Save the world: act local

Lots of small, positive acts can lead to great things. FRA’s Friso Roscam Abbing explains how you can defend human rights by something as simple as voting. Friso shares all he learned from the fall of the Iron Curtain. And how you too can affect such world-changing events by exercising your rights at home. By using your right to vote, you too can make a difference.


Richard Miron: Welcome to the Fundamentally Right Podcast, a programme that sheds a light on human rights in the European Union and the personal stories of those working to ensure their protection. I'm Richard Miron. The FRA is an agency of the European Union that investigates, researches and provides advice on people's rights and protections. Its work is based upon the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which came into force 10 years ago in December 2009. In this programme and across the series, we're focusing on the personal stories of some of those who work for the FRA. These are people who've chosen a career based upon a heartfelt belief in protecting human rights. In their own words they say how and why they chose this path and why the Charter and a particular aspect of it is important. In this episode, I'll be hearing from Friso Roscam Abbing, who's the FRA's Advisor on Communication. He was previously a spokesman at the European Commission and also dealt with issues relating to asylum policy. Friso's interest in this area goes back to his upbringing and youth in the Netherlands.

Friso Roscam Abbing: I am from the Netherlands, so I was born and raised in The Hague, which is now being branded as the capital of international justice. I guess what shaped my world view were two immediate sources of influence, directly, indirectly, consciously or not, which was my mother who was working in the area of children's rights. So she worked for an institution which took care of vulnerable children, who were being put in foster houses with foster parents and she would check regularly how they were doing, though she didn't discuss individual details at home, she did mention to us in a discreet but clear manner when you know what kind of hardship children could have. And of course, we were very privileged and lucky not to be victims of abuses, so she worked there her entire life.

And very early on, I developed an interest in politics at home. Every single evening at home, [we] discussed politics. My father was a more conservative person and the other spectrum, the three children were more progressive, more liberal. So we always had interesting debates and politics were discussed almost every single day. And when my secondary school offered participation for me in the so-called model United Nations, which is a wonderful institution which still exists up until this very day, and even my own 15 year old son is participating again in the model United Nations.

Recording: Delegates, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the United Nations Developmental Programme...

Friso Roscam Abbing: You know, where you represent as a school, a country. And you have some sort of – obviously a fake, but a played – General Assembly of the United Nations with General Assembly meetings, with committee meetings where you negotiate with other peers of yours, pupils. I was 15, another year I did it I was 16, where you negotiate big problems. And there I remember I volunteered to become a member of the Human Rights Committee as well. So I guess it sort of started there as well.

Recording: All those delegates in favour of proposition one point one, please raise your placards.

Friso Roscam Abbing: So I went to the University of Amsterdam and I started studying law. It was the early 80s, I'm afraid this long ago, where we had demonstrations to support Lech Walesa and others in Poland who had set up this trade union, Solidarność, which, as we all know, really was the start of ultimately the fall of the Iron Curtain. So there we would support 10 demonstrations and hand out pamphlets, etc, very innocent stuff. Not a big hero there. I haven't, you know, been doing big, big, courageous things.

But I was always busy with things which were playing at the world stage. The fact that the Netherlands government would, or would not, have cruise missiles on the territory, was another thing which worried me a lot. So we would again join big demonstrations which were demonstrating against this. It was a very incredibly active, very liberal time in Amsterdam, at the University of Amsterdam, which was well known to be liberal and to be quite active. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, so I initially, because I was still quite young, I had graduated very fast from university.

I applied for an internship at Amnesty International, just doing some voluntary work. But they were fully booked by volunteers. So they sent me to the Dutch Refugee Council, of which I had never heard, which was at the time small and ultimately became a very strong, very well-organised non-governmental organisation, whose mandate is to protect refugees, to assist governments, you could say, by developing decent asylum policies, fair and efficient procedures, who did host refugees initially, before it became the responsibility of the government and of local communities. And there I started as a volunteer at the time when you had refugees coming from Sri Lanka, Tamils because of the civil war, refugees from Ghana.

You had refugees coming from Afghanistan also at that time, Mujahideen fighters who came, and we were receiving them also and seeing if they were refugees in the sense of the Refugee Convention. So we as the Dutch Refugee Council would ourselves be authorised to provide them support, as they first needed to qualify for this, if you like.

