Dear Chair, members of the steering committee,
Thank you for the invitation to address the Committee and exchange views on the cooperation with the Council of Europe and how I see human rights issues developing over the next couple of years.
Cooperation with the Council of Europe goes from strength to strength. This will be my third meeting this year with either an intergovernmental committee or a committee from the Parliamentary Assembly. We have received visits in Vienna from the Council of Europe. The FRA chairperson delivered a speech to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in March. I also look forward to the regular exchanges with the Committee of Ministers Group on External relations.
And our cooperation will be particularly important this year. The European Union is undergoing a period of transition. We have just elected a new European Parliament. A new Commission will be in place in the Autumn. At the operational level, the Strategic Guidelines for the justice and home affairs will be adopted this week. This will feed into our cooperation with you. Our cooperation should therefore aim at continuing the complementarity. And we have a solid foundation to take things forward. “You can hardly find two organisations working more closely than we are”. These are not my words but those of a Council of Europe staff member interviewed in the context of an external evaluation of the Agency.
Let me pick out some highlights from our projects that illustrate our cooperation.
Together with the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe we published three handbooks: 1) Handbook on European non-discrimination law 2) Handbook on European Asylum, Borders and Immigration last year; 3) Handbook on European Data Protection Law this year. A Handbook on Child Rights and a Handbook on access to justice are already in the pipeline.
The Council of Europe and FRA cooperate closely on issues related to the most vulnerable group in Europe namely the Roma population. Finally, FRA cooperated with the previous Commissioner for Human Rights when he published his 2011 report on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Looking ahead I would like to highlight in particular fundamental rights challenges in four areas: equality and non-discrimination; data protection; asylum and migration; the rule of law.
- Equality and Non-Discrimination
We are still dealing with the legacy of the economic crisis. The high levels of unemployment, the fears relating to the arrival of migrants and the gradual loss of trust in the democratic process fuelled racism, xenophobia and related intolerance in the European Union.
We witnessed murders motivated by racism and extremism in a number of Member states, the open expression of racist and extremist ideology, and discriminatory ethnic profiling, including in the context of immigration checks. In response, there was a call by the EU Council for member states and the European Commission to take more effective action to counter hate crime, including that motivated by racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. The high prevalence of hate crime has been well documented by FRA surveys. And let us not forget, hate crime breeds fear. Nearly a third of Jews surveyed had considered emigrating because they did not feel safe as a Jew. The recent tragic event in Brussels will certainly heighten this fear.
- Victims’ Rights
The need for stronger action to protect victims’ rights was evidenced by the findings of three EU-wide FRA surveys on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people; on violence against women; and on anti-Semitism. They have consistently pointed to underreporting. From our findings, it is clear that many victims are not in a position to access justice unless they receive practical and targeted support. Certain types of victims also need to be considered specifically:
For example: Only 15% of women who are victims of violence report to the police. We saw a similar pattern in our LGBT and previous ethnic minority surveys. Why? Most victims felt the police would do nothing.
The transposition of the EU Victims’ Directive by 2015 has given added impetus to establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. The Victims directive is a big step ahead as it insists that each and every victim has a right to access support services.
We expect to cooperate very closely with the Council of Europe in tackling these issues. And already we have witnessed a strong synergy between the CoE work on hate speech and the FRA work on hate crime.
Before concluding on equality and Non-Discrimination I will also mention disability as another key issue. Our research reveals that many people with disabilities still face barriers to participating fully in economic, social and political life. Whether it is access to labour markets or political participation, physical, legal and social barriers still exist in many Member States. For example in most EUMS people deprived of their legal capacity cannot vote. With the UN CRPD the core concepts of self-determination, participation and inclusion have been expressly linked to people with disabilities.
FRA has contributed to processes at the Council of Europe as part of the EU response on the preliminary draft Additional Protocol to the Convention on human rights and biomedicine. Drawing on our work on involuntary placement and treatment of people with mental health problems, FRA highlighted the importance of reflecting the profound changes in human rights protection for persons with disabilities brought about by the UN CRPD. All States Parties to the CRPD will need to harmonise their existing legislation with CRPD standards. In our view, this could make adopting the draft Additional Protocol in its current form a challenge for those Member States which have ratified the CRPD.
