Rule of law sinks in Greek waters – POLITICO

Pavlos Eleftheriadis is Professor of Law at Oxford University.

When Russian forces withdrew from the area around Kyiv, it was alleged international media that the 64th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade was responsible for the murder of dozens of Ukrainian civilians.

In any democratic state, such serious allegations would have given rise to a judicial inquiry – as in the United Kingdom and the United States for the war in Iraq or for Dutch officers in Bosnia. But instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced foreign media, praised the brigade members for their “great heroism and courage” and awarded the unit the title of “guards” for “protecting sovereignty of Russia. He used patriotism as a shield against justice.

This is what distinguishes Russia from the European Union. In European countries, the rule of law prevails, no matter how difficult or unpleasant, and criminal investigations continue regardless of a suspect’s identity or the popularity of his actions. But some EU members don’t seem to understand this, using similar rhetoric of victimhood or “patriotism” to avoid scrutiny – and some of this is taking place on Greek-Turkish borders.

In recent years, international media and non-governmental organizations have reported hundreds of cases of what appear to be illegal and violent pushbacks by Greek officials at the borders between Greece and Turkey.

These reports began before the current government took office in 2019, but intensified after March 2020. And since then there have been alarming reports of people being forcibly taken across the Evros River under acts of extreme and humiliating violence.

At the maritime border, the situation is even worse. Refugees say coastguards are abandoning families and children in tent-like life rafts, leaving them floating for hours towards the Turkish coast, putting their lives in grave danger. There are hundreds of such reports, some supported by video and photographic evidence.

The position of the Greek government is that all of these reports are false and that the images are fabricated in a Turkish propaganda war – and the country’s courts seem to agree. None of these incidents is currently under investigation by the Greek judiciary.

But the international institutions do not agree. In May 2021, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović asked the Greek government to “put an end to these practices and ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out”. Refusing to do so, the government said the coast guard’s “unwavering humanitarian commitment” was a fact, and that it was also “supported by FRONTEX”, the EU’s own border force.

But in its response, the government appears to be missing the point of a criminal investigation. We don’t investigate because we know a suspect is guilty. We do this because we value the public process of establishing the truth. And if the Greek officers are innocent, they will benefit from such a process that clears their name.

To make matters worse, the Greek Prime Minister said last September that he “sees no conflict between the vigilant defense of our borders and, yes, the interception of boats at sea while behaving in a completely humanitarian manner and taking care of those whose lives are in danger” .

The risk the desperate families pose to Greek security has not been said, but more important has been the public statement that the country’s coastguard is “intercepting” the boats. This is precisely the action of which the international institutions complain. It is illegal to send people back to another country without hearing their asylum claims – this is the very definition of ‘refoulement’.

And the international bodies still persist.

In February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi share that his office was “alarmed by recurring and consistent reports coming from Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, where UNHCR has recorded almost 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020”. He added that “at sea people report being left adrift in life rafts or sometimes even forced directly into the water” and that at least three people are believed to have died in incidents at sea. Aegean since September 2021.

Then came a turning point. In April, Frontex boss Fabrice Leggeri resigned from his post. He appears to have lost support among EU members amid various media reports of his complicity in the pushbacks, as well as the attempt to cover up various criminal offences.

Going forward, one thing is clear: the Greek government cannot, in good faith, continue to ignore these international conclusions. He must act now.

The government must ask the highest judicial prosecutors to open the widest possible investigation into the allegations of refoulement. It must also give prosecutors the means to question witnesses stranded in Turkey.

In addition, the government must unblock the late ratification of the European directive on the protection of persons who report violations of Union law and explicitly extend its application to borders and migration, so that Greece equips itself – for the first time – a whistleblower protection system in these sensitive areas. This will allow police, military and government officials who have so far only spoken to the press anonymously to come forward and testify without fear of persecution.

Finally, the government must stop calling migrants a “security threat” and criticize parliamentarians who use the discredited “replacement theory”, or speak of a slow “invasion” or “colonization”, or use another racist language. The assertion that families and children pose a threat to security is totally unfounded; they pose no risk to anyone. And more importantly, they have rights under the Greek constitution.

Respecting the rule of law and defending human rights is a net gain for a democracy, not a cost – and the Greek government must say so.

Non-Western countries often accuse the EU of hypocrisy and double standards. And even if it is unjustified, their skepticism should make us think. It is not enough for Western powers to declare their allegiance to the rule of law and democracy, they must prove it in practice.

. And the Greek government’s commitment will be judged by its actions.