Creating a rights respectful society requires broad participation and diverse voices. This was the central idea emphasised by FRA’s Director, Michael O’Flaherty, on the final day of the Fundamental Rights Forum. To achieve this, he stressed the need to bring together duty bearers and right holders, who we heard from on earlier days during the Forum, and inject the voice of business, if we want to be truly sustainable.
This sense of shared ownership and responsibility was echoed by Steve Howard, Head of Sustainability at IKEA. Bringing the perspective of a multinational company, he made clear that businesses have to reflect and be connected to the diverse and inclusive societies they serve. He spoke of how businesses need to act decisively, proactively and systematically. They should take a stand for communities and can lead by example in their workplaces, setting clear targets and implementing concrete measures, giving the example of IKEA’s own code of conduct. They also carried out fair wage assessments, and equalised pay for full and part time workers. The net result? A doubling of job applications, better job retention and happier workers. He also mentioned the IKEA Foundation’s initiative to support the refugee crisis through developing better shelters, supply solar lanterns and assisting their workers help refugees. He was adamant that “the business case can almost always be created to do the right thing, so why would anybody do anything else? ...If we lead with intent we can be the generation to fast track change.”
The connection between businesses, and economic rights and social rights appeared throughout the day. While businesses can be based on social principles, Wolfgang Greif, Vice-President of the European Economic and Social Committee, reiterated the requirement for concrete measures in this area. He spoke of a ‘binding pillar’ for corporate social responsibility, a framework at the international level which ties the responsibilities of multinational businesses to social rights. Unless a holistic approach is taken that integrates economic, social and ecological concerns, then sustainability integrating fundamental rights will be hard to achieve. The need for climate justice was also raised by Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The call for an approach drawing together various forms of rights was echoed by Shalini Randeria, Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences, who called for ‘global social policies’, as rights can longer be thought of solely in terms of the nation state. Drawing on the example of multinational companies operating in the Global South, she questioned whether the current world economic model with its growing inequalities can really promote human rights. One of the working groups when reporting back was also concerned about rising economic inequalities which felt must take a U-turn. Their view was that it damages social relations as equal societies do better. They called for policy responses and for the EU to lead by example. The EU’s proposed Pillar of Social Rights is a good start.
Michael Spindelegger, Director General of the International Centre for Migration Policy, approached the argument from the other side. He argued that we have to provide economic ‘hard facts’ to support the argument for sustainable growth. By broadening the discourse beyond human rights, the case for change presented to states becomes more convincing.
While sustainable growth and rights can be discussed in terms of international businesses and the formal economy, the informal economy and local actors represent the other side of the coin. Shalini Randeria questioned why are labour forces considered informal if they constitute 70% of the work force, as in the case of India? Christine Souffrant, CEO of Vendeddy, continued with the theme of informal workers. She spoke of the often discounted importance of street vendors to the world economy and society. Around 2 billion people sell products on the streets of the world. They sustain families. It reduces crime. She cautioned against viewing this as an activity of emerging markets. In London, Camden market receives 100,000 visitors every day and there are over 1500 flea markets in the US. On a purely more fundamental level, street vendors have existed since the dawn of civilisation; they are part of the human experience. They foster engagement and inclusion: they enable the re-establishment of the social connections that we are perhaps losing in our digitalised age. Despite online growth, they are here to stay, she said.
Discussion on the power and potential of people acting locally was not only limited to discussions on economic matters. Just as the entrepreneurial spirit of street vendors leads them to not wait for help and jobs, people are now starting to mobilise themselves and exercise their rights of their own accord, bringing previously unknown causes and grievances to light. Marianne Ringer, the Europe Co-Leader of the Ashoka Foundation, drew on the analogy of citizen journalists informing global media of local issues. The entrepreneurship spirit was also covered by one of the working groups chosen to report back. It singled out the need to strengthen business opportunities for migrants to work as this will help integration. Practical barriers like opening bank accounts should be broken down. There should be more support for vocational training, and a more friendly and open legal framework for migrant entrepreneurs.
