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Foreign Minister: No 'era of silence' over ECHR Article 15 triggering

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa).
Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa). Source: ERR

The rule of law in Estonia remains intact after the activation of Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) earlier in the month, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and its emergency restrictions, leading to the part-suspension of the convention, Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) says.

"There is not going to be an Era of Silence," Reinsalu said on a broadcast hosted by daily Postimees Monday. Reinsalu was referring to a situation in Estonia in the late 1930s when then-president Konstantin Päts proclaimed martial law after carrying out a preemptive coup in 1934.

Reinsalu said that fears of Estonia heading towards greater authoritarianism are unfounded, adding that claims by a Postimees journalist that this was the case amounted to an information operation.

"On the contrary, this is the time to loudly voice support for one another. Estonia is based on the rule of law and all rules remain in effect. [Postimees journalist] Vilja Kiisler wrote that the government is aiming to limit freedom of speech. This is utter nonsense. This is completely unfounded, and we jointly reject such information operations," Reinsalu said.

Reinsalu emphasized the priority of combating the spread of coronavirus, which has claimed three lives in Estonia so far.

"It is important to comprehend that in the present situation, we all have the obligation to defend what's important about the fundamental rights -- which is the right to life," he said, adding that failure to act today prompts additional risks.

Estonia informed the Council of Europe about activating Article 15, which can in effect partly restrict freedoms, including religious freedoms and freedom of expression, on March 20, and was joined by Armenia, Moldova, Georgia, Latvia and Romania. The countries did not act as a bloc, it is reported.

Article 15 of the ECHR states that, in a time of war or other public emergency threatening a nation's well-being, any ECHR contracting party can take measures in proportion to an emergency situation, provided measures these do not infringe other obligations under international law.

Not a normal situation

"It is the unequivocal position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that all restrictions that have been currently imposed in Estonia in the interest of public health would be disproportionate under normal circumstances," Reinsalu said, according to BNS, adding that the measures are warranted in the present situation.

The foreign minister found it surprising that the notification to the Council of Europe, which was reported on Saturday, March 28, over a week after the notification was sent, had attracted so much attention.

"If we had known it would prompt so many questions, we would have printed leaflets and sent them to people," Reinsalu said, adding that that satisfying public interest is the government's obligation in any case.

"I can also say in advance that experts at the foreign ministry are looking through a possible notification to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), containing similar information," he said.

Reinsalu said that interactions under private law require in-depth discussion, and also questioned the extent to which financial requirements in normal times, including home loan repayments and bankruptcy proceedings, should be followed to the letter in the current situation.

"I call on all our legal experts to discuss topics in which we can see that the context of relations under private law has transformed completely over a matter of a few weeks," Reinsalu went on.

The Era of Silence (Estonian: vaikiv ajastu) began with the Päts coup of March 12 1934, when Konstantin Päts – at the time the prime minister – seized control of state organs preemptively to head off a feared takeover by the Vaps, anti-communist, paramilitary veterans organization. The term actually originated with a supporter of Päts, Kaarel Eenpalu, prime minister 1938-1939. A "short" era of silence is taken to have ended with the 1938 elections, with a "long" era lasting to the Soviet occupation of 1940.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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