After the 2020 parliamentary elections, human rights were relatively more talked about in the parliament than before the elections, according to the findings of the researchers from Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), Faculty of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, who have studied the transcripts of the plenary debates of the Seimas between 2021 and 2021.
Furthermore, unlike before the parliamentary elections, the governing majority was more united in dedicating time to human rights issues when discussing measures to manage the COVID-19 pandemic or reviewing and adopting measures to address the migration crisis. Interestingly, the Social Democrats (LSDP) have not been the most prominent defenders of human rights in the Seimas, even though this is a topic usually emphasised by parties of social-democratic ideology worldwide.
Focusing Events Influence the Debate
Analysis of the text of the debates in the Lithuanian Parliament reveals significant variations in the focus on human rights issues, which were influenced by the Seimas elections and focusing events before and after the 2020 Seimas elections.
Relatively speaking, the greatest attention to human rights was related to focusing events in the neighbouring country, the unfair presidential elections in Belarus in 2020 and the influx of migrants from Belarus to Lithuania in 2021, which became the subject of public debate and attracted the greatest attention of parliamentarians. The study reveals that a large part of the debates in Parliament was devoted to addressing or promoting various human rights issues.
The survey shows that these landmark events mobilised all parties to adopt a resolution condemning the fraudulent elections in Belarus, discussing human rights violations and drawing attention to human rights in the neighbouring country, calling for sanctions against the Belarusian regime and its supporters in 2020, and almost unanimously endorsing the measures to tackle the migration crisis, which were primarily related to restricting migrants’ rights. These results support the arguments of scholars who argue that significant events lead to changes in the political agenda.
Researchers at the KTU Faculty of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts note that although parliaments are unjustifiably neglected as actors in the field of human rights protection, despite their role in addressing human rights issues and monitoring the implementation of international commitments, it is the participation of parliamentarians in parliamentary debates, one of the leading platforms for dialogue in democratic countries, that determines how human rights commitments are enforced and how they contribute to the shaping of the human rights agenda.
Freedom Party representatives are the strongest supporters of human rights
Moreover, researchers tend to attribute the increased attention of the ruling majority to human rights and the increased number of speeches referring to human rights in 2021 to the rise of liberal parties, especially the new liberal party, the Party of Freedom, to power.
“Both liberal parties (the Freedom Party (LP) and the Liberal Sąjūdis (LRLS)) present themselves as parties defending human rights and contributing to the human rights agenda. Moreover, human rights issues were included in the Freedom Party program and were supported by the agreement of the ruling majority”, says Vytautas Valentinavičius, a doctoral political science student at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts of KTU.
Researchers note that while some human rights issues were not on the government’s agenda, they were included in the majority agreement and supported by the liberal wing of the largest ruling party, the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats. Importantly, these events have had a clear impact on the political focus of the Seimas debate.
“We can see that after the 2020 Seimas elections, the representatives of the Freedom Party were (and still are) the most ardent supporters of the human rights issue. These results confirm theories about the changing structure of party competition, which is determined by changes in society, reflected in the changing political priorities of the society”, – says Dr Vaidas Morkevičius, the head of the study, professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts of KTU.
Changes in society determine the competitiveness of parties.
The results also support the theory that party competition is changing due to societal change and is reflected in changing political preferences. Societal value orientations are changing, and (mostly new) parties are seizing opportunities to mobilise support for these emerging priorities.
“In the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Party of Freedom has advocated for radical changes in public policy on human rights. Importantly, the issue of human rights has remained at the top of the party’s agenda in parliamentary debates, even when the party has become part of the ruling majority, which is why we can observe a shift in the priorities of society in the political arena and on the parties’ agenda,” Professor Dr V. Morkevičius notes.
In compiling the dictionary of computer-assisted analysis of the topic “Human Rights” in the speeches of the members of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, the researchers referred to the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania as well as to the national and international legal documents related to the protection of human rights (e.g., the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). The results of a study funded by the Lithuanian Research Council have shown that parliamentary debate textbooks and their computer-assisted analysis can help study changes in the political agenda and shifting patterns of political attention.
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