In the context of our increasingly interconnected world, there is a need to “globalise the local and localise the global”, as Hauwa Ibrahim, international human rights lawyer and the 2005 EU Sakharov prizewinner put it. This was echoed by Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, who said there are no walls, political or actual, that can shield us from globalisation. The world is increasingly interconnected. Yet this has led to narratives of hate. In order to halt these, we need to focus on global, economic and financial systems, and work out how they can be better aligned with global human rights’ needs.
Laws that help realise fundamental rights represent types of ‘hard delivery’, yet we also need ‘soft delivery’. Education can form the basis of these ‘soft’ measures. Marianne Ringler put forward the idea that education needs to be more than just literature and mathematics; it should also teach young people the necessary skills for changing the world for the better of us all. This in turns helps to tackle what Emily O’Reilly described as the debate of the “human rights of the other and the stranger”. Through this, positive counter narratives can be created. Hauwa Ibrahim insisted on the importance of these, especially when fighting extremism, making clear the role that education and the media have to play in such narratives. The media must not be used to blur truth and fiction, but to empower.
Rewriting such narratives can also be achieved by empowering groups such as refugees to solve their own problems. However, to facilitate this further, we need to consider the support we give to local actors, along with the structures they work within. These questions, posed by Marianne Ringler, led her to suggest creating bottom-up structures based on self-empowerment. Policy makers need to draw on the power of citizens to drive change. By creating ‘ecosystems’ that integrate policy makers, citizen activists, social entrepreneurs, and local governments and administrations, change can be effected more quickly.
In summing up the days, the concluding panel took a broader look. The EU’s Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, spoke about the refugee crisis and how questions are being asked of the EU’s values. It is threatening the unity of the EU. He spoke of the EU’s raft of measures to help migrants. The central principle is to protect one of the most basic of human rights, the right to life, and prevent unnecessary loss of life.
Lucia Žitňanská, the Slovak Deputy Prime Minister, spoke of the challenge of findings ways of reconnecting with those who no longer believe in fundamental rights. For this she believed in the power of education and training, a red thread that ran throughout the Forum, as “human rights are not luxury, they are the essence of mankind,” she said.
Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights, took a more global view as his role is to promote rights around the world in the EU’s foreign policies. But in this role “we cannot shove our imperfections under the carpet” if we are to remain credible. He then gave examples from the three Forum themes. On inclusion, he spoke of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the global blueprint for the next 15 years. The EU is playing its part by ensuring rights concerns are hardwired into development aid, in the planning of projects and when looking at impact. He called on business to think about their responsibilities; it is not just about donating to good causes but also looking at business practices and supply chains. On migration, he said we should not allow fear and populism dominate debate. It is damaging the EU’s credibility. We need to reaffirm our strong founding values that encourages so many to seek sanctuary in the EU. As for the digital age, in democratic societies it should be citizens monitoring governments, not the other way round. The EU has led discussions globally on privacy. We should continue to do so, for if we have sustainable development, why can’t we have sustainable security, he wondered.
The final working group to report back looked at the digital age. Like others, they mentioned the need for a joined-up approach involving business, civil society and people: “If digital is everywhere, then privacy is everywhere,” so there is a need to defend and discuss privacy rules by everyone, so they are understood by everyone, as trust is the bedrock of credibility, they said.
By the end of the day, all that remained was for the Forum Chair and FRA Director to thank the many contributors that had made the Forum such a hotbed of creative ideas. And these ideas have been captured and distilled by FRA, and will be made publicly available as the Chair’s Statement. This statement is a non-negotiated personal text from the Forum Chair reflecting elements that received strong support during the debates. It attempts to capture the spirit of the event drawing on the multiple good suggestions, promising practices and new approaches that were shared throughout the event.
The Statement will be shared with participants on 28 July. He pledged FRA’s commitment to disseminate the findings wisely, already starting with the EU Council and European Parliament. This will ensure they have a wide reach among parliaments at all levels and among all stakeholders. He urged participants to act similarly. Together we can do it, he said, as over the days he has seen a Europe that is resilient, willing and energetic that wants to ensure Europe’s place in the global community.
