HRMI Director Dainius Pūras: “I wonder if we will be able to keep Universal Human Rights in Lithuania”

November 7, 2023

I am a person who wears more than one “hat”: what I fail to do as an academic, I try to achieve by working with non-governmental organisations,” says Prof. Dainius Pūras, Director of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute and one of the co-founders. Other D. Pūras activities include teaching at Vilnius University, working as a consultant doctor at the Child Development Centre of Vilnius University Hospital, active involvement in the development of Lithuanian health policy, and work in international organisations: in 2007-2011, D. Pūras was a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and in 2014-2020 he was UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health. Dainius Pūras is now at the end of his tenure as head of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute. “I would be willing to be a part of the team for a while and share my experience, but it is time to hand over the helm of the director – which I have been for more than 5 years – to someone younger and more driven”, smiles D. Pūras. Therefore, on the occasion of farewell, we talk to Mr. Pūras about his choice of professional path and his long-standing work in the field of human rights.

I would like to invite you to think back to the distant past: what led you to study psychiatry?

– I had a hard time choosing what to study – my parents probably steered me a little towards medicine. I myself have always understood medicine as a social science, close to philosophy. In my second or third year, I realised that, with all due respect to my fellow students who, as they say, were born to be surgeons, I wasn’t really interested in that – I was much more attracted to medicine, which had more philosophy in it – namely psychiatry. Psychiatry, in my opinion, is in the middle between medicine and philosophy. Today I think more and more often that Romas Kalanta must have indirectly helped me to choose this field: in 1972, I was a teenager who was very sensitive to the events in Kaunas at that time…

I started studying medicine and working in this field while still in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. From the very beginning, my feelings were very ambiguous: I felt a great dislike, an allergy to the side of medicine that had suffered under the totalitarian system, and I wondered why other colleagues were able to overlook what was so obvious to me. I must have intuitively chosen the field of medicine where, at that time, there was a great deal of compromise. I was very sensitive to mental health issues at the time, perhaps because of my choice of dissertation topic on children with intellectual disabilities: it was completely taboo at the time, and they were hidden away, to the extent that their parents would only take them out for walks at night. I got in touch with those families and looked forward to the moment when all those dreams of change could be realised. Finally, that moment came with the revival and the Sąjūdis: I immediately helped the fathers of Sąjūdis to form the “Hope” Community. I also went back to Kalanta: as a young psychiatrist, I was involved in a second commission in 1989, which did not find that he had a mental illness; the previous commission in 1972 had found that he had schizophrenia because he had written in a school essay, ‘I believe Lithuania will be free’, which was considered delusional at the time. Then, together with like-minded psychiatrists, we set out to create a Lithuanian Psychiatric Association independent from Moscow, because Lithuania was particularly tied to the Moscow School of Psychiatry; psychiatry was one of the last fields that dared to break away from Moscow during the yeard of Sąjūdis. I had the honour of becoming the first President of the Lithuanian Psychiatric Association, a position I held from 1990 to 1992.

How did the interest in human rights develop alongside this professional field?

– Today, many of my medical colleagues don’t quite understand my, in their opinion, strange interest in human rights; understand that if you are a doctor, you treat people. I myself have no regrets whatsoever about combining medicine and its important part – psychiatry – with the protection of human rights throughout my professional life. There is overwhelming evidence that medicine and psychiatry that ignores human rights are harmful and dangerous.

I was a board member of the Open Society Foundation and was involved in the Foundation’s human rights work. The first decade of change was extremely positive, as Lithuania was then pushing into the free world and it was popular to adopt the best practices of the free world. The paradox is that this process stalled, stagnated, and has been stagnating ever since EU accession. EU accession has created a lot of money that has been used not for change, but for “preserving” the existing system – for example, for the renovation of large psychiatric institutions, when there should be no such institutions at all. It was then that we realised that there was still a lot of work to be done on the human rights front. When the Foundation ceased its activities in Lithuania after the country’s accession to the European Union, in 2003 together with Henrikas Mickevičius and others we initiated the establishment of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute to continue the work on human rights.

