Opening words at Fundamental Rights Forum 2018

Michael O’Flaherty
Michael O’Flaherty, Chair of the Forum and FRA Director gives the opening remarks on the first day of the Agency's Fundamental Rights Forum 2018 in Vienna, 25 September 2018. *** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

Minister Moser,

Commissioner Jourová,

Honourable members of the European Parliament and national parliaments,

Excellencies, representatives of governments and international organisations,

Distinguished guests,


Dear friends,

It is my great privilege to welcome you to this, the 2018 Fundamental Rights Forum. I am particularly pleased to welcome you to Vienna during the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union – and indeed in the 25th anniversary year of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights.

In preparing these opening remarks, I went back and listened to my speech from the opening of the last Forum, in June 2016.

I am struck by how gloomy it was, full of dark words, conveying a sense of foreboding about the human rights situation in Europe and beyond.

It referenced the dreadful civil war in Syria. Migrants risking life and limb to reach European shores. Inequality rising across societies. A terrorist attack in Florida, where a man motivated by homophobic hatred killed 49 people at a night club.

Above all, it strikes me that almost everything I said in 2016 is no less relevant today. To paraphrase the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett: The sun shines, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Indeed, not only is the situation for the protection of human rights globally still of great concern. It has arguably worsened.

We have moved from the rejection of human rights to the rejection of human rights protection systems themselves. There has been a normalisation of the unacceptable in terms of word and deed. The political discourse is now such that exaggerated ideas of freedom trumping human dignity have become mainstream. Those elected to high office based on these ideas have taken it upon themselves to choose which human beings are deserving of human rights.

Vital components of rights-respecting societies are attacked. In the two years since our last Forum, we have witnessed the murders of brave investigative journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak, as well Mr Kuciak’s partner Martina Kušnírová. In parts of Europe, we have seen civil society being denied funding, opportunities to contribute to decision-making, and room to operate freely and independently. We have watched the rule of law undermined as governments attack the legitimacy of the justice system.

All this in spite of the continued and considerable efforts of the people in this room, and many others outside it.

Should we take the hint and simply give up?

My answer – and I hope you would agree – is an unequivocal and resounding no.

Instead we need to channel our outrage and what I might term our righteous anger. Here, I am reminded of Stéphane Hessel’s pamphlet Indignez-vous! Or, in a rather weak English translation, “Get indignant”.

Hessel writes: “When something outrages you…that is when you become a militant, strong and engaged. You join the movement of history, and the great current of history continues to flow only thanks to each and every one of us.”

Our task is to marshal our anger into the formulation of new ideas and strategies for making the European Union the fair, just, and decent society we want. That is the purpose of the Fundamental Rights Forum. And it comes at the right moment.

Undoubtedly we live in bad times. But, in a sense, these are also the best of times. As the great Frenchwoman and European, Simone Veil put it, “Times of pain are at the root of knowledge”. I feel that the human rights movement is in such a moment. In recent times I have seen increasingly clear, sharp strategies emerging for smart ways to strengthen human rights protection. Indeed, we will showcase many of these during the Forum.

What is more, the very threats we face have also given rise to a vigorous intellectual energy. Across Europe and elsewhere, there is a new vibrancy to the discussion of what it takes to build and sustain healthy societies.

We need to bring our ideas to these discussions, without being arrogant in our pro-human rights assumptions. Our friends and neighbours may well have other perspectives and priorities; they may neither think nor act in the language and categories of human rights. But we must engage with them respectfully.

Above all, we must never give up because of the responsibility we hold, the accountability we owe to past, present, and future generations.

First, we are accountable to those who came before us, who built today’s Europe. And also to those who suffered and died in an older, a past and intolerable Europe.

For some of us this accountability to those who preceded us is very personal. It is for me. Some 25 years ago, I was part of a small United Nations human rights team working in Bosnia-Herzegovina. One day, we gained access to a detention camp.