There is a tremendous desire and will to make a difference to the lives of everyone across Europe with applied, practical and solid solutions. This was the sense FRA’s Director and Fundamental Rights Forum Chair had picked up so far from the Forum as he opened day three. But he also felt that many were tired of all the talking; it is now time to act and deliver to truly empower rights holders, the focus of the day.
This focus was introduced by Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner in his keynote speech. He spoke of the need for a ‘battle plan for Europe’ to address the negative trends, the fundamental rights backsliding that is becoming all too evident across the EU. Here he gave everyday examples such as the ‘epidemic’ of forced evictions of Roma, the restrictions of refugee family reunification to supposedly stem the migrant flow, and the adoption of bad surveillance laws and their impact on privacy and press freedom. “We need to be creative, clever and tough, combining impatience with patience,” he said, comparing the approach to a group therapy session where both sides get together to air their grievances to find common solutions. He also spoke of the need for governments to help raise rights awareness, highlight obligations and strengthen access to human rights bodies that can help right holders. This includes making such bodies stronger with more powers, greater independence and better resources. These views were echoed by David Stanton, Ireland’s Justice Minister. He spoke of ringfencing NHRB funding and greater rights awareness so people can effectively claim their rights. This also extends to schools and college where teaching rights education and awareness is required.
The importance of education in helping to promote social inclusion was also underlined by one of the working groups chosen by participants to report back. Whilst creative toolkits and materials exist, there must be a greater focus on convincing educators of the importance of inclusion and diversity. At the same time, new ways of assessing teachers and addressing lifelong learning for fundamental rights should be considered.
New ways for children to learn about rights is also called for. A school competition organised as part of the Forum provided such an opportunity. Participants were invited to consider how to make fundamental rights a reality in Vienna. The prize was claimed by Year 2D from Rötzergasse Primary School, whose winning entry was a cut-out animation that depicted everyday stories based on human rights issues important to the children.
Another of the selected working groups approached the theme of integration from the perspective of refugees, emphasising that if it is to be successful it can never be a 'one-way road'. Both sets of communities have to be open and accept each other, even though we place demands on those arriving. To facilitate this, civil society's input is vital. Local authorities have a key role to play as well, as many of these encounters that take place in our cities.
Increasingly, encounters between different groups are also taking place online. The final selected working group asserted that what occurs virtually reflects back on society as a whole, with this also being the case for hate crime. The need for developing skills in reporting hate crime and raising awareness on who to contact when incidents occur was emphasised. Perhaps most importantly, we need to better understand the impact on targets and victims of hate speech. This can be achieved through measures such as campaigns, case studies and the development of better online monitoring tools. One proposal of how to help was developed during a hackathon at the FRF itself. Forum participants voted on further developing Franny, a Fundamental Rights bot, one of four proposals pitched to the audience. Franny will automatically recognise negative hashtags and respond with the relevant Charter Articles or give examples of good practices.
Working with civil society and NGOs who can, for example, offer legal support to victims and empower frontline defenders, was frequently mentioned throughout the day. Mary Lawlor, the Director of the Frontline Defenders NGO focused on protecting human rights defenders in her talk. She was particularly concerned by how governments around the world are investing huge efforts and resources to close down, silence, restrict and discredit independent civil society, especially those critical of government policies. “They are afraid of us, because we are not afraid of them. The time of the people is coming closer,” she said. They see frontline defenders are key agents of social change. Frontline defenders represent dignity, give human form to rights and stand on the side of victims. That’s why she strongly believes that States should condemn the killing the human rights defenders whenever and wherever it occurs. After all, she concluded what is the point of human rights laws and systems if they even fail to protect human rights defenders?
The whole notion of state protection of rights was thrown into question by Benjamin Barber, the founder of the Global Parliament for Mayors project when he spoke about the role of cities and mayors in empowering rights holders: “Rights are in trouble because democracy is in trouble.” He attributed this to the national prism through which many democratic states still tackle issues despite growing global interdependence. “The nation state has outlived its usefulness in an interdependent world.” Terrorism, climate change, the refugee crisis – these are transnational issues that cross national borders. Salla Saastamoinen, representing the European Commission also cited the global aspect as a particular challenge when trying to negotiate solutions at the European level with international partners.
