In June 2021, a group of 12 Austrian citizens, “who have been dealing with the rampant corruption in the country and an increasingly questionable political culture for many years”, began collecting signatures for a Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Referendum. Protests were staged in May 2021 in Vienna to highlight the problem of femicide and in lights of recent murders of women by their intimate partners and called for funding. In May 2021, the Austrian government pledged an additional 24,6 million euros, which is a significant increase from existing funding, but just a small fraction of what was requested by organisations in the field. During a protest against COVID-19 measures, police are alleged to use violence distributed on social media. An investigation was opened into the matter. According to the Federal Chancellery, the new business model for Wiener Zeitung, the Austrian republic's official gazette, should be implemented by the end of 2022.
New rule of law and anti-corruption referendum launched by citizens
In June 2021, a group of 12 Austrian citizens, “who have been dealing with the rampant corruption in the country and an increasingly questionable political culture for many years”, began collecting signatures for a Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Referendum (Antikorruptionsbegehren.at).
According to the group, “For decades, Austria has had an obvious and structural problem with corruption”. Therefore, the anti-corruption initiative demands that the Federal Government and the Parliament adopt and implement “all necessary constitutional laws, simple laws, regulations, codes, voluntary commitments and other agreements” to strengthen the rule of law.
Strengthening the independence of the judiciary is also one of the themes of the referendum. This comes after the judiciary has been repeatedly attacked and accused of conducting “partisan investigations” by the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). As reported by Michael Ikrath, one of the proponents of the Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Referendum and former spokesperson for Justice of the ÖVP:
“These recent attacks on independent judicial investigative authorities are unworthy of a governing party and questionable in terms of democratic policy. […] In view of the fact that high-ranking representatives of the ÖVP are currently being investigated for alleged breaches of the law, the motive behind these attacks is easy to see through, which only makes it worse.”
Ikrath’s statement was prompted by the latest attack launched by the ÖVP against the Economic and Corruption Prosecutor's Office (WKStA) on 5th October 2021, when Andreas Hanger, the ÖVP chairman of the concluded Ibiza Committee of Inquiry, claimed that “left-wing cells” were located in the WKStA. In response, the prosecutor’s office accused Hanger of being “politically motivated”.
Ikrath called on the highest organs of the Republic – in particular, the Federal President, the President of the National Council and the Minister of Justice – to protect the institutions, safeguard the rule of law and the separation of powers. He added that it must be made clear that such attacks on judicial authorities are unacceptable.
Human rights expert Marianne Schulze added:
“There’s an ongoing erosion of public trust. There’s an enormous disrespect for public institutions from members in the governing party who hold high public offices and it’s undermining the general sense of trust in the rule of law and basic principle of democracy.”
Demand for more funds for women’s shelters as femicide on the increase
According to Eurostat, femicides almost doubled from 2014 to 2018 in Austria, increasing from 23 to 44 cases. The country’s general homicide rate is low, but the proportion of women killed in comparison to men is high. In 2020, 31 out of the 43 total murder victims (72%) were women, according to the Autonomous Austrian Women’s Shelters (Verein Autonome Österreichische Frauenhäuser - AÖF).
In order to tackle the issue, AÖF is calling for more funds for creating long-term and sustainable protection for women against gender-based violence: 228 million euros for victim protection and at least 3,000 additional jobs (social work and counselling) are still needed. After a virtual roundtable on the issue in May 2021, the Austrian government pledged an additional 24,6 million euros, which is a significant increase from existing funding, but just a small fraction of what was requested by organisations in the field.
Protests were staged in May 2021 in Vienna to highlight the problem of femicide and in lights of recent murders of women by their intimate partners. Feminist socialist group ROSA, who organised the protest, claimed on Facebook:
“The government alone has distributed 20 million Euros in media funding for Wolfgang Fellner's sexist tabloid press - and has provided just 3 million euros for the protection of women against violence. While corporations are given billions in the COVID-19 crisis, women are left alone with the ‘pandemic within the pandemic’, i.e. domestic violence. For ÖVP, capital and family are sacred, and they will walk over dead bodies for that. Millions are needed for shelters and women's refuges, but also for social work and institutions. We demand real protection against violence instead of empty promises from the government!”
Protests continued during the summer, with one of the latest protests held on 16th September 2021 in Wien.
Developments on the Austrian Ombudsman Board
On 6th October 2021, Amnesty Austria together with ten other CSOs issued a statement after anapplication was submitted by the Ombudsman Board for international reaccreditation as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI).In an opinion published on 19th October 2021, CSOs highlighted specific areas where the AOB could be strengthened to effectively implement its mandate as a NHRI and fulfil its crucial role in the promotion and protection of human rights in Austria. This effort was undertaken in view of the 13 recommendations made to Austria during the last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to strengthen the AOB and ensure full compliance with the Paris Principles. These recommendations have been accepted by the Austrian government.
The AOB was re-accredited with B Status in May 2011, meaning it only partially complied with Paris Principles, which meant that it could participate in GANHRI meetings but was unable to vote or hold governance positions. The International Coordinating Committee (ICC) has criticised, inter alia, the lack of a dedicated human rights mandate, the current appointment and selection procedure of the AOB’s decision-making body, and the AOB’s relations with civil society.
Since then, the AOB has undergone various positive changes, including the implementation of the mandate as National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) to conduct visits to places of detention, as well as certain institutions and programmes for persons with disabilities and the establishment of a Human Rights Advisory Council (HRAC).
