This year’s Fundamental Rights Conference focuses on ‘Combating hate crime in the EU’. The event, an annual milestone for fundamental rights in the EU, brought together 400 policy makers and practitioners from the EU and its Member States. This included representatives from international, EU and national bodies, parliamentarians, law enforcement officers, civil society and many more.
The event took place in Vilnius, Lithuania and was hosted by FRA in cooperation with the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
In his opening speech, the Lithuanian Minister for Justice, Juozas Bernatonis, spoke of their aim, under Lithuania’s EU presidency, to launch a discussion on hate crime in the Council. He underlined the problem of not reflecting hate crime in crime statistics. While he mentioned that prevention was important, he also underlined the need to offer victims support in seeking redress.
The FRA Director, Morten Kjaerum, stressed in his speech how important it was to talk to minorities and to ask them directly about their experiences. FRA surveys consistently unmask the fear that hate crime causes. This prevailing fear not only affects victim themselves – it also strikes entire communities. While he acknowledged that recognising that hate crime happens in the EU is an important first step, he called on Member States and all actors involved to move forward: “We can no longer deny the facts.”
The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, reminded delegates in her keynote address that “hate crime is everywhere and it will not disappear. There is a lot of work to be done.” She also said there was a worrying lack of political leadership on this issue. She called on political leaders to step up to combat prejudice and hate crime. She also remarked that although political statements are important, they are not enough.
The opening speeches were followed by a panel debate on “Crimes motivated by hatred and prejudice - where are we today?”. Panellists discussed what the current situation on hate crime is, and how it can be effectively addressed. They agreed that legislation and the way in which it is implemented was important. But they also underlined that the issue goes beyond legislation. It is also about how to prevent it from happening in the first place. In addition, if it happens it is also about how to ensure a better, possibly uniform, method of collecting data across countries, and how victims are treated by law enforcement. The important role of civil society was also underlined. There was clear agreement that education is the best prevention. The panellists included: European Parliament Vice President, László Surján; Ireland’s Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter TD; the Council of Europe’s Director General for Democracy, Snežana Samardžić-Marković; and the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Ambassador Janez Lenarčič.
Since the conference also seeks to give victims a face and a voice, it was important for FRA to make the voices of victims heard, not only through presenting the results of its surveys, but also to represent them during the conference itself. Four people who both represented victim support organisations and had personally experienced hate crimes themselves addressed delegates. They spoke of their experiences poignantly underlining the real situation of and challenges for victims.
Issues that were raised included the way in which victims were dealt with, or not, by the police, or worse. One person said: “Police told me: if you make a complaint I put you three days in jail.” Very often people do not know their rights. People such as undocumented migrants will not normally report crimes to the police, out of fear of being sent back to their countries. Another said: “I felt I wasn’t taken as seriously by the police as it should have done. I didn’t know my rights, there was no aftercare, no advice. A victim support organisation then helped me.” The speakers called on politicians to stand up and take their responsibilities. They agreed that things can be done. It requires strong civil society, and also political will.
The first day of the conference concluded with five working groups, during which there were in-depth discussions on different aspects of hate crime. Existing problems were discussed and suggestions for ways forward developed covering:
A conference report will later summarise the outcomes from the different working groups.
For more information see the conference website and the speeches: