Presentation of the Chair’s Statement 2018

Michael O’Flaherty
Michael O’Flaherty, Chair of the Forum and FRA Director sums up his impressions of FRA's Fundamental Rights Forum 2018 and presents the Chair’s Statement 2018 on 27 September 2018 in Vienna. *** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

Thank you very much. And good day to everybody. I first visited this building about a year-and-a-half ago.

I was brought here by Friso and his colleagues. It was a miserable winter's evening, raining. And the building was empty and dusty.

They told me it was going to make the most astonishing venue for the Fundamental Rights Forum. I had my doubts, I'll admit that now. But I made an act of blind trust in my colleagues and I said: ‘Okay, let's go with this building’.

Then this morning, I went up there to the third-floor balcony and I looked down. And what I saw in front of me, more or less just as now, was a light-filled room with the sun beaming in.

Plenty of air, plenty of light, and literally dozens of meetings and groups and clusters and conversations across this hall. What was that for me? This was a vindication of my colleagues. They were right.

It might have been a particularly acoustically challenging venue, but nonetheless it worked in terms of what we wanted to achieve. I also saw it as a metaphor for this event. And where we need to go next.

It was a metaphor on many levels: In the first place the nature of the conversations I observed said something. As I said, literally dozens of clusters of people around the hall representative of all the great energy of our societies and our states.

And a reminder, obviously, of the need for such conversations and for such engagements, if we are to make any progress.

I have just come from a meeting of government representatives. They also told me they had a chance here to meet with civil society in manners that would not be possible back home.

A second metaphoric message that this room gave to me this morning was literally the sunlight.

But this sun-filled room – so different to just about all the conference rooms so many of us spend half our lives in – for me of course is the metaphor of hope. Somehow the airiness of this room, its modernity, its multi-functionality and above all the sun-filled space gives us not just a hope for the future but even a certain confidence.

But enough of metaphor.

Let me get down to the business in terms of overall impressions that we will carry away. That we will capture in the Chair's Statement and carry away.

If you were to sum up my overall impression, it has two elements.

In the first place, we encountered hardheaded realism throughout the two-and-a-half days, but always associated with a strong sense of direction.

First the hardheaded realism. Ivan Krastev spoke to it this morning. As did Emily O'Reilly yesterday. They spoke of fundamental, grave, worrying threats to democracy. Ivan questioned the future of Europe as we understand it. Emily yesterday made reference to the 1930s.

It doesn't matter how we describe the experience, we all agree that we are in trouble. Within the broader frame of democracy under threat, there was a complete agreement that the human rights system, the human rights infrastructure, the human rights achievement is no less threatened.

Pope Jean Paul II called human rights the greatest achievement of modernity. And it appears we are at risk of losing it right now. What's more, I heard more than one person in the last two and a half days say: "It will get worse before it gets better.”

But that said, the strong view that I have picked up from every plenary and from every working group I attended is that it will get better. I sensed there was a strong sense of the direction. The first thing about a direction is we need to know where we are going, and we have been given the destination point by numerous speakers.

It was captured, I thought very well, by Femi Oluwole who said on the first day, and I quote: “If we make a balance between the weak and the strong, then it's a lot easier to create the sense that all of us belong.”

And that's not a bad way of imaging where we want to go. A place where there is a balance between the weak and the strong. But how do we get there? Again, plenty of lessons from the last two-and-a-half days.

The first one, rather counter-intuitively, but I would say almost dominantly, certainly yesterday was that we need to shut up and listen. Maybe we are making too much noise and we are not paying enough attention to each other. There are many listening moments that we need to have.

Two stuck out in particular for me. The first one was we need to listen to those who are impacted negatively by human rights abuse.  

In the notes I prepared last night, I would have referred to victims. However, I listened to Aya Mohammed Abdullah this morning and I get the point. Too much talk of victims, not enough talk of ordinary people who are impacted negatively by abusive human rights practices.

We must better listen to them, integrate their voice and experiences into our conversations and responses.

The second type of conversation that I was very struck by was the extent to which there was an emphasis during these days is that we need to listen better to what we would previously have described as adversaries. The other side. The bad side of the equation.

Ali Can really got the message home to us about how we have to stop this binary division of good and bad and learn to listen. And as he showed us magnificently in his video the other day, when you stop and talk to the person you perceive to be the enemy, you discover actually that you have got rather a lot in common on which you can build something useful.

Then having listened, comes something useful: the actions.

Again, very many points emerged, but one point from this morning which didn't maybe get as much attention as it should, because it's been flagged for us now for some time, and I think it's important that to restate it.

While we must always focus our actions on the most vulnerable, marginalised and at risk, we must not at the same time forget the general population. They also have human rights. And we must seek to ensure that their rights are respected and protected as well.

Then there is the issue of – having decided what we do – how we do it. Yesterday, one of the most popular plenary sessions of the Forum was the morning we spent discussing how we can do a better job of communicating.

Thomas Coombes put it very well when he said yesterday: “We need to learn how to communicate with and not at people.”

Therefore, in what we do, we have a big job ahead of us. In terms of the message and how we frame, shape and deliver the message.

Then there is the business of who delivers the message. Who acts? Again, as is so evident from our meeting, so confirmed by the discussions over these days, that the actions are required from across our societies.

No one element of our national, our regional or our international societies can deliver the results alone. Yes of course governments remain critically important, but we cannot expect governments alone to deliver the respectful societies that you demand.