In Barber’s view, cities have the answer. They predate nations. They are the oldest political institutions on earth and are again starting to show their usefulness: “Cities are our fundamental human communities … far more than a level of administration.” They are diverse communities, and look and feel like the world. People identify with cities. Surveys also point to people having twice as much trust in local government compared to their national counterparts. “Their time has come,” he added. Therefore, they need to become stakeholders in preserving rights. They must more than share practices; they must work together and create common actions in a global network to empower rights holders.
As a practical example of empowerment, of connecting citizens to power, Alberto Alemanno co-founder The Good Lobby, spoke of the need to better tap our collective skillbase for the greater good. He said we have become spectators not actors of life, not engaging in society. The default option today is either to vote or run for office. He proposed a middle way – lobbying, voicing opinions by citizens for citizens. In the EU, powerful tools exist but they are little used. The Good Lobby concept he has created is a possible alternative. It is a confidential skills-based matching organisation. It listens to the needs of NGOs, connects them with experts and helps them deliver. It allow communities that previously didn’t know each other become acquainted. He spoke of how if success is considered as showing up, The Good Lobby aims to ensure everyone has a seat at the table to make a difference for society.
But to make a difference, people need to understand their rights and the consequences. In the digital environment this is often portrayed as a trade-off. You can either have security or freedom. You can either have a good browsing experience with relevant links or autonomy. This is a false dilemma, argued Katarzyna Szymielewicz, Vice-President of European Digital Rights. To counter this we need to make rights less abstract and make them more understandable for users. This was also the view of Wojciech Wiewiórowski, the Assistant European Data Protection Supervisor, who said we need to avoid talking about people as data subjects; they are human beings with rights.
Katarzyna Szymielewicz’s suggestion was to use the data and information we already have to assess the real impact of a measure in a sort of cost benefit analysis. This would make arguments more convincing. Transparency tests on how data are being used by States and companies are also needed. For this, users need to keep asking questions about data usage. They need request access to information and, if necessary, litigate for access. And then there is option of collecting the data ourselves. Taken all together this will help us break out of the false dilemma, to regain independence, and to move from reflection to action. Just imagine the power of all online users acting in unison against social media or telecommunications companies: “If we act in a concerted way, the balance may shift and we can become very powerful,” she said.
In the panel debate on empowering rights holders, Astrid Thors, the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, warned of not alienating marginalised groups. Efforts should be made to ensure everyone, not just EU citizens, can develop to their true potential. James Cavallaro, President of the Commission of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights continued this thread. For him, it was important to allow people to exercise their rights rather than the often more paternalistic view of allowing people to use their rights: “People are more likely to bring about meaningful change than lawyers.” Social movements engage people, they tap into raw demand and have critical mass. States should be facilitators of social change and not simply believe norms and polices can do it better. This do-it-yourself concept was firmly affirmed by Farah Abdi, a Somali refugee, blogger, human rights activist and author. “I have been told many times by family, friends, colleagues and strangers; that I am a black, African, refugee, Muslim, trans woman; that I am outside the norms accepted by society…. No one should presume to have the authority to allow anyone anything.” Farah Abdi accused the media and politicians of making refugee an ‘ugly’ word, associated with terrorists and rapists. It needs rebranding which is how the word ‘refugenious’ was coined: “We need the space, not the opportunity.” Gianfranco Rosi, the award-winning ‘Fire at the Sea’ film maker, also spoke about refugees. In his view the numbers don’t reflect the humanity. We should stop taking about the emergency but accept it as life today and deal with it.
Underpinning all this, Dr Brian Klug from Oxford University brought us back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He reminded us that it considers rights holders also as duty bearers. With rights also come responsibilities. It believed in creating a human rights community in which everyone owes each other respect, acknowledging differences.
In the wrap-up debate at the close of the day, the issue of access was repeatedly referred to. Panellists discussed access to information about our rights and knowing what they mean, as well as access to data that will allow us to act. Lora Vidović, the Croatian Ombudswoman took heart from the fact that in her country complaints are on the rise, indicating that awareness is growing and know how to act on them.
