Putting human rights at the heart of Europe’s future

Michael O'Flaherty
FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty delivers an opening statement at the Human Rights Leaders and Experts meeting on 7 September in Rust, Austria.

Good afternoon colleagues,

I join with our moderator in warmly welcoming you to Rust. I deeply appreciate the trouble you have taken to be with us for what I am confident will be significant and consequential discussions.

Dear friends,

In one fashion or the other I have worked in international affairs for over thirty years. Throughout that time, I have observed serious problems in our societies – war, persecution, deep inequality, persistent patterns of exclusion and deprivation. Today is no different. Actually, it is worse. Beyond intolerable practices perpetrated or tolerated by the powerful on the weak we can observe other important phenomena, that, together, suggest we live in a moment of existential significance for the wellbeing and sustainability of our societies. Or, as the concept note for this meeting puts it, we are at a tipping point.

Here in Europe, there are at least six elements at play – each of them deeply interwoven one with the other.

The first is the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic. It threw our world off balance and its deprivations are well documented. But it is only now that we can see its long-term impact. For instance, it is increasingly obvious that the primary victims are children and young people, robbed of critical developmental years and confronting shocking levels of disadvantage.

Second, just when we embarked on pathways out of pandemic life, Russia inflicted catastrophe on Ukraine. The harm for the people of that country is vast. So are the negative implications for the region and the world. Europe is confronting the largest displacement of people since the Second World War. We all are facing this winter’s energy shortages, which will have devastating impact for those already struggling with poverty. We worry about nuclear disaster.

Third, we have reached the endgame as regards climate change.  For anyone still in denial, the impact for human wellbeing was finally brought home this Summer. The primordial need to stop climate change was illustrated by – for instance – the drops in river water levels that, in turn, disrupted supply chains. In recent weeks it somehow became easier to appreciate how rising temperatures can upend civilisation.

The fourth element, itself in large part a function of the preceding three, is high price inflation and the risk of economic recession. And, of course, these economic downturns always hit the weakest hardest. In Europe that means those already on the margins, such members of the Roma community, but also the other millions on low fixed incomes, including pensioners and recipients of disability benefits.

My fifth concern, already visible for years, is the assault on democratic institutions including on independent courts, free media, and civil society, as well as the associated demagogic rhetoric. This phenomenon is visible in and takes diverse form across a notable number of European countries, including in the form of targeted campaigns of disinformation. It is a social cancer that undermines the popular consent and accountability that is necessary for States to thrive.

The sixth and final element in my non-exhaustive list, while not itself intrinsically unwelcome, is of such foundational significance that it must be listed here – that is the digitalisation of our lives. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the prospect of a better or worse future depends on the marshalling for good of artificial intelligence and all related technologies.


The question of how to engage the multiple challenges is the great issue of our time. It is preoccupying policymakers across Europe and beyond. It is the context for our discussions here in Rust. But it is not the topic itself. Our meeting has a narrower, more specific, focus – that is the question of the role that human rights law and discourse could or should play.

The very fact that we pose this question should be startling. Should it not be axiomatic that human rights be central to any strategy to fix our world? After all, since the 1940s, the human rights system has been intrinsic to the (re)building of national, regional, and international orders. Human rights standards infuse our national constitutional systems. Human rights advocacy and litigation have transformed our societies. Human rights have been termed as, ‘perhaps modernity’s greatest achievement’.

But, for all such achievements and accolades, much has changed in recent years. There is widespread scepticism about the efficacy of human rights and of ‘human-rights approaches’ to the resolution of our great social challenges. This is accompanied by sometimes-laissez-faire attitudes in policy and governance, drawing on human rights in a utilitarian way and disregarding them when their demands are inconvenient. It is telling that many national and regional human rights bodies are underfunded and under resourced.

Often the discourse about human rights is confused, for instance when it is invoked in an absolutist manner, or when it is based on false assumptions, such as on a claimed primacy of civil and political over socio-economic rights.

A result of these and related tendencies is to address human rights in an ever-narrower range of sectors, for example the judicial system, and otherwise to push them to the periphery of discourse, to invoke them pro-forma or to overlook them entirely. The evidence for the marginalisation of human rights is overwhelming. Take, for example, national policy responses to the pandemic. These impacted human wellbeing enormously but were typically devoid of analysis grounded in human rights obligations and responsibilities. And how else to explain the very limited and narrow reference to human and fundamental rights in the outcome report of the recent Conference on the Future of Europe?

