Fundamental rights in the modern era

Michael O'Flaherty
FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty, delivered a keynote speech at the European Police Chiefs Convention in the Hague. He gave the speech on 5 October 2022.

Thank you very much for your kind invitation.

Fundamental rights in the modern era

We live in a very dangerous moment: I would argue, from a human rights point of view, perhaps the most troubling of our generation.  It is about the interplay of a number of very serious concerns.

The first, of course, is the war in Ukraine, not just the appalling harm done to the people of that country, but also the worrying implications across the European Union and elsewhere, including, of course, in the context of the energy shortages.

But, beyond the war in Ukraine, we were already facing some very serious problems, including the erosion of institutions, the chipping away at the rule of law, not in one or two countries, but in a disturbing number.

The third concern, which has been growing more obvious in recent years, is the shocking levels of socioeconomic inequality in our society. The deep pools of poverty in the heart of the richest corner of the world have eroded trust: trust in our institutions, trust between people, trust between generations.

And as if all of this weren't bad enough, the situation has been so exacerbated by the Covid pandemic and our responses to Covid, as well as, of course, by the end moment that we've reached in terms of climate change.

Given that this is such an existentially significant and worrying moment, it is vitally important to check the resilience of our national institutions to make sure that they are fit for purpose. Among these, at their very heart is the police.

The role of the police

What is the central role of the police in standing up for our stable, democratic societies? To answer that, I go to the name that the police were given in my own country, Ireland. They are referred to as An Garda Síochána, the Guardians of the Peace, and it's in this beautiful term that we find the core function of policing.

It's about standing up for and upholding our societies and ensuring respect for everyone. Or, in other words, to realise the vision contained in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: of a world where all human beings live free and equal in dignity and in rights.

So, for me then, the police are axiomatically human rights champions, and, in turn, human rights are central to their critical role. Now, of course, this insight regarding the relationship of human rights and policing is not new – it is reflected in decades of work, of training initiatives, of policy efforts, here in Europe and across the world.

But notwithstanding the fact that the idea is far from new, it seems to me this is a moment when we need to health check that essential relationship of police and human rights. In order to do that, this morning I would like to engage four imperatives: to challenge, to check, to claim, and to cooperate.

To challenge

Let me first take, 'to challenge' – here I would like to challenge a myth that has done much to undermine a healthy engagement of human rights or understanding of human rights in at least some police forces. This is the myth of the zero sum, that more human rights mean less security, more security means less human rights, and it is time, if I may say so, for us to put a stop to this dangerous nonsense.

It sets up human rights as a set of absolutes, as non-negotiable and often impossible demands. The human right of privacy is often spoken of in these terms. It overlooks how rights can legitimately – and this is clear in law – can be limited as long as certain principles are rigorously honoured: principles such as the legality of the intervention to limit rights, the obvious social necessity of the effort to limit rights, and then the proportionality of that effort. In other words, rights can, subject to certain restraints, be limited for a legitimate public purpose.

Now, that may seem obvious, and not especially new, but it is sometimes overlooked, for instance in the context of the application of artificial intelligence. To conclude on this point, and in addition, I would say that the evidence shows how, in any case, human rights respectful policing is better policing. Look at how a careful, sensitive, human rights approach to counterterrorism can lessen the risk of radicalisation.

To check

But let me move on to my second category of imperatives, 'to check' – and here, what I have in mind is the culture within police forces, and the importance of checking whether the culture is appropriate and well positioned to support a serious commitment to human rights policing, and let me, here, briefly, take three dimensions:

  • The first is the question of how diverse a police force is, in terms of representing the breadth of our societies. To what extent does the police force look like the street it polices? This is not only generally a good practice but also, we know from the Fundamental Rights Agency’s evidence, that the more diverse a police force, the more effective it is in engaging some of the tough issues, particularly those impacting minority groups.
  • The second dimension of the internal culture that I want to flag has to do with gender sensitivity. Half our population is made up of women, we know that in many cases the lived experience of women is different to that of men. This includes experience of crime. Take, for example, the area of domestic violence, where I think nobody argues against the conclusion that we could do a much better job in recognising that domestic violence is a crime and it needs to be treated as a crime, not as a problem of families or of social work. In order to correct these biases, it's important to install gender capacity, gender analysis resources, within the police forces.
  • The third dimension of what we need to check in terms of the culture inside organisations has to do with the extent to which we have embedded within them a strong human rights expertise. We need human rights experts as much in our police communities as anywhere else in our societies. I learnt this in the positive, when running the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland, where I encountered a police force that took human rights very seriously and located experts at the very heart of operations to maintain and keep invigorated a corporate human rights culture. It is also why I'm so pleased that Europol is going in this direction. My agency has felt very welcomed indeed in engagement with Europol, and we find as encouraging its current initiative to recruit a fundamental rights officer.

To claim

If I may turn now to the third of my imperatives: to claim – and here I have just one point – and that is we have to insist on respect, not only for human rights in policing, but also for the human rights of police forces themselves. It's vitally important to stand up for human rights of police in at least three ways.

First, by insisting on their safety, that adequate resources and capacities are put in place to keep our police as safe as possible.

Secondly, it's about their labour conditions, that these are appropriate and adequate; and third, and this is difficult to pin down to specifics, but we have to invest in making sure that our police forces are treated with respect in our societies.

I make this remark because of my own experience. Many years, I ran the UN human rights programme, in what was, then the poorest country in the world. I recall a police force that was not only hopelessly under‑resourced, but also deeply not respected in society - and I saw how this lack of respect undermined every aspect of the organisation's work, as well as being devastating at the personal level for individual officers.

To cooperate

Let me come to the final of my imperatives, that of cooperation. I make this point because we all realise – those of us who work in the field of human rights – how essential it is that we ever broaden our network of partners, to best do our job. There are three partners that I have in mind.

The first is civil society. I acknowledge how much has already been achieved in this regard through community policing, but I cannot state often enough how important it is to engage with the breadth of civil society in our communities because of the extent to which that is the voice of the people we serve, of the rights holders. Engaging their voice will allow you to do the job so much better.

The second partner – perhaps one that is less well known to some police forces - is the National Human Rights Institutions, be it a Human Rights Commission or an ombudsperson, or whatever the title might be. Human rights institutions of this form play a very important role in keeping a close watch on the situation of human rights and holding both government and society to account in that regard. And again, here, if I may refer back to my experience in Northern Ireland, I found that maintaining the close tie between my commission - the national institution - and the police helped the police do their job, and certainly helped us to do ours. That is why every time I visited a municipality in Northern Ireland my first stop was at the local police station.

Finally, in terms of partnerships, I'd like to extend to you the standing offer of a close relationship with my agency. The Fundamental Rights Agency is the EU’s advisory body which, with its evidence, is supporting the EU Member States and their institutions to be fundamental rights compliant in their work. It is on this basis that we have developed ever deepening ties with Europol.


Dear participants, and to conclude, I mentioned at the beginning  the Irish police, An Garda Síochána. The Garda celebrated their 100th anniversary just last August, and that recent anniversary allows me to recall that in the very first speech of their first commissioner, a man called Michael Staines, delivered in 1922, he said the following: 'The Garda Síochána will succeed not by force of arms or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people'. I still find that statement a powerful one, still compelling. It presents a clear vision for modern day policing, with human rights at its heart. A policing that is well-placed to push back against today's great challenges.

Thank you for your attention.

See also