As we entered the camp on foot, my colleagues and I passed a line of men being marched, single-file, in the other direction. We only learned later that they were being led out to a minefield and were forced to walk across it, in order to clear mines so that soldiers could then follow.

These men knew where they were going.

As they passed us, one of them—about my own age—caught my eye and held it for just a moment. He looked directly at me and, in some sense, into and through me. And then he marched on.

I do not know if the man lived or died that day. I do not know his name. And I never saw him again.

But I have never forgotten him or his look. It is to him that I hold myself accountable every day. He reminds me of my personal responsibility to do something so that the barbarism he experienced is not repeated. He is the reason that I cannot stand on the sidelines.

Nor can I be silent. All of us who have had similar experiences—who have seen Europe at its worst and darkest—need to talk about it. These stories have a role, both as cautionary tales and as a reminder that “history” is never so far behind us as we think.

The second accountability is to the current generations. It means working together to put an end to unacceptable levels of human rights violations happening right here in the European Union.

We see and hear about these infringements every day in our work at the Fundamental Rights Agency.

For instance, our research has exposed deep-rooted failures to address the problems of Europe’s Roma, the EU’s largest minority. I spoke of outrage, earlier, and there is no better term to express my reaction to their appalling situation.

One in three European Roma children go to bed hungry. In education, they experience rising de facto segregation: the percentage of Roma children attending classes where all classmates are Roma increased an average of 5% from 2011 to 2016 in Member States we surveyed. And these are the Roma children lucky enough to attend school. Fully 50% of them do not.

Turning to just one other community, this autumn we will be publishing findings on the situation of people of African descent in the EU—one in three of whom report having experienced racist harassment in the recent past. Young respondents were particularly likely to be victims of this destructive behaviour.

At the other end of the age spectrum, according to the World Health Organization every year in Europe at least 4 million people aged 60 years or older experience elder maltreatment in the form of physical abuse, 1 million sexual abuse, and an unfathomable 29 million are subjected to mental abuse.

From now until the end of the year, our Agency will be releasing other findings—on child poverty, on discrimination and hate crime against Jews—that show the extent of wrongs we must work together to right in the EU.

The progress we make on these and any of the other pressing issues we face will improve people’s lives today…and in the future.

Our third form of accountability is to the future generations. I ask you to keep it to the forefront of your attention these next three days.

What do we want to leave behind? What sort of society? What kind of environment?

There are not many bigger questions. But, fortunately, they come with a guide: the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

The Fundamental Rights Agency is supporting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Our work is guided by that Agenda’s core principle of leaving no one behind, and a good number of the Sustainable Development Goals themselves are reflected in the Forum’s ambitious programme.

As we debate the delivery of the SDGs within the EU, we will look at the #MeToo movement—that powerful catalyst for the empowerment of women and girls—and try to build on its momentum toward gender equality. We’ll see how decent work for all can be a tremendous boost for social rights. And we’ll hear from the Council of Europe about their new campaign for democratic schools as a foundation for peace, justice, and strong institutions.

The SDGs are lofty goals that aim to overcome complex, generational challenges. And they are another reason why this gathering is necessary.

We have brought together a truly extraordinary and richly diverse group of people to share their talents, ideas, and expertise. You’ll meet people from the business world, the arts, faith communities and the full breadth of civil society; as well, of course, as representatives from the UN system, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and national governments.

But I am most excited that a large proportion of us are under the age of 30.

Those of you who are young have an idealism, selflessness, and solidarity that the rest of us must look to for guidance. An Ipsos survey published yesterday showed that young people across all countries are more optimistic about the future than adults, though widely dissatisfied with politics as usual. We need your reserves of energy, enthusiasm, and innovative thinking to better promote and protect human rights in Europe and around the world.

Dear friends,

Despite the gloom of my earlier remarks, as I look around the room this morning, the overriding feeling is one of hope.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

My most sincere hope is that the people here in the room and those following online will harness their many finite disappointments—their outrage—to seek and to find solutions to our common challenges. These three days are only a beginning, but let us make it the best possible start.

Thank you.