The Office of the Commissioner for Administration and Human Rights is one of the oldest Equinet members (it joined the network in 2007) and has the role of Ombudsman and National Equality Body in the Republic of Cyprus.
Ms. Eliza Savvidou, the head of the Office, discussed with us the challenges faced by her institution in times of austerity, the opportunities provided by Equinet, and the commitment of Cypriot society to equal treatment.
Equinet: Ms. Savvidou, your organisation has been a part of Equinet almost since its inception in 2007. Can you tell us a bit about the history of your office and its involvement in Equinet?
Eliza Savvidou (ES): The Commissioner for Administration and Human Rights, founded in 1991, is the Ombudsman of the Republic of Cyprus, and since 2004 also its National Equality Body (NEB) in both the private and the public sector. You can read about some interesting recent developments in our Equinet profile as well.
The appointment of our Office as the NEB of Cyprus was a very important development as it provided us with the opportunity to address a new theme in human rights and oversee the implementation of the EU antidiscrimination legislation. It also enabled us to expand our field of action beyond the traditional Ombudsman’s competence of investigating complaints and engage in actions of a more preventive, mediatory and educational character.
While facing these new challenges in the early stages of our life as an NEB, it was only natural to respond positively to the invitation to join Equinet. We felt, and our expectations were more than met, that the network could provide an excellent forum in which equality bodies can cooperate and exchange ideas and experiences. For us, as a new NEB, it was an invaluable experience to come together, through Equinet, with other Bodies, especially the more experienced ones. Undoubtedly, our involvement in Equinet since 2007 has greatly assisted us in every aspect of our work to tackle discrimination and promote equality in Cyprus.
"Undoubtedly, our involvement in Equinet since 2007 has greatly assisted us in every aspect of our work to tackle discrimination and promote equality in Cyprus."
Equinet: Could you maybe be more specific and tell us what you consider as being the main Equinet activity or initiative that your organisation benefits from?
ES: Well, it’s important to keep in mind that we have a very broad mandate to combat discrimination on all grounds and to promote equality in general. So, it is true that, to an extent, we do benefit from all thematic activities organised by Equinet. However, I would say that the high level meetings are very important for our Body because they give us the opportunity to learn about all the latest developments and considerations on equality issues.
Very helpful, on our everyday work, and highly valued by the staff of my Office, are also the legal and other training seminars organised by Equinet - especially the ones that address the issues of dealing, investigating and deciding on discrimination cases.
Equinet: What are the main challenges and discrimination issues that your equality body is currently dealing with, and how are you responding to them?
ES: The economic crisis that we are facing, unfortunately, has provided a fertile ground for growing xenophobic and racist attitudes and behaviors, sometimes violent. These societal conditions have favored, in recent years, the adoption, by the administration, of policies and institutional arrangements that have gradually undermined, and in some cases even cancelled, basic social rights of vulnerable groups, particularly of immigrant origin, such as access to health and welfare. This is clearly reflected in both the number of complaints we receive lately and the subject matter of these complaints.
I strongly believe that in these difficult conditions it is necessary, and this is what we strive for, to raise our levels of alertness and to intensify our efforts to combat racism and to promote the enjoyment of all basic human rights, without discrimination. Even though it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone in Cyprus to argue for the rights of migrants and other vulnerable groups, we must stand firm on basic human principles and values and strive for the enforcement of the anti-discrimination and human rights law.
Another major challenge we are facing is the understaffing of our Office. Unfortunately, due to the austerity measures, the extension of our competences in the past 1 or 2 years and the additional responsibilities which have been assigned to us, were not followed by an increase in the staff of our Office. To make matters worse, existing vacant positions in our organisation are not filled. I have to say that the staff is working very hard to counterbalance this situation and offset any negative effects in the quality of our work.
Equinet: Could you give us an example of a recent case or difficulty encountered by your office that has particularly fascinated and challenged you?
ES: I think that of particular importance, mainly due to the social and institutional implications they had, as well as the public discourse they created, were our interventions regarding the non-granting of residency rights, by the immigration authorities, to third country nationals who are same sex partners of Cypriots or EU Citizens.
We received 4 complaints regarding this matter and their investigation resulted in 2 reports in which we invoked the anti-discrimination legal framework and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. The latter established that the term ‘family life’ is not restricted to relationships within a marriage but also includes de facto family relations where the parties live together outside marriage. We also noted the fact that, albeit EU law does not oblige member states to legally recognise stable same sex partnerships, the majority of EU countries have done so.
In both reports we concluded that, even though national legislation does not recognise same sex relationships, the authorities should, in view of the international legal and constitutional framework, review the claims of the complainants and facilitate their stay in Cyprus. Taking into consideration the findings in the above Reports, in December 2011, we published an Opinion regarding the need to recognise civil partnerships.
