School of Transnational Governance

Nils Muižnieks – from Political Refugee to Human Rights Champion

Former Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights presented his career at the EUI last 27 November

Nils Muižnieks was the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights from April 2012 until March 2018. Where does one go after holding such a prestigious position you might be asking yourselves? To the EUI of course! Indeed, soon after having finished his mandate in Strasbourg last spring, he decided to join our community and is currently a Fernand Braudel Fellow at the Law Department. It is no surprise, that he is now one of the most well-known names the EUI has the pleasure of hosting.

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A Latvian citizen born in Los Angeles to an immigrant family, he defines himself and his family as a classic example of political refugees that grew up in a well-established Latvian community in the US – absorbing the mix of cultures, traditions and lifestyles that such a childhood offers.
During his career talk, the story of his life was simply fascinating to hear. He went deep into the details related, for example, to how it feels to be perceived as a ‘Soviet’ in Cold War America and then, conversely, to go back to his family’s homeland and only to be perceived as an American – ‘just by the way I used to walk’.


Interviewed by the Policy Leaders Fellows Martina Ferracane and Daniela Segovia, he provided an extensive narration of his life, from his early years at university right through to the moment he was nominated Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe. Insights into his immense knowledge of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia were particularly riveting.

As a Latvian with a deep expertise in Russia and Russia-EU relations, back then, I knew I would always had a job!

Indeed, he took an active role in the negotiations on the Crimean affair and the Ukraine-Russia crisis which started in 2014.


It was no mean feat for our Fellows/Moderators to keep Nils Muižnieks focused on questions pertaining to his career and not let him simply regale them with awe-inspiring tales of his life travelling the world, but when the discussion did return to his profession, in particular his engagement in human rights defence, the talk became ever more absorbing.

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He shared his opinions on the state of human rights in Europe and in the US, pointing out that the perception – and the defence – of human rights varies incredibly across various countries in Europe. More specifically, with many southern countries facing the migration crisis, human rights are constantly at stake and violation of these rights, unfortunately, happens very often. This also brings with it the perception of ‘fear’ among European citizens: ‘People are not afraid of genocide or dictatorship anymore, they are rather afraid of Islam, terrorism and therefore, of migrants’ - he argued. Related to this, he was also asked about the role of the media and the disruptive phenomenon of ‘fake news’ on which he remarked on the inability of governments to control new technologies and balance the freedom of speech with a ‘protective censorship’.

Finally, on a question about the future of the EU and Brexit, he provocatively replied: ‘Europe is about to fall apart’. Will the future prove him right?