Three Questions on Sustainable Development: Goal 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
We spoke with Ulf Buermeyer, President of the Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte (GFF), about justice, the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, and strong institutions in Germany. Ulf Buermeyer used to be a judge in criminal cases at the Berlin Superior Court for about a decade and clerked at both the German Federal and the Berlin State Constitutional Courts. In addition to his strong belief in the power of constitutional law, human rights law and his passion to strengthen the existing legal framework, he is also interested in politics and hosts a weekly podcast "Lage der Nation" (State of the Nation).
1014: Do you find that fundamental rights and freedoms are adequately protected in Germany? Are there certain rights that might require attention? Is there a need to strengthen the rule of law?
Ulf Buermeyer: In general, the legal protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in Germany is quite satisfactory. However, it also largely depends on the context and the practical implications.
For example, although European law guarantees equal pay for men and women who perform the same work — and has certain legal protections in place to make it easier for plaintiffs to bring equal pay lawsuits — German courts have often failed to effectively apply this law to domestic equal pay cases. Most notably, German courts have failed to adopt the burden-shifting framework that the European law requires, under which the burden shifts to the employer to show lack of a discriminatory motive if a plaintiff can show at least one colleague of the opposite gender who earns more for the same work. In our most recent equal pay case, we successfully supported a female journalist who sued her employer, the public broadcast station “Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen” (ZDF), for gender pay discrimination.
Finally, the German Constitutional Court plays an essential role in ensuring that the constitutional protections afforded by the German Basic Law on paper are actually protected. Lower courts vary in their willingness to respect fundamental rights: While most cases are decided in accordance with the German constitution, GFF still has to take cases to the constitutional level on a regular basis.
How do you strive to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are protected in Germany? What is your strategy? Who are your partners and how do you cooperate?
The primary way in which the GFF works to ensure the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in Germany is through strategic litigation. Although this is a relatively new concept in Germany (and Europe), it is a tried and true strategy in the United States and has been pioneered by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Our goal is to create a sustainable platform for strategic litigation in Germany and the E.U., and to that end we identify and support ideal plaintiffs in lawsuits designed to strengthen and promote the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. For example, in a recent lawsuit against the “Bundesnachrichtendienst” (BND), the German equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA), we partnered with “Reporters Without Borders” to challenge a law that allowed the surveillance of communications between non-German citizens outside of German territory.
We won the case, and, in its landmark decision, the German constitutional court held that fundamental rights are protected against intrusion from German authorities no matter who is asserting them.
In an ideal world, what would you wish for in Germany with regard to achieving the U.N. goal of "Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions"?
Ensuring peace, the first of these goals, is a matter of foreign policy. With regards to justice, the GFF is currently focused on a number of cases related to equality. As is also the case in American constitutional law, a big focus of our efforts is making sure that everyone’s constitutional rights are protected equally.
I think that equality is a fundamental prerequisite to justice, for as Martin Luther King so aptly put it, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
With regards to strong institutions, our hope is to make sure that our institutions, however strong, still respect fundamental rights. A great example is the recent case involving the “Bundesnachrichtendienst” (BND), in which we challenged the BND’s assertion that it had the right to surveille private communications of non-citizens abroad. The BND, the German equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA), is a strong institution, however we still need to ensure that its strength does not allow it to transgress the barriers of fundamental rights.
To find out more about the work of the Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte (GFF), go to freiheitsrechte.org . Photos by Paul Lovis Wagner.