A study by researchers at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) (Morkevičius et al., 2022) revealed that the attitudes of political parties towards human rights in Lithuania change with the elections, depending on whether the party is in the majority of the opposition. Human rights are more courageous when a political force is in opposition, especially on issues that require political consensus.
The cleansing majority avoids politicising human rights issues, i.e., proposing alternatives and highlighting different aspects of the issue than those offered by the ruling majority. Looking at the parliamentary battles in this Seimas, it is clear that there is no consensus among the ruling majority on sensitive human rights issues, and the opposition, which has seized this opportunity, has politicised the proposed human rights issues (giving them a different form and emphasis), thus pushing them out of the political agenda.
The development of a political agenda on human rights is impossible without a consensus on priority human rights issues in the Seimas and the Presidency. However, such a consensus requires leadership, the support of civic groups, the search for constructive dialogue, and the ability to unite coalition partners and pursue goals with principle. However, the human rights agenda must be the common goal of the ruling majority in the Seimas, not dreams based on the electoral promises of individual political parties and their inability to translate them into the common political aspirations of the ruling majority. The agreement of the ruling majority, which leaves no room for a common human rights agenda, is a critical indication that sensitive human rights issues in this Seimas have been sacrificed for other “more important and relevant” matters of public interest, as agreed by coalition partners.
Researchers (Quintavalla and Heine, 2019) point out that prioritisation is one of the critical aspects of achieving the goals of the human rights agenda and that the ruling parties in Parliament should agree on priorities. Unclear human rights priorities raise legitimate questions as to why some issues are prioritised, others are relegated to the margins of the political agenda, and what criteria political parties use to sort human rights issues into important and less important ones. For example, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute and the Ombudsman institutions provide information on human rights problems in the country. Still, it is unclear whether this information is analysed in a way that prioritises human rights problems, puts specific human rights issues on the political agenda, and leaves others on the margins.
Supporters and critics of political parties criticise the lack of reasonableness in prioritising problematic aspects. Often, the lack of validity of policy ideas (which are challenging to call aspirations because of the lack of tangibility of the strategic steps to achieve them) leads to more questions than answers, even for the partners in the governing coalition, and thus to the submersion of policy ideas in a sea of political battles, where the opposition currents run wild. Moreover, the lack of transparency and accountability in the prioritisation of human rights issues and the belittling or ridiculing of critics, and demonising dissenters, leads not only to antagonism but also, perhaps, to unjustified speculations that human rights issues are becoming a priority on the political agenda because of the individual experiences of the members of the Seimas, which are not based on objective data – knowledge and research.
Populists often promise what voters want to hear without thinking about how they will deliver. Moreover, populist parties are comfortable with all themes for their promises – the important thing is that they are pleasing to the voter’s ears, lure them in, and cast their vote as if bewitched by a spell. The subject of human rights is no exception. It has become commonplace in the West for politicians to speak out boldly about LGBT rights, to denigrate migrants, Roma, welfare recipients, the poor or the homeless, to propose the creation of ghettos or fences, to promote national or racial strife in the name of national security. Similar features have emerged in Lithuania.
Some political parties have highlighted specific human rights issues, giving them special attention, while others have been neglected or, as befits populists, have reacted in the way that the public wanted, brutally. For example, the migration crisis, which was handled by the ruling majority with the dignity of human dignity, has shown that there is neither a systemic approach to human rights nor respect for human rights among the ruling class and that international obligations in the field of human rights protection are open to debate, to challenge. Human rights have become more of a tool for political aspirations – to attract attention, to create intrigue – than a substantive issue on the political agenda, to mobilise political forces, to invite constructive dialogue, and to find solutions.
Researchers (Lyer, 2019; Ncube, 2020) note that Parliament needs to be a significant shaping force of the human rights political agenda and that political debate in Parliament can contribute to the development of the human rights political agenda in the public interest. However, public interests are not the same as private interests, and the political forces in the Seimas should therefore agree not only on national security but also on human rights policy, which is, among other things, an integral part of national security policy in democracies, by putting the public interest above private and party interests.
However, it is difficult to agree on a political agenda for human rights in Lithuania, as personal ambitions overshadow the country’s strategic goals, including the promotion of democratic values through the implementation of international human rights obligations. Lithuania does not have a Foreign Policy Strategy, where, among other things, human rights issues should be an integral part of the strategy, nor does it have a National Human Rights Plan, which defines the direction in which the country is moving to address relevant human rights issues, the kind of welfare state it is, and the kind of citizens for whom the welfare state is being promoted.
Vytautas Valentinavičius, Lecturer at the European Humanities University, PhD student in Political Science at KTU