European Council on Foreign Relations

Rome view: getting our own house in order

Welcome in Europe, Croatia! This week a new country joined the EU, and I hope others will follow - including Turkey. To join the EU, these countries will have to undergo complex accession negotiations. Europe requires the highest standards on many issues, and rightly so. But once you are in, who takes control? Who monitors that all the tough requirements are not only on papers but also implemented? 

On human rights, where Europe is considered a champion and whose protection and promotion is a pre-requisite for accession, Member States have demonstrated that sometimes they take a break from their promises. Look at Hungary, or Sarkozy and the Roma case.

You could also look at the long situation of (in)justice in my own country, Italy: last week, while the United Nations celebrated the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the Italian Council of Ministers passed a decree to ease chronically overcrowded prisons, declared an emergency in 2010. This was an important step towards the right direction of tackling injustice in Italian jails, but much more needs to be done, starting from inserting torture in the body of tort law. Yes, in Italy the crime of torture does not exist! Last week's bill mandates a reduction of pre-trial detention and alternatives to jail for minor offences and for alcoholics and drug addicts committing minor crimes. According to the prison rights group Antigone, 40 percent of inmates have pending trials; in Germany and Britain it's 15 percent. Of convicted prisoners, 37 percent are serving sentences for drug-related crimes, compared to a European average of 15 percent. 

In Italy, the detainees are mostly men (women are 4 percent) and 41 percent of the prison population is under 35. The Minister for Justice, Anna Maria Cancellieri, said there are 65,831 prisoners, despite official capacity of the system being 47,045. The country's detention facilities are running at 142 percent capacity, with some jails at 268 percent. The country's slow-moving justice system is the major cause of this dramatic situation.

Independent research centres, such as the International Centre for Prison Studies and the above mentioned Antigone, say the 206 Italian jails are the most crowded in the European Union, and the number of prisoners is estimated to be even higher than what officially declared. Not surprisingly, back in January the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy's prisons violated inmates' basic rights, and ordered them to make required changes within a year. The court ruled on a 2009 case over the crowded living conditions brought by seven inmates: they were detained in two separate jails, in nine square-meter cells that were shared by three prisoners. In Strasbourg, the Court said the conditions violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids torture and inhumane or degrading treatment.

Unfortunately Italy picks up two sad records when it comes to human rights violations and torture. In 2012 it collected a record haul of fines at the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered Italy to pay a total of €120 million to citizens whose rights had been violated. These were the highest annual fines that any of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe had total ever collected. In addition, Italy is regularly fined for the slowness of its legal system, which implies that the right to have justice in a reasonable time frame is frequently disregarded. 

The other primacy our country has is that it is the only country across the EU where the crime of torture is not part of the Penal Code. Despite Convention obligations and Italian constitutional provisions requiring the criminalisation of torture, Italy has failed to adopt all the required legislation. In particular, certain types of physical or mental torture under Article 1 of the Convention may not be covered by the criminal law, partly because of the absence of a specific "crime of torture" in the Italian penal code. Last October, the Parliament approved the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, but failed to introduce the crime of torture into the criminal code, as the Convention requires. No systemic measures were taken to prevent human rights violations by police, or to ensure accountability for them. 

This had implications for the trials regarding the 2001 Genoa G8 - in my view the worse page for the democracy of the Italian Republic. 25 senior officials and police officers were convicted for their involvement in the ill treatment of demonstrators on 21st July 2001, receiving sentences of up to five years. However, due to a law designed to cut inmate numbers, which allows for a three-year reduction in sentences, nobody was imprisoned, although all were suspended from duty for five years. This is what happens in the absence of the crime of torture.

Being Europeans means much more than respecting deficit parameters. Europe must be able to maintain its social standards even once States are already Members and with a proper accountability mechanism. How can Europe be respected abroad if it does not apply internally what it preaches? How can Italy represent Europe in the second half of 2014 if it does not reform internally, not only on the economic front but also on the human rights one? The accession to Europe of a new EU member is a reminder that those already in the club need to get their own houses in order too. 

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