January 24, 2012
American-born Nils Muižnieks, who repatriated to Latvia and became a leader in human rights issues, has been elected the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.
Muižnieks beat out two other candidates in the Jan. 24 vote by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Strasbourg, France. He will serve a non-renewable six-year term, replacing the current commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg of Sweden, and becoming only the third person to take up the post.
The Council of Europe includes representatives from 47 European countries. Founded in 1949, it “seeks to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals,” according to the council’s website.
(While the Council of Europe works closely with the European Union, it is not the same as the EU. The similarly named European Council is one of the legislative bodies of the EU.)
Muižnieks received 120 votes in the assembly. Candidate Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands received 92 votes and candidate Pierre-Yves Monette of Belgium, 27 votes, according to a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“This for our country is a great achievement, because for the first time a candidate from Latvia has been elected to such a high post in an international organization,” Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said.
Muižnieks, who turns 48 later this month, was born in California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in politics from Princeton University in 1986. From the University of California at Berkeley he earned a master’s degree in political science in 1988 and a doctorate in 1993.
From 1994-2002, he led the Rīga-based Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. From November 2002 until December 2004 he was the Latvian government’s special assignments minister for social integration affairs. Since 2005 Muižnieks has been the director of the Advanced Social and Political Research Institute at the University of Latvia.
His work in human rights has included training and monitoring missions in several countries. Muižnieks since 2005 has been a member of Council of Europe’s European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). Since January 2010 he has been chair of ECRI.
In his letter of candidacy, Muižnieks outlined a number of areas of concern for the new human rights commissioner, among them improving cooperation among European institutions; “combating racism in and exploiting the human rights potential of social networking sites”; and working to improve the human rights of vulnerable children.
“I think it is high time for someone from the eastern half of Europe to assume a prominent European human rights post such as that of the commissioner,” Muižnieks wrote in his letter. “Those who helped to build freedom in a post-communist context have a special contribution to make to European human rights culture.”
Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000-2012 he was editor of the website.