, within the UPR second cycle, in November 2014 […], Italy recommended that Egypt reform the legal framework on freedom of association and on the limitations on NGO’s activities in conformity with international standards. […] The importance of the activities undertaken by [human rights NGOs] is well-known and recognised by Italy and its European partners. That is why, through the EU delegation in Cairo, we communicated to the Egyptian authorities our objection to the shutdown of the Nadeem Center, a well-respected center monitoring human rights violations, torture, and forced disappearances. Furthermore, officials of the Italian Embassy, in coordination with other European and non-European States, attended the hearings of prominent court cases, most recently of the case concerning the so-called foreign funding. […] The decision by the Egyptian court of Zeinhomha is a negative sign, which conflicts with other more encouraging signs of the latest weeks: in particular, the release of activist lawyer Malek Adly, of journalist Amr Badr, and of Ahmed Abdallah, co-chair of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. Moreover, in this context, the Egyptian Government decided to submit to Parliament a bill on NGOs, which will clearly have an impact on the actual autonomy and freedom of action of the various members of Egyptian civil society. In this regard, EU and Italy expressed to the Egyptian authorities their hope that the new law will comply with the principles enshrined in the Egyptian constitution and with the international treaties to which Egypt is party. The Italian Government will make every effort, in all relevant fora, to ensure that the Egyptian authorities follow up on those positive signs by widening the scope of NGOs’ and civil society’s activities, in full conformity with the Egyptian laws and constitution.
The original Italian version of the speeches translated or quoted above can be found here below:
The Failed Military Coup and the Protection of Human Rights in Turkey (I)
The Failed Military Coup and the Protection of Human Rights in Turkey (II)
The Human Rights Situation in Burundi
The Human Rights Situation in Somalia
The Human Rights Situation in Saudi Arabia
The Human Rights Situation in the Russian Federation