I remember very well that initially I was overwhelmed and I wouldn't say depressed, but you got a lot of horrifying stories. I also went to part of the Amsterdam's Schiphol airport where refugees arriving by plane were initially detained. And we were provided access as the recognised NGO, to speak with them, to counsel with them, and there, there were horrific stories of refugees from Iran who were just from one moment the other, their family were either killed by the new Ayatollah regime, or even in a more subtle way were, you know, highly skilled and highly academic persons were being treated in a very deteriorating manner, very – in a way [it] was just so disrespectful. And they were degraded from being a professor in law to being a cleaner of a building of a public ministry, simply because they didn't agree with the Ayatollah’s views. And I was just shocked, of course I was very young then. I was shocked by these stories that this could happen, that people did this to each other. The stories of the Tamils, who… entire villages were, were just extinguished by the other side and where entire villages and parts of Sri Lanka almost lost their culture because everything was erased simply because they had the different, the wrong ethnic origin. They were Tamil.

And it was, of course, incredibly important for me to hear these stories, also because very quickly I learnt that it wasn't going to help them if I would only be crying and be very emotional. So I started to develop there some sort of a professionalism, which is to deal with that professionally whilst being sufficiently empathetic, for yourself also to recognise that this is something, the reason why you do this. But to ultimately make a distinction between showing empathy and compassion. I think I learned there, empathy is important but it could not help the person with whom you have empathy if you, if you just cry with the person. So you need to distance yourself a little bit from this, be compassionate, but then try to turn your compassion into action, constructive action, which can actually help the person concerned.

Richard Miron: Friso, you just mentioned and talked about your upbringing and the beginnings and the roots in a way of your career. We're here to talk about the Charter of Fundamental Rights, being its 10th anniversary. In particular, the title of citizens’ rights, why does that resonate in particular with you?

Friso Roscam Abbing: Well, I'm a very concrete and down to earth person. So whereas, you know, the other headings of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, freedom and justice, etc, are important in themselves, I'm very interested how we can bring the importance, the recognition of the importance and the added value of human rights for everyone to the ordinary person.

You know, there is still a belief, regrettably, that human rights are only for a few or that it's [a] left wing elitist hobby, or that human rights are only protected when you are migrants, when you are a minority, and when you are a refugee or an LGBTI person. Whereas of course, we all have human rights. Every single person living in the European territory has rights and they are protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. And the citizens’ rights chapter makes it pretty concrete what some of those rights are. It has some rights, such as to vote for European Parliament, to stand for European Parliament. It has the right to vote in local elections, which I find very important.

Richard Miron: Why is that so important? Some people might say, actually no, it's national elections, whatever. What is it about local elections that you think is most important?

Friso Roscam Abbing: Well, increasingly, I think there is now a growing recognition about the importance of what's happening at local level. And some people would call mayors of big cities the new prime ministers of the world, the new world leaders, because in cities, particularly big cities, of course, you have all the issues. You can have security issues, immigration, integration, living together - all of this comes together in big cities and also in smaller cities, also on the countryside. Now, how you govern, how you administer those cities, the priorities you set with the limit, how you spend the limited budget is subject of local elections.

So I am increasingly interested in voting this, for this level of elections. And, you know, it's just very good that the Charter of Fundamental Rights offers us that opportunity. I would have hoped that it would have gone further even more, that you also, when you live in a Member State, where you don't have the nationality of, nevertheless yet you also will be entitled to vote for national level. Take my little crazy example, I'm a Dutch national, but I left the Netherlands 26 years ago. However, I am still legally entitled and I get these invitations each and every time to vote for the national elections. For a country where I haven't been active, paying taxes, living for 26 years. Of course, I go back now and then to visit family, friends, and I'm not excluding it, ultimately I may come back there. But it's a little bit strange to be entitled to vote for something which is not impacting you. Whereas on the other hand, I'm living in Austria for more than ten years now and I'm not entitled to vote for national elections. And, you know, also in this country, a lot of things are happening with political movements, which you may not like necessarily coming into government or not. I would have liked to have a say in this and which I don't have, but voting then, at least for the local level, is a right which you have to cherish.

And I'm afraid this is also part of my upbringing that my father didn't care for whom we would vote. He himself was a conservative. He never imposed on me any choice to a party, but he did insist that I would make use of my voting rights. And by the way, the second thing he suggested to me is to vote for a woman. And here we're talking about the early 80s. So I thought it was quite progressive of my conservative father to say there are far too many men in the parliament, whomever party you choose do what you like, but consider voting for a woman.