However, sometimes collective support for issues is needed. Max Schrems, the privacy activist, said that for example, many things are not significant enough for an individual to go to court over, but collectively they may have a substantial effect. Therefore, we need to not only empower individuals, but also empower authorities and civil society, which can take collective action. In this sense, Max Schrems suggested creating a Europe-wide umbrella data protection NGO to help.
Leuven University’s Professor Jan Wouters reminded Forum contributors that international, supranational organisations were created because national structures were not working. However, he recognised there is still work that needs to be done to improve. In part he said perhaps they have promised too much; maybe being more humble could help. He mentioned how Europe has a sophisticated human rights system but awareness of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights among citizens is low. Even experts don’t fully understand it and its application.
In concluding, to move forward the panel suggested increasing access to information on our rights, and education on how to use them, greater support for independent NHRIs and equality bodies, and acting now to ensure their follow-up in the next time the Forum meets.
A sense of gloom has settled over the EU’s fundamental rights community. Fundamental rights are under-resourced, often disregarded by States, not enforced in practice, awareness is low and they are being marginalised not mainstreamed in discussions. But despite all this there is a highly sophisticated fundamental rights promotion and protection system in place in Europe. These were the opening words of FRA Director, Michael O’Flaherty, during the second day of FRA’s Fundamental Rights Forum. It was therefore a logical place, he said, to focus discussions throughout the day on how governance can best contribute to reawakening the Europe of values.
The importance of stronger governance was echoed by European Parliament Vice-President Ulrike Lunacek, especially in the today’s climate. She spoke of the need to rebuild the trust in democracy and its democratic structures that has been lost. This is especially true where the erosion of the rule of law is undermining how people’s rights are being protected.
To help we need to first acknowledge that we have in part failed in the past. This was the view of Valeriu Nicolae, the Romanian Secretary of State. He gave an example from his country which had spent vast sums of money on training Roma for the job market with only a 0.1% success rate. That’s why Romania is rethinking its approach and has developed an antipoverty plan and is including vulnerable groups in decision making. The importance of learning from the past and realigning policies was also underlined by Aleksander Stępkowski, Polish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Moving forward, Yuri Fedotov, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was of the opinion that better rights-based governance rests on three pillars: political commitment; strong legislation aligned with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; and the need for all stakeholders to comply with this legislation. Ulrike Lunacek added to this. For her, respect for the EU’s rich diversity and freedom from fear to allow citizens to live in dignity to fulfil their true potential were also key.
The issue of inclusion and countering marginalisation was also picked up by Cécile Kashetu Kyenge MEP. She spoke of the vital role culture and education can play. Education was also singled out by Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. As hate is learned it can also be unlearned, she said. When it comes to hate speech, the full force of the law should be brought, she added. Countering hate crime and speech is also an issue the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is actively involved in, its Director Michael Georg Link explained, and something the monitor and report on each year. However, despite existing laws, there is too little enforcement, he said.
The Swedish State Secretary, Per Olsson Fridh, warned human rights are not just for the ‘sunnny’ days: “We must allow a rights culture to grow… Member States have to build strong legal and institutional frameworks. In welfare states like Sweden the welfare system isn’t built on rights, but needs. The transition from needs to rights is not easy, but a rights culture allows for this transformation to occur more easily.”
He also cautioned how politicians can be drivers of polarisation not taking responsibility for what they say. This point was also mentioned by Kate Gilmore who underlined the need for political leadership and for how those who are elected to office to fully represent the needs of all their constituents.
However, Europe must also look at the wider picture. “An inclusive Europe that does not deal with an inclusive world is not sustainable,” she warned. Due to globalisation, the world has become far more interconnected and interdependent. As a result of this, we have experienced drastic changes in both our understanding of human interaction and the world around us. This change in understanding is not reflected in the continuation of the static notions of sovereignty, borders and national interests. We therefore need to reconceptualise these notions, creating a forward looking policy that addresses the entire planet as opposed to just Europe.
