Bureaucracies don’t normally conjure up associations with words like liberty, idealism or human rights. But, as Nils Muiznieks ’82 can attest, that’s a bit of a bum rap, at least in his experience.
After graduating from The Webb School, Muiznieks studied political science, first at Princeton and then at UC Berkeley, where he focused on European security and Soviet/East European politics. After earning his Ph.D. in 1993, he moved to Latvia, where he has worked with various bureaucracies – in academia, government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – to promote and secure human rights in the young democracy.
In January, he was elected the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights. He began his six-year team on April 1. This Q&A was conducted soon after he took office.
Q & A
First, the obvious question: What drew you to Latvia, and what has kept you there?
During my studies I became interested in transitions to democracy, which is closely linked to human rights. After finishing my doctoral degree, I received a fellowship to study ethnic relations in Latvia, the country from which my parents fled during World War II. I began to delve into issues related to minority rights, anti-discrimination, and racism and intolerance. After moving to Latvia I encountered many Soviet-type bureaucrats who angered me with their stance. I had been raised to believe I had rights and that the government works for me – a point of view not very common in Latvia at the time.
When my fellowship ended, I was offered two opportunities: running a newly created NGO called the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies and doing human rights programming for the Soros Foundation – Latvia. My wife and I decided to stay and the rest is history.
You’ve also been a member of the Latvian government in the capital, Riga. How did that come about?
In 2002 I was offered the position of minister for social integration, responsible for policies towards minorities, anti-discrimination efforts and the development of civil society. From 2005 to 2012 I ran the Advanced Social and Political Research Institute at the University of Latvia and was also Latvia’s representative to the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.
Your position as the Council of Europe’ s commissioner for human rights encompasses a broad mandate: to promote human rights awareness and reforms in all member states. What tops your agenda?
The economic crisis has had a serious impact on human rights, especially on those of the most vulnerable groups: children, the elderly, the disabled and Roma (Gypsies). At the same time, in many countries national human rights institutions have faced disproportionate budget cuts. My task is to inject a human rights voice into austerity debates and draw attention to the plight of the most vulnerable. I also intend to focus on the human rights implications of the information society: how to harness social networking sites and other new media to the benefit of human rights, how to curb mobbing, child pornography and racism over the internet, and how to balance privacy with freedom of expression.
Some of the issues at the forefront of civil rights in the U.S. include women’s rights, immigration reform and gay rights. Does Europe face similar challenges?
Women’s rights are well entrenched in Europe through legislation and institutional reforms, though challenges remain, in particular combating domestic violence, gender discrimination and human trafficking. The rights of immigrants and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons are newer issues. These are groups that in many countries are targets of discrimination.
Going back to your time at Webb, what was your Webb experience like?
I had a terrific time. My education was fantastic and prepared me well for university studies. In my sophomore year I spent a semester in France, which broadened my horizons, taught me independence and adaptability, and helped me acquire French. I also devoted a lot of time to sports, serving as captain of both the football and tennis teams for two years.
Who was the most important person in your life at Webb and why?
It’s difficult to name just one teacher or coach. Jeff Fast taught me the wonder of Shakespeare. John Hayes taught me not only literature, but urged me to be ambitious, stressing that “it is not good enough to be merely a nice guy!” Jacques Pauwels introduced me to my love affair with the French language and France. But the teacher with possibly the greatest influence on my intellectual development was Dan White, who taught American history. It is probably because of him that I continued on into the social sciences.
What impact did your time at Webb have on your career and philosophy?
Webb was a springboard to continue my education and a launching pad from which I became acquainted with Europe. Webb’s focus on honor became deeply embedded in my psyche. The need to look beyond intellectual pursuits, to be well rounded, also helped me develop into a more balanced person. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Webb, the various headmasters, the teachers, the coaches and my classmates for a remarkable start in life!