Obviously, it is important and urgent to confront the side-lining of human rights. Many in this room, including those of us at the Fundamental Rights Agency, are preoccupied by it. Inevitably, it will inform our deliberations today and tomorrow. However, notwithstanding all the contestations, and before we proceed, may I suggest a baseline, a common starting point for us all. It has seven elements:

First, that we consider the role of human rights to be essential, to be a non-negotiable requirement for the fixing of our world. The standards as found in the treaties and other instruments constitute humanity’s best effort to articulate the minimum requirements to respect the dignity of the individual. There is no ‘plan b’, no alternative universally shared moral compass.

Second, that the championing of human rights belongs to not just one or a few groups of actors. Instead, it demands attention from across society. It is about States and regional and international organisations for sure, but also about the business and financial worlds as well as the breadth of civil society, cultural, artistic and faith-based communities. It engages a vast range of intellectual disciplines from law to, among others, economics, history, philosophy and anthropology. This explains why we have convened so diverse a group for this meeting.

Third, that the human rights system is all about people, that rights-holders are at its heart. This is easily stated and more easily overlooked. A constant effort is required to ensure that all our efforts are undertaken with rather than for people. Recently I heard it argued convincingly that when we fail in this regard, we are employing colonialist models.

Fourth, that it follows from the centrality of the rights-holder that a primary place of human rights work is the local – be that the village, city, or region. We have a long way still to go to reflect this insight in our efforts. I look forward to the mayors and local officials who are present here guiding us in addressing this dimension of our discussions.

Fifth, that, notwithstanding the marginalisation of human rights, there is a thirst in our general population for values-driven governance and for fairness.  This is repeatedly demonstrated in EU general population surveys, including those of the Fundamental Rights Agency. However, our research also shows a widespread sense that human rights are for others rather than for ‘me and my family’. These are considerations to keep in mind as we reflect on how to bring human rights to life in our communities.

Sixth, while the disregarding of human rights is in large part the fault of policy and decision makers, that nevertheless, those of us who self-identify as its practitioners must also assume responsibility. We could have done a better job. We need to ‘up our game’. Inevitably that realisation should underlie all our efforts at diagnosis and prognosis.

Seventh, and finally, that we acknowledge all the efforts and initiatives already undertaken to restore human rights to the heart of our societies. Our discussions are not entering onto a terra nullius. Human rights law, systems and practice are in constant evolution. We can appreciate the important acts of leadership of the United Nations, Council of Europe, OSCE, the European Union, States, civil society, and others.

Dear colleagues,

Notwithstanding all other existing efforts and initiatives, there remains much to do.  We should heighten the visibility of what works, rehabilitate what has been undervalued, propose innovative approaches, spark fresh thinking, and offer each other mutual challenge, reflection and encouragement. In particular, we should consider how we can do better together, demonstrating how partnerships can be transformative.

To achieve our goals, the agenda of the meeting focusses our attention on Europe’s current crisis and some of its dominant elements. Inevitably much of our discussion will be thematic. However, there are numerous cross-cutting issues and transitive dimensions. Please explore them all to the extent possible.

Do not hold back, the stakes are too high for comfortable conversations! We have chosen the Chatham House model deliberately with a view to encourage frank exchanges.

Please question everything – our institutions, our laws, our policy assumptions, ourselves. Identify what works and what is broken. Address not only the fixes but also how to deliver them on time and convincingly. Think short, medium, and long term. Identify who needs to do what. Help us understand what success might look like and how it can be measured.

And, while inviting you to consider all levels: local, national, European, and global, I recall that we are meeting in an EU context. On that basis please do look closely at the Union – its diverse societies and all its institutions, including of course the Fundamental Rights Agency.


We at the agency are determined to ensure that these proceedings will be impactful. To that end, and with full respect for the Chatham House Rule, we will:

  • prepare a meeting report that will be widely disseminated, including to the European Parliament, Commission and Council.
  • report the meeting and its core ideas on social media
  • develop a publication for general readership drawing on the proceedings
  • shape much of the agenda of the next year’s Fundamental Rights Forum around this meeting’s conclusions.

I wish us all well for our discussions and I leave a last few motivational words to the editorial board of the New York Times, who recently wrote that society, “is not sustained by a set of principles; it is sustained by resolute action to defend those principles”.

Thank you.

See also