The global dimension also featured in the talk on inclusion by Belgian author, Stefan Hertmans. He spoke of how the disconnect of youths from society starts locally before they begin tapping into global networks of like-minded people. To counter this and to bring radicalised youths back, he believes in human connections at the local and community level. Neighbours need to find new ways to re-engage with each other, creating empathy. Here he believe the arts and culture are important vehicles for doing just that.
Coming back to governance, Helga Stevens, Member of the European Parliament gave a practical example of how human rights instruments can make a difference. She spoke about the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as a model for inclusion and empowerment of people with disabilities. It has been a game changer upgrading disability rights to an international human rights issue. Rather than grant new rights to people with disabilities, it gives more detail on how to achieve certain rights. But support is needed. “Now is the time for implementation. And we cannot implement anything without support from every single person here in the room and at home,” she said. “Only together can we end discrimination.”
However, human rights instruments are not always implemented in the ways they were intended, as James C. Hathaway, Professor of International Law, from the University of Michigan explained. He spoke about fixing the ‘broken’ existing international refugee system that neither governments nor refugees like. He spoke of how ‘most refugees want to live productive lives, look after their families and make a contribution to their new communities’. Yet they cannot under the current system, housed in massive camps. He outlined his vision for a ‘win-win-win situation’ that is better for refugees, better for the poorer countries which currently accommodate 85% of migrants, and better for the richer countries that so many migrants are trying to reach. This vision included an insurance-like scheme where countries agree in advance financial contributions that a central international body reallocates to where it is most needed. Barriers to access need to be eliminated. This would discourage smuggling and allow refugees to move where they are most likely to fit in. Linked to this is the need to empower refugees once they arrive. Here he gave the example of urban refugees in Uganda where 21% now own their own business, employing others, including Ugandans. Support for poorer States would also help them shoulder the responsibility of looking after the majority of the world’s refugees. And then there also needs to be solutions for those who do not return home and do not integrate locally. For this there has to be a greater commitment to resettlement.
Morten Kjaerum, Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law also spoke about the plight of refugees and their right to a future. He questioned those who said refugees have too many rights. Would those risking their lives, enduring incredible hardship to come to the EU agree, he asked? He spoke of how the refugee crisis is not a numbers issue but one of governance, solidarity and trust between Member States citing the ratio of 3 refugees to 10000 citizens in Europe to the 235:1000 in Lebanon. He compared the situation with the past when Europe managed large numbers of refugees. Vincent Cochetel, the European UNHCR Director also made this point. He gave the example of those fleeing Hungary in 1956 when 100,000 refugees were taken in by neighbouring countries in 10 weeks.
For Morten Kjaerum, to improve the refugee situation two decisions need to be taken. The first, is creating legal avenues and better resettlement. One of the working groups reporting back also highlighted this. They supported the idea of creating legal entry channels for migrants into the EU, as well as enlarging the resettlement system. The possibility of creating a common asylum office to replace the 28 national systems was also floated. This was an idea that may be resisted initially by Member States but in long run could work and be accepted, according to Corinna Wicher, from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Mr Kjaerum’s second point was turning our backs on the wave of hate and xenophobic rhetoric that is prevailing across Europe.
In order for rights-based governance to be successful, it needs to draw on diverse leadership and find ways of integrating citizenship from diverse identities, commented another working group reporting back. Commenting on this, Evelyne Paradis, Executive Director of ILGA-Europe said: “I also see great desire for new forms of leadership. People want to see leadership that is based on empathy, on role modelling, and on integrity.”
The last group to report back underlined how security and privacy are not mutually exclusive. It is a false dilemma they said. Legislative clarity, transparency and accountability is needed to put an end to the culture of secrecy. They spoke of the need for space for multiple voices given our society of multiple identities. This space should allow room for dissent, safe from surveillance.
The view that NGO and civil society voices need to be able to say what needs to be said was also supported by Anastasia Crickley, Chair of the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination. She linked this to providing adequate resources for civil society and its full participation, as well as opportunities for people to come together and collectively decide on their needs. The shrinking space for civil society to operate was also a cause for concern, voiced by Evelyne Paradis, as civil society provides a vital link to the communities they serve.