Richard Miron: Yeah, that's in those days, I think, very progressive. Drilling down on some of the Articles within this Title of citizens’ rights, we've also got there the freedom of movement and residence. Now, I know that this is something which means a great deal to you as it means a great deal to many people across the European Union today. What does it mean to you, that phrase - freedom of movement and residence?

Friso Roscam Abbing: When you take a look at Article 45 of the Charter, freedom of movement and of residence, again it is full of complicated legal language. Let's be honest, you know, it's not a really user friendly document, the Charter. But what this symbolises, what it testifies, is just so big and so important that you know, this is something which all of us in the European Union probably consider the biggest added value of us being EU citizens, or living in the EU territory. Because what it basically means is that you have the right to not be stuck to the country where you were born. You can hope that you're born in a country which you like, but if you're not or if you have ambitions to study elsewhere, to live elsewhere, in an era of globalisation where work is just fluid and mobile, you need to be flexible. Actually, this is what it allows for.

I remember really the days, that with my family we would go, as many Dutch people would do, with the tent in the back of the car, we would go to camping sites in France to just spend your summer holidays there. And moving from the Netherlands to France, you have to cross two borders Netherlands-Belgium and Belgium-France, and whereas, of course we were good citizens, nevertheless it always felt strange, we were a little bit afraid when we are going to approach the border because it was a border which was shut down with barriers, it gave the signal, what are you doing here? We're not sure we're going to let you in. You had people in uniforms and I was always a little bit scared by getting closer and closer to the border. And you had to show, of course, your passports and oh my god, we got very nervous when my mother couldn't find all the five passports within one minute. And we saw the face of the officer getting more and more grumpy.

And we always had a feeling of relief when after those few minutes, that barrier opened and shut down behind us. We went to the second check very often. And again, the same anxiety happened there. And when we had passed this, we could [be] relieved. But going back from our holidays was even worse because my father, being somebody who loves good food and wine, would want to bring some wine with him back despite the warnings of my mother: “Please don't do it, we're not allowed to do this.” He did bring a box of wine or something. And this, of course, exacerbated our feelings of anxiety. Funny enough now, if you travel from the Netherlands to France, not only do you not see a single border, nowadays – just to continue as an example of the import of wine – nowadays you can import freely 111 litres of beer and 90 litres of wine, including maximum of 60 litres of sparkling wine.

It's very funny everything we take now for granted or the fact that we can just cross countries without having one second of delay, which for the new generation which has an attention span of eight seconds, as you know, is something I don't think they appreciate enough, but I certainly do. So when I see this Article, the freedom of movement and of residence, to me it means a lot.

Richard Miron: Do you think that the progression we're headed in inevitably thanks to the Charter and things like it, towards ever greater freedoms, or what, if any, of your anxieties underline that?

Friso Roscam Abbing: Well, you know, we take it for so much granted, everything we have now. Very often it is said and rightly so – without having any impact – that we forget that the existence of the European Union has been a guarantee of peace. We haven't been in a war in this continent for 70 years within the European Union. It's something which is just incredible from a historic perspective. We are taking for granted democracy. We are taking for granted the fact that we have impartial, separated powers, impartial judiciary, etc. But [much] of this is currently a bit under threat, I have to say. So for me, who has experienced the old days and not even the worst days as my parents did with the Second World War, but other type of, you know, how things could be done as well? Just worrying, I have to say. So we better cherish and protect what we have now. Recognise that, you know, this is not for granted. Democracy needs to be defended, not taken for granted. The fact that we have that freedom of residence, the freedom of movement is amazing. I see it with my own children how easy it is, at a certain point with us having four children, we had four children working, living, studying in four different EU Member States. And that is just an amazing achievement. Let's cherish this.

Richard Miron: That was Friso Roscam Abbing, the FRA's communication advisor, setting out what citizens’ rights mean and their importance. In other episodes of this series, you can hear about how growing up behind the Iron Curtain, led one young girl to seek out a career in the law and how witnessing a violent beating as a boy shaped the viewpoint of the person who now heads the FRA. This podcast has been presented by me, Richard Miron, and produced by Anouk Millet. This is an Earshot Strategies production.