Public debates

Public officials should be aware of ongoing controversial public debates on fundamental rights in the community they serve. To engage the public, but also colleagues, controversial issues affecting public opinion must not be ignored but addressed.

Values and behaviour are subject to change. New developments and trends alter values positively and negatively. Public attitudes towards fundamental rights are no exception to societal trends, and can both progress and regress.

Example

Swedish society is traditionally known for being gender sensitive with a high degree of equality between women and men. However, the levels of gender equality achieved in the 1970s and 1980s have not remained static.

Ongoing research shows that in some areas gender equality is improving, as can be witnessed by the number of women in senior management posts. However, in other areas the situation is worsening, for example in the rise of violence against women. Research on gender equality in medical services conducted in Gothenburg also showed a worrying trend, with male patients often being prioritised for surgery over women patients.

Source: Local focus group, 2011, Gothenburg, Sweden

Learning Point

The example illustrates that there can be a considerable difference between what people believe and how they behave. People may believe in upholding fundamental rights and yet behave in a discriminatory way towards, for example, people with a different ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

Challenge misconceptions
To promote and keep public attention on fundamental rights challenges, officials must engage in public debate and challenge misconceptions. In the focus group discussions for this toolkit, public officials considered this as important both to raise awareness and to maintain relevance.

Surveying the public
Ignoring public attitudes or being insensitive to societal context can undermine fundamental rights initiatives. Surveying public attitudes towards fundamental rights can therefore be a valuable tool to anticipate support or resistance to fundamental rights initiatives.

Tip

At EU level, Eurobarometer surveys regularly provide statistics about public opinion towards specific fundamental rights issues, in particular regarding discrimination. Read the Eurobarometer Special Survey 2012 on discrimination in the EU.

At national level, national statistical offices, and some National Human Rights Institutions, undertake surveys. For example, the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission commissioned a survey on Public perceptions of human rights.

FRA has undertaken surveys on experiences of discrimination and other fundamental rights abuses by different minority groups (Jews, LGBT people, ethnic minorities including the Roma), children and women. See: http://fra.europa.eu/en/research/surveys