However, despite these reforms the latest joint information by CSOs expressed concerns about the state of compliance of the AOB, as a NHRI, with the Paris Principles. The areas of concern include the scope of the human rights mandate, the composition and selection process of the AOB’s decision-making body and its cooperation with civil society. Thus, CSOs urged the GANHRI Sub-Committee on Accreditation to consider a detailed focus on the areas of concern raised in their submission and give consideration to the following steps to strengthen the AOB in its role as a NHRI:
Alleged police brutality used during rally against COVID-19 measures
On 2nd October 2021, in Wien’s Resselpark, a police officer reportedly stepped on a participant who was lying on the ground during a counter-demonstration staged against a COVID-19 measures protest on the same day.
The videos distributed on social media show only a part of what is reported to have taken place. A policeman pushes a protester, who then falls over his bicycle; the same official is reported to have stepped on the protester. Another police officer can also be seen hitting a participant on his back and neck area.
Linke schieben ihre Räder weg. Polizei knüppelt auf den Hinterkopf und in den Rücken. Eine Stunde später entglast ein Neonazi-Schlägertrupp das Cafe Votiv und greifen die linke Abschlusskundgebung an. Polizei: Kesselt jetzt die linke Demo. Es ist jedesmal dassselbe. #w0210 pic.twitter.com/AMC2BReNX2— allesmittelgrau (@allesmittelgrau) October 2, 2021
In response to the videos from the Resselpark, the Vienna State Police Directorate tweeted several times, stating that: “The behaviour of the colleague is incomprehensible to us and will not be tolerated. Therefore, an investigation has started”. Later on, police made no reference to this incident in their communications. On 3rd October 2021, a spokesman for the State Police Directorate told derStandard that the social media department had judged the video a little too excessively, thus there were no immediate consequences for the officer.
Police reported that a person who took part in the counter-demonstration was arrested. This person was said to have tried to disrupt the rally against COVID-19 measures in Resselpark, and is accused of physically attacking a police officer. There were also eight court and administrative complaints. According to police, after the rally in front of the Café Votiv in Reichsratsstraße, two rival right-wing and left-wing groups, made up of 10 to 12 people each, clashed. They allegedly threw tables, armchairs and ashtrays at each other from the Schanigarten. The police have initiated investigations into property damage and bodily injury.
A lawyer from the Ministry of Defence appeared as the main speaker at the rally against COVID-19 measures. She is said to have called on officials to refuse obedience to COVID-19 measures and directives. However, the ministry distanced itself from the remarks made by the lawyer.
Ministry of Interior denies any systemic racism within the police
In August 2021, when answering a parliamentary question on the topic: “Ethnic Profiling in the Police”, Minister of Interior Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) dismissed the idea that such a structural problem exists in the Austrian police. In Nehammer’s view, law enforcement bodies always react “on the basis of the applicable legal situation and on the basis of criminal police pictures and analyses, as well as criminal police information”.
Mario Lindner (SPÖ), who filed the parliamentary query in June 2021, criticised the minister’s statements and lack of data. His request referred to a survey by the European Human Rights Agency (FRA), published in May 2021, on police stops conducted on immigrants and ethnic minorities in Europe. The survey was conducted among 5,803 people, either migrants from Africa or their descendants, in 12 of the 28 EU Member States. According to FRA, minorities in Austria are more affected by police stops than in any other EU country.
Lindner requested that the Ministry of Interior provide data on possible incidents or complaints in the context of ethnic profiling, together with a response to the results of the FRA report. In his answer to the parliamentary interrogation, Nehammer denied any concrete conclusions based on the survey: “Statistical correlations on their own can lead to mistakenly confusing them with causal relationships”.
On the contrary, a statement by the anti-racism NGO ZARA (Zivilcourage und Anti-Rassismus-Arbeit) pointed out that there is evidentce of racism in the police, as every year dozens of such cases are reported to the association - 83 in 2020 alone.
“The police must face up to their racism problem instead of denying it. Without recognition of the problem, nothing will change for those affected. We demand equal treatment and the implementation of the announced independent complaints office!”, ZARA tweeted in August.
According to human rights expert Marianne Schulze:
“It’s clear that the Minister of Interior doesn’t intend to change anything. The government is in complete denial. This stance is in line with a general trend of Islamophobia combined with xenophobia, in the government’s rhetoric, including the unsubstantiated claims that people apply for asylum to take advantage of social benefits. An unfounded assertion that is abused to cut the already very low welfare further”.
Oldest daily newspaper in stalemate until 2022
According to the Federal Chancellery, the new business model for Wiener Zeitung, the Austrian republic's official gazette, should be implemented by the end of 2022. Until then, nothing essential will change. The government programme provides for an end to mandatory advertisements of companies, which make up the largest part of the newspaper's annual income of around 18 million euros. The schedule from the Chancellery also sets a deadline for mandatory publications. Due to all these changes, Wiener Zeitung’s daily print edition may face possible closure next year, with many layoffs of the editorial staff.
Among other organisations, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Austria has campaigned for the world's oldest daily newspaper to be preserved.
“In Austria, there’s already a very small daily newspaper market, which comprises only 14 titles: a special medium such as Wiener Zeitung, which stands for high-quality and balanced reporting, cannot simply be omitted”, said RSF Austria President Rubina Möhring to derStandard.
Incidents against journalists
On 30th June 2021, during a protest against COVID-19 measures staged outside the office of Austrian public broadcaster Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), journalists and staff were verbally harassed and had their vehicles spat at by protesters. The group hurled insults, including “murderers”, “psychopaths” and “lying press”. ORF staff have been instructed not to wear the broadcaster's logo or identify themselves as working for the broadcaster, following a spate of attacks.