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PES Women President’s blog

Concern about the sustainability of protection against discrimination in Estonia

Zita Gurmai, PES Women President On July 7th, the Estonian Human Rights Centre alongside with twelve other non-governmental organisations addressed a joint letter of concern to the Minister for Social Protection Margus Tsahkna, questioning the transparency of the selection procedure of the newly appointed Estonian Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner. Few days earlier, Tsahkna from the national conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union had named his fellow party member at the time, Liisa Pakosta as the new Commissioner.

The Equality Commissioner is an independent and impartial official. As the head of a national equality body, the Commissioner monitors compliance with the requirements of the Gender Equality Act and the Equal Treatment Act. As such, it is of utmost importance that due process is employed when electing heads of equality bodies and that this decision should ideally be up to the Parliament or an independent commission. Additionally, candidates should have a solid record defending equality and human rights.

Progress at risk?

The portfolio of the Commissioner has so far hold a practical as well as symbolic significance to marginalized groups in the society. Marianne Mikko, member of the Estonian Social Democratic fraction and PES Women Executive stated on July 6th in the Estonian media that the new Commissioner would be facing the need to prove herself in this position. She reminded that Pakosta has previously voted against quotas and the gender-neutral Civil Partnership Law act, adding that while the Social Democrats initiated several discussions in the Parliament concerning equality, Pakosta was not witnessed to be taking much part in these.

For the past four years, the Annual Reports of the Estonian Human Rights Centre have indicated expanded visibility of the institutions aimed for human rights protection. Moreover, last year, the Estonian Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner’s bureau achieved a breakthrough in appointing fairer compensations for discriminated workers in the Labour Dispute Committees. Though the Human Rights Watch has recently submitted concern about Estonia’s compliance with its international human rights obligations with regards to the persistent problem of statelessness, language restrictions, LGBT rights and the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, the overall awareness and level of human rights protection could so far be read as moderately positive.

Debate in the society

The decision of appointing Liisa Pakosta for this portfolio was met with shock from the side of human rights activists, and with applause from the conservative side. Most of the concerns have addressed the issue of transparency of the selection procedure, and that several well-qualified candidates were excluded during the competition process. Pakosta’s candidacy was weighed in the very last rounds of the competition with that of Christian Veske-McMahon who works for the European Institute for Gender Equality EIGE in Vilnius, and with the current head of the Estonian Human Rights Centre Kari Käsper. In addition, there are concerns about the risk for a future recession in the field of human rights and equal treatment, as the newly nominated candidate is feared not to hold sufficient preparation relevant to the portfolio.

Estonian media has been covering the story with a great interest. The conservatives have presented the nominated candidate as a ‘moderator for reconciliation’ between different interest groups, and quite surprisingly labelled her nomination as a ‘victory’ of female leadership, although this position has previously been run exclusively by women. The Social Ministry has stated that the selection procedure was carried out according to the law and that the best candidate was nominated. Human rights organisations have been continuing formal information requests addressed to the Ministry, requesting access to key documents with regards to the selection procedure, and plan further steps on the matter.

We as progressives are very concerned about these developments and would encourage for a review of the nomination. It is a fact that there were other candidates with more experience and insight on issues related with the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner’s portfolio. Additionally, the selection and appointing procedure was overseen and directed by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Hence, it remains unclear if the nomination principles on independence and effectiveness have been implemented, as it is stated in the European Commission Report on the application of Directive 2004/113/EC and by the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance Policy Recommendation No.2.


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