At that time, we had a slightly different view of NGOs; I remember when President Rolandas Paksas won the elections, it was not a happy occasion for our team and the whole community of human rights organisations, because we were aware of his views against human rights. As an organisation, we took his victory as our defeat, it seemed that maybe it was our fault, maybe we didn’t do something. And perhaps only later does the realisation dawn that those tiny human rights organisations, where a few people work with limited resources, almost always at risk of bankruptcy, are not omnipotent.

Dainius Pūras
Photo by Justinas Stonkus.

Can you tell us about your long-standing work with the Human Rights Monitoring Institute? Which achievements are most memorable, and which challenges are the hardest to forget?

– The Human Rights Monitoring Institute has always been an expert human rights institution, and there was no shortage of topics on which it was necessary to be an expert: protection of privacy, freedom of expression, and so on. The work was dynamic, depending on the issues of the day and the personalities working at the Institute – each new arrival brought his or her own expertise and priority human rights topics. But what has remained throughout the lifetime of the Institute, and what I am proud of, is that we do not shy away from uncomfortable, unpopular issues, and even try to make them a priority. Right now our main topics are mental health care: Lithuania pretends that it has no systemic problems in this area, even though 6 thousand people are locked up forever. This is a huge problem, but it is not even named. Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who crossed the Belarusian border suffered a similar fate: we know what Lithuania did to those 4,000. There were very gross violations of human rights, which, unfortunately, are widely recognised in Lithuania as a successful Lithuanian “operation”. In other words, Lithuania is proud of how it has dealt with this problem, while it was an unprecedented regression in the field of human rights. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the Human Rights Monitoring Institute has chosen these two issues for the moment, because here we are losing. There must be someone in Lithuania to remind both the government and the public that this is not the way to behave, especially if we see ourselves as international leaders sending a signal to authoritarian regimes.

For me, this topic is the most interesting: how we in Lithuania will or will not be able to betray universal human rights, because there is such a threat. It has always been there, but now it seems to me that it is stronger. However, it used to be the same before. For example, HRMI has taken on the case of the CIA prison in Lithuania. Then you become a “bad guy” in Lithuania, because you take your rubbish out of the house. Therefore, we have to remind again and again that this is what non-governmental organizations are for, and that is what civil society is for, it understands patriotism in this way – as disobeying the authorities and defending universal values.

As the name of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute requires, we publish a human rights review every two years. Of course, we are too small to do it ourselves, so we bring in external experts where possible. This review is a serious contribution to the overall field of human rights in Lithuania over the 20 years of the Institute’s existence. Today, in Lithuania, we already have Seimas Ombudsmen and other ombudsman institutions: equal opportunities, children’s rights and so on. But this was not the case before, and NGOs needed to fill this void, to become an important independent voice. After the publishing of our reviews, we would visit Presidents and Prime Ministers to discuss human rights issues. Unfortunately, some “chronic wounds” remain in Lithuania, and a lot of homework is still not done, but we keep reminding that there is no need to calm down and it is necessary to return to those painful questions every time. Universal human rights are one of the best things mankind has invented. Countries that consistently implement women’s rights, children’s rights, the rights of LGBT people, the rights of people with mental disabilities, and treat migrants and asylum seekers in a civilised manner are the most successful and happiest in the world. It is therefore obvious what Lithuania needs to do and what path to follow.

How do you see your future work in the field of human rights? What changes would you like to see in Lithuania in 2050?

– All of us who are “sick” of human rights and defend the fundamental rights of every human being will certainly have something to do. Like independence, democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties must be protected and upheld every day. I hope that as we approach 2050, more and more European values, fundamental human rights and freedoms will be embedded in Lithuania. I hope that people will no longer be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, or on any other grounds. I hope that there will be more and more intolerance of violence of all kinds and that harmful traditional stereotypes will disappear. I hope that the people of Lithuania will be better able to separate the wheat from the chaff, will be resistant to conspiracy theories, and will no longer be tempted by the attempts of populist nationalists to contrast us with the world’s most successful practices in various areas of life. I hope that modern human rights principles will finally make their way into health care, education, social protection policies, and the training of medical and other professionals. This is the only way I know of towards a welfare state and a healthy and happy society.