Reclaiming human rights in Europe: how to enhance democratic space? Counter-terrorism - freedom of expression - living together

Michael O’Flaherty
Human rights are the ethical bricks and mortar on which Europe was rebuilt after the Second World War. They ensure that the state fulfils its task of protecting the wellbeing of its people, and at the same time they help to make sure that democracy does not turn into mob rule. ** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY **

Dear Colleagues,  

I express my sincere thanks to the Ombudsman of Croatia for the invitation to speak about human rights and their protection in Europe today. In these strange times, the relevance of the topic cannot be underestimated. It is extremely timely for a conversation of this nature within and among ombuds, equality bodies and NHRIs on protecting human rights. This is the natural habitat for the Fundamental Rights Agency, and I look forward to still closer cooperation with your institutions to ensure that the Agency can better support your work.

Human rights are the ethical bricks and mortar on which Europe was rebuilt after the Second World War. They ensure that the state fulfils its task of protecting the wellbeing of its people, and at the same time they help to make sure that democracy does not turn into mob rule.

But, of course, human rights are under threat. We see this every day in the situation of refugees and other migrants, not only those who lose their lives on the perilous journey to Europe, but also those who survive to then suffer for months in overcrowded reception facilities and who risk becoming victims of trafficking or violence. We see the threat in the rising intolerance both on- and offline. We see journalists whose freedom is curtailed by unscrupulous governments, or sometimes no less unscrupulous media giants. Our data privacy is at risk from surveillance by the state, which in turn is seeking to assuage public fears about terrorism.

This list is bad enough. But the malaise is greater. Now, the very foundations of our human rights system are being questioned in an unprecedented way, and populist alternatives are being proposed. 

Obviously, we must push back against those who seek to pit one community against the other, and who come with facile answers to the myriad complex issues at community level, at national level, regionally, and globally.

But to truly understand the dimensions of the challenge we face, we need to analyse the motivation of those hostile towards or unpersuaded by human rights. And we see that this opposition does not necessarily stem from a rejection of the values enshrined in human rights treaties or in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is often rather the decline in trust in all forms of public institution, and the growing sense that one can only really count on oneself and one’s peers to understand current events and overcome difficulties. A recent global poll found that the general population in 20 out of 28 countries surveyed distrusts government, business, NGOs, and the media. The government is distrusted in three-quarters of the countries surveyed.  

One issue that helps to clarify the dimensions of the challenges we face is the situation of civil society.

From the Fundamental Rights Agency’s close cooperation with a network of more than 500 civil society organisations, we know that their work is becoming more difficult, not just in one or even a few Member States, but across the EU. Opportunities to contribute to decision-making processes are diminishing, while difficulties in accessing funding are growing. In some places there has been quite unacceptable harassment and violent attacks against human rights defenders. The scale of this challenge was emphasised at a meeting convened by FRA just last week with the participation of over 30 experts to discuss how better to enable and protect civil society across the EU. We will publish an analytical report on the topic, together with recommendations, later this year.

Another area that serves as a litmus test of a functioning human rights system is the level of respect for freedom of expression. Journalists, publishers, editors, and bloggers must be able to carry out their tasks without fear of intervention or reprisals. At the same time, a well-funded and strong public service media is a good indicator of a democracy’s health. A recent study by the European Broadcasting Union found that countries with popular, well-resourced public service broadcasters encounter less right-wing extremism and corruption and enjoy greater press freedom.

Where the freedom of the media, freedom of information and freedom of expression are at risk, so too is the role of the media in the democratic process. This is an issue of the rule of law, as I took the opportunity of pointing out on a recent visit to Poland.


Enough of the diagnosis. I would like now to take the opportunity to propose five steps that we could take to begin to address the challenges.

First: stick to the law. It is imperative that we return, again and again, to the point that human rights are not about ‘being nice’ to people, but that states have made legally binding commitments to which they must adhere.

Human rights are not a voluntary code, and it is our job to never let the authorities forget that. This is particularly relevant for all of us as public bodies mandated to help ensure the law is upheld.

In this regard, we have something to say on all the great issues of state. Take national security: we do not dispute the necessity of having an effective national and regional security system. But at the same time, we must make sure that security measures do not go a single step beyond what is legal, necessary and proportionate. In this way, respect for human rights, equality and rule of law becomes the bedrock of the fight against terrorism, and we also counter the perception that balancing national security and human rights is a zero sum game where one excludes the other.

Second: demand full accountability before the law. The violation of rights requires a remedy, and there is ample evidence to show that this remains highly problematic within EU member states. For instance, there is a wilful failure to prosecute hate crime in a number of our societies. Our surveys also repeatedly show that the groups most often discriminated against often do not report hate crime to the authorities, because they are convinced that they will encounter the same patterns of hate in the officials with whom they are speaking.

Third: base our claims on solid empirical data. Too much human rights advocacy is based on an impressionistic understanding of any given situation. We need to do a better job of monitoring. Central to this data gathering is the need to listen to rights holders and their experiences. And the Fundamental Rights Agency does just this. For example, we spoke to more than 23,000 people for our survey on the experiences of people with a minority background in the EU, and were thus able to reveal shockingly high levels of discrimination.

To take another example, our current monthly migration reports on the human rights situation of those arriving in the EU paint a picture of much good will on the one hand, but on the other of inadequate facilities, under-trained personnel, and local hostilities.

Fourth: convince the general public that human rights are about them. We have to show the general population that human rights are about them. It is evident that a significant proportion of society considers human rights to be just for ‘the other’, for marginal groups. Human rights are certainly for these groups, but they are also for everyone else in society. We need to increasingly target the ‘everyone else’ in our work for human rights promotion and protection.

This requires us to engage more clearly and above all more directly about the issues occupying ordinary people: persistently high unemployment, widening gaps in equality, and precarious financial circumstances that can easily slide into poverty.

Fifth and finally: have hope. In 2017 I detect a shift; a return to principles by many in public life; a resilience of reasonableness in many societies; above all, the increasingly loud voice of young people demanding integrity and respect for human rights. I also see such sentiments reflected in important European statements of policy, in particular the Rome Declaration adopted by EU leaders on 25 March.

We all – publically mandated human rights bodies – have central roles in guarding, reforming, and supporting these developments.

The challenge is great. But so are the opportunities.

Thank you.


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