Successes and challenges in protecting human rights as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70

FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty delivered a keynote address at the Maynooth University’s Department of Law conference on 22 June. His speech reviewed the successes and challenges of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after 70 years. He spoke about the role of fundamental rights in European societies, and addressed challenges related to protecting these rights within the EU.

He addressed the relationship between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and present-day Europe. He credited it with launching “a process through which Europe has built the strongest system of human rights protection in the world”. He added: “In recent decades, the European Union has played an increasingly important role in this system. We have developed the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union—landmark legislation I like to call a European ‘Bill of Rights’ —and the EU’s highest court has vigorously protected human rights in its rulings. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights is a global good practice, and is the only body of its kind operating at a regional level anywhere in the world.”

However, he also spoke of a number of pressing challenges, notably the worrying signs of backsliding human rights protection in many places within the EU. He gave the example of the treatment of Roma: ”In a climate of growing anti-Gypsyism, our leaders need to stand up for the Roma—arguably the most marginalized community in our societies, and a constant target of discrimination. Significant parts of this population live in homes without running water or electricity, lack access to health insurance, and go to bed hungry—all in one of the richest regions in the world.

“The European Union has recognised the urgent need to address the dire situation of the European Roma, putting up funding support Member States can use to make targeted investments that help our Roma brothers and sisters get a quality education, access to proper housing and health care. The means are there. But we need political will to make human rights a reality for everybody in society. ”

He also spoke of the challenges facing civil society organisations working on human rights in the EU: “It is no less important to acknowledge that the rich and dynamic tapestry of European civil society is one of the fundamental pillars of our democracies and of the rule of law. Across the EU, NGOs and other civil society actors need to be valued and respected as partners, not labelled as threats. Criminalising humanitarianism can never be right.”

However, he also gave a more upbeat look to the future: “In spite of the challenges facing the system of human rights protection in Europe, I am convinced that it is fit for purpose, but can always be strengthened. I am also optimistic that—so long as we are vigilant in insisting on compliance with human rights standards, calling out abuses where we see them, and reinvesting in building a culture of human rights—the system will continue to deliver for our people.”