She added that: “One of the greatest revolutions of the human rights movement is that it placed power in each and every one of us. It empowered us.” For that reason as Paul Nemitz, the European Commission’s Director of Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, put it: “We need to make sure that our fundamental rights aren’t just brushed away because of opportunity. Rights alone help nobody. We need resources to deliver them: political will, judges and courts. This is where digital age and migration overlap.”
A growing sense of insecurity and fear is undermining the EU’s core values that safeguard fundamental rights. This was the view of Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s First Vice-President, during the official opening of FRA’s Fundamental Rights Forum 2016 in Vienna on 20 June.
He spoke of the insecurity and fear that a growing number of citizens feel: “Fear of exclusion, fear of loss. Fear for their children's future. And fear of the other, of the unknown.” As a result people feel threatened. This is fuelling rising intolerance and xenophobia which is why he believes more than ever that we must fight to uphod the EU’s fundamental values in order to protect every individual in society.
The Forum therefore comes at an opportune moment to help the EU tackle the most pressing fundamental rights challenges of its time. It will create space for conversations to find new ways to make a real difference, especially for those who are forgotten, marginalised or vulnerable, as the Forum Chair and Agency Director, Michael O’Flaherty, mentioned in his comments during the inauguration ceremony.
One of these challenges is refugee protection. Here Frans Timmermans spoke of how the refugee crisis, and how it is being managed, are contributing to rising populism and xenophobia. The European Commission has prioritised this issue. As a result they are holistically reforming the migration and asylum system, placing fundamental rights at the core of the EU’s response. This includes ensuring all those who need protection receive it, particularly children, as well as preventing risky situations through, for example, opening up legal avenues to entry into Europe rather than letting people put their lives in the hands of smugglers and traffickers.
When it comes to the Forum’s theme of inclusion, Dr Heinz Fischer, President of Austria and Forum Patron spoke of how we must counter the pull of populist parties who often want to return to the past with a homogeneous society as an answer to globalisation rather than recognise the richness and prosperity that diversity brings. But he cautioned that integration and inclusion requires joint continuous efforts to address the concerns of those fearing the arrival of large numbers of migrants. In response “we should focus on the opportunities that unite us rather than the challenges that separate us,” he said. In that the EU should be proud of what it has achieved in terms of advancing human rights, a point which European Parliament Vice President Ulrike Lunacek thanked the President for publicly acknowledging.
Vice-President Timmermans agreed. He highlighted how inclusion is “not only an issue for refugees, but for all those whom we fear or mistrust because they are ‘different’: ‘different’ by religion or belief, ‘different’ by skin colour, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.” Here he believed education can play a vital role in promoting tolerance, respect, engaged citizenship and shared values. He also called for progress in unblocking the EU’s proposed equal treatment directive to help foster inclusion and end discrimination.
Then looking at the digital age, he spoke of the power of the internet for discussing, sharing, learning and interacting. But he also warned of the internet’s darker side and how digital tools can be misappropriated for spreading hate speech and propaganda. The recent Code of Conduct on countering illegal online hate speech agreed between industry and the Commission is just one example of how efforts are being made to tackle this problem.
He concluded by stating the need for a common and coordinated effort to uphold the rights enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights which the Commission will continue to do.
This need was also reflected in the remarks made by Frauke Seidensticker, Chairperson of FRA’s Management Board. She spoke of the need for real debate bringing together the many different perspectives that we all bring, the very essence of what the Forum is all about: working towards a common goal of formulating commitments that will result in meaningful change in the promotion, protection and respect for fundamental rights throughout the EU. This spirit of collaboration in a shared commitment towards human rights was similarly echoed in the comments made by Dr Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, representing the City of Vienna, itself a human rights city, as co-host of the Forum.
Drawing on this spirit, earlier in the day, fundamental rights experts and tech-savvy specialists came together to think out of the box on how to bring about such change while addressing today's challenges. In a so-called Hackathon, organised by the Dutch Embassy in Vienna, FRA and Impact Hub Vienna, they put their minds together to generate innovative, creative, practical and tailored digital tools that will help protect and promote the rights of people across the EU. They will continue to work of their ideas before presenting them at the Forum on 22 June.