FRA Director highlights need to strengthen fundamental rights across the EU

Council of the European Union – Justus Lipsius building
Council of the European Union – Justus Lipsius building
Despite the numerous fundamental rights achievements that the EU has made over the years, many people across Europe continue to suffer. Greater access to justice for victims and a stronger institutional framework for fundamental rights are two areas of particular note that the FRA Director, Morten Kjaerum, highlighted when addressing the Council Working Party on Fundamental Rights, Citizens' Rights and Free Movement of Persons (FREMP) in Brussels on 15 July.

The FRA Director was presenting the Agency’s Annual report on fundamental rights challenges and achievements in 2013. It was an opportunity for FRA to speak about ways in which the EU and its Member States could embed fundamental rights more firmly in their policy making by drawing on the findings contained in the report.

In his presentation, he acknowledged the significant progress that has been made by the EU. However, “… as the work of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, and others, has shown, when we move from achievements in legislation and policies to the situation on the ground, we still have a long way to go.” Here he made passing reference to how the socio-economic crisis has often tested the resolve of many Member States to uphold fundamental rights.

He spoke of high levels of discrimination and hate crime across the EU, drawing on examples of FRA’s work. To counter this he underlined the urgent need for Member States to improve access to justice for victims. This includes tackling the fear of prejudice and stigmatization which often prevents victims from reporting or seeking help. He also called for practical and targeted support from victim support services. In both cases he gave examples of promising practices that FRA’s Annual report had identified. In addition, he mentioned how FRA has established a hate crime working party of Member States to develop ways to better combat hate crime.

The FRA Director then talked about strengthening the institutional framework for fundamental rights. While he acknowledged that numerous bodies have been set up to help victims – from equality bodies and national human rights institutions to data protection authorities – he also pointed out certain weaknesses that seriously hamper the ability of national bodies to function effectively.

Here he made special reference to their limited mandates, lack of independence and/or insufficient resources in terms of budget and staffing. The resource constraints can also lead to many institutions falling short in raising awareness about their role and how they can help the people they were created to assist. In addition, he spoke of the lack of training and capacity building measures that prevent fundamental rights violations from being addressed effectively.

The FRA Director assured participants that the Agency will continue to support EU bodies and Member States by looking into the gaps that remain in legislation, policy and institutional framework, and by providing evidence for informed decision making. As part of this, he exchanged views with the Member States about the agency’s future work, such as the upcoming Fundamental rights survey - a general population survey that will be repeated every five years. It will be the first EU-wide survey to produce comparable trend data on people’s experiences of fundamental rights over time.

He also spoke of the need for greater cooperation between all governmental and non-governmental actors, as well as training to raise awareness among policy makers and practitioners. This is particularly important given the cross-cutting nature of many fundamental rights challenges. In closing, he made reference to the focus section of this year’s Annual report, which not only calls for an overall strategic framework to protect and promote fundamental rights within the EU but suggests various complementary ways of strengthening fundamental rights across the EU.