ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Human rights advocates are troubled by what they've seen in Europe over the last few years. Some countries have refused to take in refugees. Xenophobic political views have entered the mainstream. Leaders demonize religious minorities and attack the free press. Nils Muiznieks has been raising alarms about many of these things. He's just finished his term as human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights watchdog. It's been an eventful six years.
NILS MUIZNIEKS: My mandate was marked by a whole succession of crises - the economic crisis and the fallout that had on human rights, the Ukraine crisis and kind of the tensions and suffering that that created, the migration policy crisis and a whole string of terrorist attacks and very problematic responses on the parts of governments.
SHAPIRO: He told me those crises coincided with backsliding on a range of human rights issues.
MUIZNIEKS: I think there are a number of reasons. One is generational change. The system was created to basically prevent war, genocide and dictatorship. And the people in power now aren't so afraid of war, dictatorship and genocide. They're afraid of other things, and the public is as well.
SHAPIRO: You mean the terrorism. What do you mean?
MUIZNIEKS: Terrorism, migration, economic insecurity. People I think are under the illusion that war, genocide and dictatorship cannot happen again, but my own view is that democracies are quite fragile.
I think another reason is you've had these attacks on human rights by populists, by the tabloid media that human rights is the smug jargon of liberal elites who are disconnected from the masses. And they very successfully distort what human rights means. They often claim that human rights have been captured by specific unpopular groups - by gays, by migrants, by various marginalized or vulnerable groups in society. And then the majority doesn't see how human rights belong to them or are relevant to their concerns.
SHAPIRO: I'm struck by your saying that people are complacent about the prospect of war, genocide and dictatorships. Do you think that's an actual threat in Europe right now?
MUIZNIEKS: Well, my own view is that in the western Balkans, in the area of ex-Yugoslavia, this region is more fragile than it was six, seven years ago. Nationalism and revisionism is on the rise. You have the glorification of war criminals in several countries. And you have very little learning from the past, very little reconciliation that has taken place there. You have an ongoing conflict in Ukraine. You have countries that are seriously backsliding. So war and the threat of bloodshed is still very much alive in many countries in Europe, in many regions.
SHAPIRO: Do you think some of what we've seen amounts to just racism?
MUIZNIEKS: Yes, definitely. I mean, racism now is a very different beast than it used to be. It used to be biological, and it used to be hierarchical. Now what we see is a cultural racism that says, we're not better or worse; we're just so different that we can't live together. We should live separately, go to school separately. And we see it against migrants. We see it against Muslims in particular in Europe. The targets are ever-changing, but I think the same animus is there.
SHAPIRO: Your own parents were refugees. They left Latvia during World War II and lived in displaced-persons camps for years, eventually coming to the United States. Do you think a refugee family today has as much opportunity for success as your parents did?
MUIZNIEKS: Oh, I think - I've thought about that a lot. I don't think they do, actually. I think it's much harder to be a refugee because you're accused of being an economic migrant looking for a better life who's going to bring in all of your family members, and you should stay where you came from.
The key thing for refugee integration and for the success of the policy is economic growth and economic opportunity. And if economies are stagnant, then people are afraid. My parents were quite fortunate, and they did quite well for themselves. And I think it's a very different world now.
SHAPIRO: Nils Muiznieks has just completed a six-year term as human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe. Thank you for joining us.
MUIZNIEKS: Thank you very much.
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