"To my estimate, there is not enough public discussion on equality issues and when there is, the anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric is so intense that it is often hard to counter-argue calmly and on facts."
Equinet: Bearing this case in mind, how would you describe Cypriot society in terms of its commitment to equal treatment? Is there sufficient debate about anti-discrimination issues, or are there big difficulties in putting the issue on the public agenda?
ES: Until recently, Cypriot society was very homogeneous religiously and ethnically. However, in the last 15 years or so, there has been an increasing influx of (mainly economic) immigrants that have changed the demographics of the country. Today, over 20% of the population is of migrant origin, compared to only about 9.5% in 2001. Also, about 12% of the children attending public schools are of migrant origin.
Traditional Cypriot society was not prepared for these changes and it has resulted in defensiveness, confusion, uncertainty, and xenophobia. Also, on the part of the state, it has resulted in immigration policies that were out of sync with current needs, incomplete and misguided. As I said before, the economic crisis has intensified these problems and many people now blame the immigrants for burdening the economy. The usual myths are, on the one hand, that immigrants are taking the jobs of Cypriots, and on the other hand, that most of them end up applying for asylum and living off welfare and other benefits – despite the fact that, today, the number of pending asylum applications in Cyprus is only about 500.
To my estimate, there is not enough public discussion on equality issues and when there is, the anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric is so intense that it is often hard to counter-argue calmly and on facts. We try our best, though, through our Reports and other interventions, to put on the agenda of public discussion the real issues on immigration and equality and not the myths. We also try to argue for the social and economic benefits of diversity as well as point out the obligation of organised societies to provide, under any circumstances, basic human rights to all, without discrimination.
Equinet: To move to a more international perspective, what role do you see for your equality body to support the Cypriot Presidency of the EU in terms of pushing the equality and non-discrimination agenda?
ES: The Head of the Antidiscrimination body and First Officer of our Office Aristos Tsiartas, participated in the Working Group set up by the Government of Cyprus to prepare and promote, under the Cypriot presidency of the EU, the subject matter of “Migration and Integration”. Through Mr. Tsiartas’ participation in this Working Group, a number of equality and non discrimination considerations of our NEB were raised.
Furthermore, we have supported the organisation of the Equality Summit 2012 by the Cypriot presidency and both I and Mr. Tsiartas will be speakers at the Summit.
Lastly, I could also mention the fact that we have raised to the Presidency our considerations on the proposed Regulation on establishing the new EU Rights and Citizenship Programme for the period 2014 to 2020. The considerations were raised to the Ministry that has the competency to promote and, hopefully complete before the end of the Cyprus Presidency, the discussions/negotiations on the Regulation.
"My colleagues and I are not resigned or complacent or even self-satisfied with what we do, but instead, we are determined to continue striving towards a more diversified society, characterised by tolerance, cohesion and solidarity."
Equinet: Can you tell us how it is to be leading such an institution and its staff?
ES: Of course it’s an honor for me to be the Ombudsman of Cyprus and leading the country’s NEB. At the same time it’s a huge responsibility and a challenge, especially in these difficult economic conditions, to be effective in my work and actually help in providing a minimum level of protection against discrimination to vulnerable groups in the society.
Regarding my team, I feel fortunate because, on equality and human rights issues, I am in a position to work with people with whom I share common values and who work hard and diligently. The fact that, before my appointment, I was a First Officer in the Office and had the chance, to work as a colleague with these people, has helped in having today a cooperation that, I would like to think, is both solid and effective and is based on trust and respect.
Equinet: You mentioned your commitment to the values that you share with your team; what explains this commitment, and what inspired you to work in this field?
ES: I would say that my personal interest and aspiration to work in the field of equality and non-discrimination, resulted - mainly - through my 20 years experience as an Officer in the Office of the Ombudsman and especially my 7 year experience as head of the Equality Authority.
What I do want to convey as strongly as possible is that my colleagues and I are not resigned or complacent or even self-satisfied with what we do, but instead, we are determined to continue striving towards a more diversified society, characterised by tolerance, cohesion and solidarity. Despite the difficulties, I remain optimistic. I believe that with collective and coordinated effort we can reverse the trend and achieve our goals. It is on this belief that eventually we will be able to make things better, and from which I think I draw my motivation and commitment to work for equality and non-discrimination.
Equinet: Ms. Savvidou, thank you very much for this interview.
For more insights into the learning, activities, challenges and opportunities faced by equality bodies across Europe, read some of our other interviews in the Member in the Spotlight section.