Protests in Greece

As the economic crisis in Europe deepens, extremist right wing political parties in the region, taboo after World War II, are becoming more common due to their policies promoting both nationalism and protectionism. As the movement expands beyond domestic politics and into the governing body of the Council of Europe (COE), it raises issues of negative treatment for minority groups.

In June 2012, the Greek political party Golden Dawn won nine percent of Parliamentary seats with its slogan “So we can rid the land of filth.” A stark indication of the waning condemnation of such groups came on October 1, 2012, when the COE named one of the party’s parliamentarians, Eleni Zaroulia, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination. There has been an outcry from organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) against her membership. The ADL has complained of Golden Dawn’s well-known xenophobic views and discriminatory practices. Party members have denied the Holocaust and publically shunned immigrants and other migrants, particularly Jewish religious groups and persons from Pakistan, India, Albania, and countries in Africa. The party has advocated limiting full political rights to only persons of Greek descent and identity.

The rise of Golden Dawn has been largely attributed to the economic situation in Greece.  Nicolas Papakostadanous, a spokesperson for the Greek Consulate in New York, said, “This Golden Dawn is a backlash, a byproduct of very austere, very severe economic problems.” However, Golden Dawn is not alone; it is part of an emerging trend in Europe. Right-wing, nationalist parties have gained political exposure in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Norway, Finland, and Denmark.

Extreme-right political parties tend to merge welfare aspirations of the center left with conservative themes of protectionism and nationalism. Their ideology emphasizes that the government should provide services but those services should only be available to native citizens. This has proved an attractive combination for Europeans, many of whom have lost faith in their current political leaders and seek alternative economic and political policies.

The rise of far-right elements has not gone unnoticed among human rights advocates. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has urged the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination to reconsider Golden Dawn’s membership. Alternatively, the ADL has asked that Zaroulia be rebuked for any statements that promote what is often described as Golden Dawn’s “neo-Nazi” ideology and that she be prevented from taking any leadership roles on the committee.  Additionally, on October 16, 2012, the European Union of Jewish Students started a petition to remove Ms. Zaroulia from the Committee.

Although granting membership to an organization with a strong discriminatory message appears to run counter to the goals of a committee seeking to prevent discrimination, removing Golden Dawn from the committee would raise free speech issues. Curtailing Golden Dawn’s ability to express its viewpoints would create a highly charged atmosphere in which the issue of immigrant rights and the danger of extremist ideals would be lost. A less controversial choice would be to urge the COE and other European bodies to adopt broader and more effective anti-discrimination policies to prevent the nationalist groups from gaining further power while their actions go unchecked.

European regional institutions have implemented two directives that have been carried out in relation to discrimination. The first was created in 2004 and promotes the principle of equal treatment between people, irrespective of racial or national origin. The second, created in 2008, establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment settings. While these steps offer some anti-discriminatory protections to Europeans, the legal framework is incomplete. The Commission has proposed a directive that would complete the legal framework and would prohibit all forms of discrimination and harassment beyond the workplace and provide an appropriate redress system for victims through the EU.

Golden Dawn’s participation in the COE’s Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination is, at the moment, a political anomaly, but without adequate recourse for those who experience discriminatory action, membership of groups with similar ideologies could become the norm and pose significant risk for domestic protection of minority groups. Greece and other countries in which right-wing parties are gaining political clout must also take responsibility for implementing appropriate strategies to protect people who reside within their borders.  It is only through cooperation between national governments and international governing bodies that minority groups can be protected from the negative treatment advocated by these right-wing organizations.