Freedom of assembly and of association
On June 3 the Latvian Civic Alliance, a Latvian NGO umbrella organization and common interests representative, issued a public letter (Exerting pressure and reminding function) to the Ministry of Finance and the State Chancellery concerning support to the NGO sector in the 2014-2020 EU Structural Funds planning period. It requested that specific references to the NGO sector, its added value and services to the government are made in the national framework documents in order to give NGOs an equal opportunity to compete for EU funds with other public and private bodies. Previously NGO participation for EU funds has been constrained in Latvia. Text of the letter in Latvian can be viewed here.
Right to good administration, right of access to documents, freedom of information
On June 5 the Mezaparks Preservation Association, an NGO of inhabitants of a historical green district in the capital Riga, met with the just re-elected city mayor to raise (Exerting pressure and reminding function) their concerns and propose solutions to several problems. Main issues discussed: property tax, preventing air pollution and smells from enterprises operating in nearby parts of the Riga Free Port, preservation of a local school.
On June 11 the think tank Public Policy Centre “Providus” publicly criticized the national anti-corruption agency Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (link to agency’s website) for delaying a public statement (Exerting pressure and reminding function) that state funding for one of the political parties in the Parliament (Reform Party) has been canceled due to legal violations. Decision to cancel the funding was taken already in May 2013, but it was announced only on June 10. The information might have been significant for voters because municipal elections took place in the country on June 1.
On June 13 Providus participated in an event for all heads of ministerial communication/public relations departments. Providus gave a presentation (in Latvian) and engaged (Expert function) in a discussion on how to improve public communication and citizens’ involvement in policy and law making from perspective of the general public. The presentation was based on analysis of the Latvian government institutions and best practice examples of the European Commission, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Since 2010 the anti-corruption organization Transparency International Latvia runs a parliamentary anti-corruption and accountability initiative (Exerting pressure and reminding function) and a portal www.deputatiuzdelnas.lv (MPs in Spotlight). Part of this portal is a chronology of corruption-related events in Latvia. In late May and June the portal published three new articles. One was on the pending state bailout of the steel manufacturer and largest enterprise in Latvia “Liepājas Metalurgs”, the other was on corruption scandals in the Riga City Municipality. The latter was important due to the upcoming municipal elections on June 1. The third article was on problems related to business insolvency administrators. The aim of these activities is to influence public opinion and exert pressure on decision makers to act in an accountable and transparent manner.
As part of the above-mentioned initiative, Transparency International Latvia has prepared recommendations for parliamentary factions on how to mitigate the Parliament’s corruption risks and improve accountability (Expert function, report with recommendations can be viewed here, PowerPoint presentation here, all in Latvian). In June the organization met with three out of five political factions in the Latvian Parliament to advocate for the recommendations and receive MPs’ feedback. The extensive recommendations fall in four broad groups: strengthening policy analysis, budgetary transparency, lobbying accountability, and implementation of open data principles.
In June Transparency International Latvia also receiveda reply from the European Commission that a complaint on the Latvian government filed by the organization in late 2012 (Exerting pressure and reminding function) has merited in-depth examination and that within 12 months the Commission will decide whether to start an infringement procedure or close the case. The complaint was about a multi-million government decision to purchase traffic speed cameras without a proper procurement procedure, claiming that this was a systemic practice in Latvia.
Rights of the elderly, social security
On June 10 Latvian Pensioners Association, the pensioners’ umbrella NGO, took a decision to demand (Exerting pressure and reminding function) the Parliament indexation (increase by a certain coefficient) of pensions of up to 250 Latvian Lats (359 EUR). Previously the Association negotiated with the Ministry of Welfare, but the compromise offered by the Ministry – indexation of all pensions up to 200 Latvian Lats (287 EUR) – was not accepted by the Association’s board. In the past months the Association actively lobbies for restoring of pension amounts and other benefits which were cut as a result of the economic crisis that started in 2008. Association’s lobbying efforts increase as Parliamentary elections approach in 2014 where pensioners are a large voters group.
Respect for private and family life, non-discrimination, equality between men and women
“ „Set-up of a pro-life installation in Riga City centre in September 2012”
A noticeable backlash against international women’s and reproductive rights standards can be witnessed in Latvia from several organizations with radical conservative views. It has been given strength with September 2011 election of the new Parliament of Latvia and several Members of Parliament sympathetic to such demands. Main issues being contested are the women’s right to abortion, state gender equality policy, sex education in schools and gender-related aspects of kindergarten curriculum. The Ombudsman’s position has been unclear on some of these issues and public statements have been lacking both clarity and strength. To clarify the Ombudsman’s position, several NGOs met with him on June 11 (Exerting pressure and reminding function). The meeting resulted in an Ombudsman’s press release and position at a Parliamentary hearing which while diplomatic, was in line with the human rights obligation Latvia has accepted as a member of the UN, COE and EU. The NGO participants were Latvia’s Association for Family Planning and Sexual Health „Papardes zieds”, Resource Center for Women “Marta”, Latvian Human Rights Center, Public Policy Centre “Providus”, Crisis Centre “Skalbes”, Soros Foundation Latvia. Exchange of correspondence in relation to this meeting can be viewed on the Ombudsman’s Office webpage (only in Latvian).
Right of collective bargaining and action, fair and just working conditions
Pictures from the event. Slogan on the yellow poster „Austerity doesn’t work, we’re departing”.
On June 19 the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia, umbrella organization of most Latvian trade unions, organized a large protest event (Exerting pressure and reminding function) in front of the Cabinet of Ministers building. The Confederation drew attention to the increasing number of persons at risk of poverty and the raising number of the working poor – persons in employment, but unable to cover basic living, education and health care costs. Under the slogan “For social justice – against poverty” it attracted at least 1500 participants – a significant achievement in Latvia. Pictures of the event can be viewed on the Confederation’s Facebook page, news article on the event in Confederation’s internet page here (in Latvian).
On June 19 the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia also initiated a letter campaign “Hands off the Labor Law” (Exerting pressure and reminding function, link to the letter in Latvian) to demand that the Parliament and Cabinet of Ministers resist several proposals by employers interest groups, most notably, halving the salary premium for overtime work, currently at 100% of the regular hourly wage. Over 1500 signatures were collected at the above-mentioned protest event.
On June 19 the Latvian Civic Alliance participated in a Parliamentary hearing concerning financial state support to NGOs. It alerted MPs to the situation where support to ministerial partners in the NGO sector differs significantly and NGOs that carry out the same consultative and other functions in various fields are treated very unevenly (Expert and Intervening and alerting funcitons). The Latvian Civic Alliance suggested that there should be state funding for all NGOs that carry out such functions irrespective of the field the operate in and an mechanism through which to distribute such support. The respective Parliamentary Commission agreed to inquire at several line ministries about the feasibility of such support.
In June the Latvian Friends of the Earth, an umbrella organization for environment protection NGOs, awarded the annual “Horse Dung Prize” (in Latvian – Zirgābola balva). Under several nominations the prize is awarded to entities that have harmed the environment in various forms (Exerting pressure and reminding function). The award was created in 2009 as a reaction to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development “Apple” prize for environmental protection and improvement. A list of most recent awardees for deeds of 2012 can be found here (text only in Latvian).
This text is a result of a research prepared within the project “Powerful Watchdogs” supported by a grant from Switzerland through the Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union. The report aims to show the up-to-date information regarding activity of watchdog organizations in a given country. The author refers to the classification on watchdog functions, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the international concepts of the transparent governance.