Reactions against Austria - just or unjust?

The wisdom and legitimacy of the recently lifted sanctions against Austria were debated at a meeting at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna on September 29, 2000, where some of the following reflections were expressed.


Andreas Follesdal is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway, and Research Professor at ARENA, a Norwegian Research Council program on the Europeanisation of the Nation-state.


The sanctions against Austria were reactions in the absence of principles and policies. It is highly appropriate to reflect carefully about the appropriate responses when a state government includes political parties platforms or profiles at odds with the emerging value platform of the European Union.

The European Union evolves in at least three ways which make it urgent to attend to such mechanisms for securing and promoting human rights. Firstly, we witness changes in the conception of the ends of the Union, as expressed with the Charter on Fundamental Rights. Secondly, the responses to the sanctions increased our awareness of the complex interdependences among Member States who showed themselves to indeed be masters of the Union. Thirdly, the events illustrate how state borders are becoming fuzzy. The division between domestic and international relations is blurring among Union members.

Several lessons may be drawn bearing in mind the experiences of previous human rights efforts in international areanas. Foremost is the lesson of Subsidiarity, as we may call it. The preferred strategies should first seek to enhance domestic mechanisms for alleviating the problems. Such measures would include fact-finding, and reporting facts and legal norms to the domestic population. The Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Wise Men's report on Austria are examples. These inputs into the domestic democratic instruments of freedom of speech and electoral accountability may often suffice. Only when such strategies for boosting domestic democratic action are exhausted or clearly futile, should international pressure be considered.

This sequence was not clearly followed in the recent case of Austria, partly because the procedures were non-existent. Target goals were unclear and undercommunicated, as were criteria for stopping the sanctions. Unfortunately the target groups were also vaguely identified, with the effect that the Austrian population misconstrued the sanctions as directed against them, rather than against their government.

There may be at least two reasons why sanctions were employed so quickly. Firstly, as sanctions go, these reactions were weak. And some of the reactions are not obviously only punitive, but also reflect the blurring of sovereignty in Europe. After all, Austrian ministers do not only serve Austrians, but are also collaborators with ministers of other Member States in various EU bodies. This collaboration is beyond diplomatic bargaining, and entails cooperation on issues of common European concern, on the basis of common European values. When this commitment is in doubt, other Member States have reason to be concerned, for they also have much at stake. Similarly, when support was withdrawn for Austrian candidates for international posts, this may reflect other Member States governments' fear that their interests would not be properly represented.

The second reason for allowing such international sanctions may stem from the problematic constraints on freedom of speech, also noted in the Wise Men's report. The strategy of enhancing domestic reactions might for this reason appear hopeless in Austria. Central members of the Freedom Party exploit the defamation legislation to silence the political opposition and mute general criticism. The well-known case of Anton Pelinka is only one in a systematic pattern. Jürg Haider appears to be implementing his promise as stated in his recent book, that when he comes to power, the journalists will only write the truth -- his own conception of the truth, no less.

In light of this problem, the international community should not only continue to watch for possible xenophobic policies in Austria and elsewhere, but also consider what should be done to foster changes in the Austrian defamation legislation. Firstly, measures must be taken to support Austrian critics in their view that democracy is at risk, to increase the chance that Austrians will vote for politicians who will change the law rather than exploit it. Only if such measures fail should reactions be considered. For instance, both the International headquarters of the Helsinki federation and the EU Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia are currently located in Vienna. If their freedom of expression is at risk, perhaps an appropriate reaction will be to move them elsewhere. Only after such reactions are exhausted, should sanctions be considered - and then, consistently applied to all Member States with similar problems.

A second lesson is that measures to promote human rights should be carefully calibrated, escalating from expressions of concern and diplomatic interventions, via political and economic pressure, before contemplating more coercive action. Considerations shaping such procedures must include clear goals and criteria. The mechanisms for furthering human rights must be robust against mixed motives. The authority to intervene -- even when decided multilaterally -- may be abused, and the offending government may retaliate in a variety of ways. In the future we may expect that Member States will propose for a range of good or bad reasons, including domestic party politics or real politik. The complex interdependence of Member States in the European Union must also shape the rules for intervening. Thus it apparently came as a surprise that the Austrian government could - and would - respond by preventing the Nice Treaty and delay expansion of the Union. Likewise, few had expected that Danes would construe the sanctions as a risk borne by small states -- an interpretation that may well have affected the recent Danish referendum.

These examples also underscore the need for -- and limits to -- consistent practices. Several commentators have asked why reactions against Austria, but not against equally problematic coalitions in France or Belgium? The apparent inconsistency may reflect two features of the emerging practice of European fundamental rights. Firstly, there is need for caution in granting the authority to intervene. Robustness against abuse may reduce precision, so we may have to live with the sad fact that some problematic governments may avoid sanctions. Secondly, insofar as the EU is evolving in a political direction, the increased interdependence and expanded role of shared values may require new, upgraded human rights policies. What was acceptable yesterday may not be compatible with the emerging normative bases of the Union.

The protection of human rights require very deliberate policies, to ensure that violations are corrected when they cannot be prevented. But prevention must be preferred. Only when clear and public policies are in place in Europe can we hope to never need them.