Human Rights in the Baltic States. Comparative survey of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Three research companies – Turu-uuringute AS in Estonia, Latvian Facts and Rait in Lithuania – conducted public opinion research on behalf of the Estonian Institute of Human Rights, in the course of which 1,013 Estonian residents, 1,010 Latvian residents and 1,000 Lithuanian residents were surveyed. The main goal of the research was to determine the following: how human rights are being protected in the Baltic countries; what are the perceived problems related to human rights; do the residents feel that the state would defend them if their human rights were violated; who would the residents turn to if they rights were violated; and would they agree to their human rights being restricted for security reasons. 

In Estonia, this was the third time that a similar survey has been conducted. It was conducted for the first time in Latvia and Lithuania.

There is a difference of opinion in the Baltic countries when it comes to the protection of human rights: in Estonia 73% of the respondents feel that everything is fine with human rights in their country; in Latvia 47% think so, and in Lithuania only 33% do.

In Latvia, almost half (47%) answered the question positively, and in Lithuania a third (33%) did so. Apparently, the reason is not the greater extent of human rights violations, but the fact that in Latvia, and especially Lithuania, this topic has not been as discussed as much as it has in Estonia. And therefore, 32% of the Latvians and 26% of the Lithuanian did not answer the question. This demonstrates a certain similarity with earlier Estonian surveys. And in fact, the last Estonian survey conducted in 2018 was the first in which the percentage of those not answering the question was significantly lower.  

In Estonia, the assessment of human rights is impacted by the respondent’s age, nationality, education, citizenship, income and place of residence, and we see a similar result in Latvia. Compared to Estonia and Latvia, the Lithuanian results are slightly different – the more critical answers were given by the older age group (aged 50–59), those with secondary educations and the unemployed.

In Estonia, the best-known human rights are the right to life and to freedom, the right to make decisions about your life, the freedom of speech, and human rights/laws generally. The same issues were usually mentioned as human rights in Latvia and Lithuania, although there were some differences between the countries. For example, in Latvia and Lithuania, the right to life was mentioned significantly less often, while the right to freedom and make decisions about one’s life were mentioned more often.  

When listing the rights that the respondents believed are being violated in the country, problems related to low-income people were listed first in all three countries. The second most important topic in the Baltic countries was inequality and discrimination, including in the workplace. The third most important group of problems was related to so-called ‘Russian’ issues, which were characteristic of the Russian-speaking respondents in Estonia and Latvia. The topics of citizenship, education and language were also mentioned, although they are not directly related to human rights.

The highest percentage (79%) of respondents who feel their human rights are being protected by the state were in Estonia. In Latvia and Lithuania, the percentage was lower (54% and 50% respectively). From these answers it can be concluded that the Estonians have more confidence in their state, and this is also apparent from the answers to the question about the restriction of human rights. Namely, the people were asked if they would agree to their human rights being restricted in the interests of security – 50% of the respondents in Estonia agreed, 54% in Latvia and 50% in Lithuania. 

In the case of human rights violations, the residents of both Estonia and Latvia would most often turn to online legal aid websites, and then use the opportunities provided by free legal aid or consult a lawyer. And only thereafter would they go to court.  In Lithuania, the first choice was the court, the second, human rights organisations, legal aid on the internet, or consulting a lawyer.

In all three countries, the institution of the Chancellor of Justice was the third option, which shows if people are not satisfied with the aforementioned can provide then the chancellor will be consulted.

In regard to several issues the Estonian respondents seemed to be better informed. The Latvian and Lithuanian respondents left more of the questions unanswered, and their opinion of the adherence of the state to the principles of human rights was significantly more negative (this was characteristic of the answers of the Estonian respondents as recently as 2012).

Therefore, it can be concluded that a negative attitude is caused by people’s limited knowledge about human rights, and that people are directed impacted by the local information space.

The survey indicated significant shortcomings that should be addressed in the future. In the context of human rights, the following require further attention by the governments: social inequality (incl. unequal treatment in the workplace and the stratification of the population); poor access to health care; and issues related to ensuring equal rights to disabled people and the elderly.

In summary, on the one hand, the survey shows that the residents of all three countries have limited knowledge about human rights and their violations. However, on the other hand, this can be interpreted as a positive – apparently, people have not had personally hurtful contacts with the subject. 

In Estonia, the survey was conducted by Turu-uuringute AS, in Latvia by Latvian Facts and in Lithuania by Rait. In Estonia, 1,013 interviews were conducted, in Latvia 1,010 and in Lithuania 1,000. The main goal of the survey was to determine whether the population’s awareness of human rights has improved, and whether the tendency to equate other topics with human rights is still continuing.  

 The entire survey is available here.