There is the vital role of national human rights institutions and equality bodies – which must receive further investment from all of us. There is the imperative part played by civil society in all its breadth and all its diversity. Even that was shaken up for me at this forum.  

There is a great bit in the wrap-up video from day one. The last speaker – a YouTuber – said how he enjoyed the meeting because he got to meet with the ‘traditional’ organisations like NGOs.

So that's it, those of you in NGOs, you are the past, you are the tradition. We are being left behind. I am being facetious, but the point is an important one. It is that civil society is a much richer, much more diverse thing than many of us tend to think when we think in our own heads: what are the categories?

And by the way, it's the YouTubers, it's the social media people, it's NGOs, but of course also, it's the business world, the faith communities, the non-faith motivated actors, and the arts, and so many others.

It is at the regional level, the European Union in its diversity, its institutions, its agencies. And it's the great inter-governmental organisations: The United Nations, the Council of Europe with whom we have to have such an intimate partnership here in Europe, as indeed must we have such a partnership with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Now in terms of the precise actions – the what will we do after this forum – that's what the Chair's Statement is all about. The Chair's Statement is an effort by me to capture the spirit of the meeting and to echo back out there some of the headline action points.

I should say right from the outset: it's not a report, it's not a set of agreed conclusions, it's certainly not comprehensive because that would be impossible. It's an effort to capture the spirit and the headlines. But in a meaningful way. So that you can take the action points and work with them to make a difference.

Now today, already as soon as I have finished speaking, you will receive a preliminary draft of the Chair's Statement and we call it a preliminary draft out of respect for the need to capture and take account of everything that has happened here, including what happened this morning.  

And in order to have this ready for you now, it had to be prepared rather earlier this morning. And so therefore, we have preliminary draft today and in October, a full final version will be distributed to all of you.

As I said, the statement contains many action points. And they are directed to all the actors, all the energies of our societies. To all of us, in other words.

Many of the recommendations are directed to the Fundamental Rights Agency. I cannot speak to the recommendations delivered by anybody else. But I can already speak of the proposals made by the Fundamental Rights Agency.

And on the basis of those proposals, I would like to wrap up my words to you this morning with six commitments that the Agency is making to you as we prepare to go home.

In the first place, the Agency has heard from you that the architecture for the protection of human rights and fundamental rights is under threat in different ways. We are already concerned about that. That is why we did work this year and we will continue to focus attention on the role of civil society within our communities.

But we will look more broadly at the architecture and in ways that are appropriate to us in our mandate and in our methods, we will continue to support you in protecting what we have built up.

Secondly, a big part of this meeting has been the asymmetry of conversations, of unlikely alliances, of new coalitions. In order to continue such asymmetrical building of an invigorated community, you need to meet.

And so, the Agency will continue to use its, if I may put it like this, its convening power to create opportunities for you to meet in unlikely compositions. And we believe that's important in maintaining the energy towards the future.

Third, we have heard very strongly from you throughout the Forum, the point I made earlier. That arguably the primary drivers of change in terms of more respectful rights-based societies is the citizen, is the people, is the voters, indeed, is all of you across EU Member States.

However, in order for you and for the social movements to achieve what they're seeking to change, to hold politics to proper account, you need hard evidence and data. And I would like to recall the extent to which we are generating data that you need, that you can use as you pursue your human rights project at national levels.  

You know about our work. It's reflected in publications all around the room over the last two-and-a-half days. It's our surveys. It's our analysis. It’s our thematic examination of some of the most sensitive themes in the European Union. Including, for example, the periodic reporting on the human rights dimensions of the migrant situation in the most impacted Member States.

But the point here is use the Fundamental Rights Agency data. It's for you as much as it is for anybody else.

The fourth of my six points is the strong message. One of the busiest working groups throughout this Forum has been the convening every day about human rights cities, and about local initiatives. And that's testimony to the importance given by this group to the local effort to bring about the human and fundamental rights change.

Again, I want to assure you that it is now also a matter of Fundamental Rights Agency policy to get local. We need to drill down to the town, to the village, to the street if we are to figure out what will really make a difference.

We have already embarked quite deeply in this approach in our work in support of the Roma communities. But you will see us increasingly engaging in this way on issues of social integration and indeed in supporting the Human Rights Cities movement.

Fifth of the six, we did a great job yesterday presenting a session on how to communicate better.  

But it's one thing to tell you how to message. It's another thing to message better.

And so, the fifth assurance I give you is that the Fundamental Rights Agency will not just talk the talk of how to message better, it will walk the walk. We need to learn better how to convert better our products based on the learning that we have done in the last few months.

Sixth, and finally, the Fundamental Rights Agency is an EU entity, an agency of the European Union. It has a unique role as an independent centre of excellence and advice to support the EU institutions to do their job, to support them to carry out their responsibilities in full compliance with fundamental rights.

And I want to assure them and you this morning, that we will stay focused on this as our core duty – to support the European Union to deliver the Europe of values.

That's more or less enough from me.

I just want to say in wrapping up my own words that I very much look forward to leaving this building with you. To walking arm-in-arm with you, as we go forth in our carrying out our shared and our precious responsibility.

And if you will allow me to destroy one of the best-known quotes of John F Kennedy: “Let's go out there together arm-in-arm, asking not what human rights can do for us, but rather what we can do for human rights.”

I thank you all very much.