I would also add that from our experience in the Agency, consulting and involving stakeholder groups working on disability is critical for success of any policy or legislative instrument. FRA can present our work on this issue to your committee at a later stage in the drafting process.
- Data protection
The Snowden revelations of mass surveillance highlighted among other that the protection of our privacy and personal data is under threat. They also revealed the weakness of national oversight structures.
FRA’s own research highlighted the impact of the use of new technology on the rights of citizens. Online activities, direct marketing, or video surveillance, for example, caused most data protection violations. This raises questions to what extent public and private organisations that we trust are actually protecting our right to privacy and personal data.
Some of the intermediaries’ main criticisms of national data protection authorities focus on poor communication, and insufficient transparency and contribution to public awareness-raising. Some also question the independence of the authorities, mainly because of possible political appointments.
The Agency will also conduct research on the protection of fundamental rights in the context of large scale surveillance. It should particularly look into the remedies available to individuals in relation to surveillance practices.
To respond to these concerns it is important to raise public awareness on privacy rights and on the existence of complaint mechanisms. Furthermore we need to strengthen the independence and increase resources of data protection authorities. The possibilities of the intelligence services and amount of data that is stored in general about each us with public and private institutions have increased many fold in the last decade. However, the mechanism that we have intrusted to control the intelligence services and data holders are basically the same as before if indeed not weaker today than ten years ago. This needs to be address in order to create a proper balance and not least to regain trust.
- Asylum and Migration
366 migrants died in the Lampedusa tragedy in October 2013. Just last month we again witnessed yet another tragedy. Far too many people are dying as they escape persecution or simply seek a better life.
The Task Force Mediterranean was a swift and important response which set out a line of action to address many of the issues that we face. We must keep that momentum and implement the Task Force’s proposals. But we need more solidarity and closer cooperation in Europe. Council of Europe members outside the EU can help to improve the safeguards for people who need protection. The catch words for asylum and migration policies are the need to ensure that they are rights based, consistent and coherent.
We are also aware of the Demographic challenges for the Union. The Union faces falling birth rates, a shrinking working-age population and a growing retired population. In 1990 there were four working-age people — those aged 15 to 64 — for every person 65 or over in the EU. By 2060, those 65 and over are forecast to account for over 53% of the population. Migration, especially from non-EU countries, could provide a temporary respite from population ageing, since most people migrate primarily as young adults. We then need to ensure that migrant employment rates are high and their engagement in the labour market is at all skill levels. They also need to be given the opportunity for entrepreneurial participation in the economy.
Other factors are that so far, immigration both from third countries and within the EU has substantially increased the proportion of EU inhabitants who do not live in their own native country. By 2060, persons of all nationalities with at least one foreign born parent are expected to account for close to a third of the EU population. Living with cultural diversity and new forms of identity will become a key factor in building cohesive societies. Innovative and effective policies aimed at integration of migrants and their descendants will therefore become crucial for the Union’s growth and global competitiveness. In light of the migration pressures, in light of the demographic changes and in light of the recent election to the European parliament we need a European wide discussion on how we perceive Europe on migration issues. We need to build a consensus on how we see ourselves.
- Rule of Law
The EU has proposed a framework to strengthen the rule of law. This framework needs to put the rule of law alongside the other Article 2 values – respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and respect for human rights – and discuss how they can fit into a broader approach to ensure respect for all fundamental rights.
This and other issues identified in our annual report need a stronger strategic framework at EU level to address them. I have long argued for an internal strategic framework which matches the Union’s external human rights strategy. Better legislation in conformity with fundamental rights would be one of the outcomes. The recent judgment of the Court on the data retention directive highlights this point.
Firstly, improve the policy making and legislative development process. Establish an EU fundamental rights policy cycle that brings all human rights actors together. This would help to focus their work and assist in creating synergies. It would need input from the EU, Council of Europe, governments and national parliaments, as well as ombudsmen, NHRIs and equality bodies, and civil society.
Secondly, set up a system to measure progress, gain efficiencies, and actually tell you what is happening on the ground, what has been achieved, how effective have been the interventions and what more needs to be done. Peer review mechanisms and the enhanced exchange of experiences, promising practices and reviews would be critical in this regard.
We face many challenges but by continuing the excellent cooperation between our organisations, making use of the added value of our respective strengths, I believe that we can meet the challenges and ensure that Europe remains a bastion of fundamental rights respect and protection.