Speech by the FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty to the European Parliament's LIBE Committee, 20 November 2018, as part of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Week marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Thank you Chair and thank you honourable members,
It is indeed the 70th anniversary in just a few days’ time of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]. It’s the fourth decade celebration that I’ve been involved in and in each of those over forty years, the celebration has been in a moment of threat and risks for human rights and also of sometimes unexpected opportunity.
My first one was 1988, where in my university I tried to get interest in human rights on what was then the 30th anniversary and I couldn’t get any interest at all – human rights was simply considered irrelevant across much of what we would then describe as Western Europe. But at the same time in what was then the Eastern bloc, human rights was framing a revolution, which led to the astonishing developments of the late 1980’s in that region, so a moment of risk to human rights and a great opportunity.
10 years later in 1998, I was running the UN’s program in Sierra Leone during that appalling war, where we mounted an exhibition on human rights, which just two weeks later was destroyed by the rebel forces. A dreadful war, a shocking situation, but at the same time coincided with the establishment of the International Criminal Court, so a moment of human rights despair and opportunity.
2008 was a moment of grave risk right across the world because of the economic crisis. The human impact of which is still being felt in many places. But side by side with that, I was a participant at an event here in Brussels marking the establishment of the Fundamental Rights Agency and the soon coming into force of the Fundamental Rights Charter of the European Union – so a dark time for Europe, but also a moment of opportunity.
And then we get to this year, 2018. Again, we meet to mark the anniversary in a moment of grave threats, which this committee discusses continuously and I don’t need to run over them now. But this is also the year when we convened in Vienna the Fundamental Rights Forum, which brought 700 participants from across Europe, including very many of you, and we warmly thank the LIBE Committee for sending a delegation to the Fundamental Rights Forum, and I see Ms Kyenge and I thank her for leading that team, and I thank your Chair for also being present during the Forum and the point of the Forum was that in this dark time, in this very worrying time for the state of human rights there is strong hardnosed reality based optimism and certainly of a sense of direction. And it’s in that spirit, that I would like touch now upon three key areas of what I would describe as shared concern of this Committee and the Fundamental Rights Agency.
First, the area you’ve just been discussing, migration, where of course our Agency has delivered repeated Opinions to you across a wide range of topics, including some of the most complex ones, and we have also been able to provide you with in-depth research with public reporting and also with the experiences learned from our presence on the ground in the “hotspots” of Greece, Italy and elsewhere. And it is on that basis, I would like to suggest four matters of worry right now.
First, we are very worried about the conditions on the Greek islands. Particularly as we are not heading into winter anymore, but that we’re in winter, and we’re most concerned about the conditions in the overcrowded facilities, which require some people to live in tents and even worse. It’s in this context that we so greatly appreciate the voluntary relocation programmes, that we are now seeing, albeit rarely, such as the one between Greece and Portugal.
The second area of worry to do with migration is broadly child protection, but in particular I would mention this morning the use of detention as a control method for children, which is never acceptable and isn’t even effective. We have published research on alternatives to the detention of children, which demonstrate, evidence-based, that you will keep a child close by if you treat it with respect and dignity in an open facility, more than if you lock the child up.
The third of the four concerns has to do with the proportion of migrants who are dying at sea in the Mediterranean. The figure in 2015 was four in one thousand and we expressed shock and horror and it generated world headlines. Today, in 2018 the figure has jumped from four in a thousand to 24 in a thousand. 24 in a thousand. 2.4 percent in 2018. What can we do about these issues? Well it’s not just about search and rescue, but it’s also about promoting legal pathways into Europe and it’s about avoiding the criminalisation of humanitarian work in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.
The fourth and final migrant related concern, I would mention this morning, is the evident rise in the patterns of anti-migrant hate speech and hate crime – we are evidencing this on an ongoing basis in our public reporting with regard to the fourteen most affected EU Member States, and here apart from all the obvious actions needed from everybody – at state and EU level, I would applaud the strong and consistent LIBE voice in challenging this outrage at every opportunity.
The second thematic area I would mention this morning of my three is broadly the combatting of discrimination. We have a serious problem in the European Union of “othering” – of pushing to the margins those who are not like us, who are different from the majority. We repeatedly demonstrate the extent of our problem with the Fundamental Rights Agency’s surveys of which you are so very aware. For example, take two very recent surveys both of which we have presented to you. The survey of Muslim migrants and our survey on the situation of Roma in the European Union show extraordinary degrees of marginalisation, of patterns of discrimination and inequality. We will demonstrate the problem still further in upcoming reports in coming weeks, such as one just in a week’s time with the self-explanatory title “Being Black in the European Union” and on the 10th of December, we will launch our second major survey result on the experience of what it’s like to be a Jew in Europe today, which could be better titled – patterns of antisemitism in Europe today.
Let me focus on two communities to go into a bit more detail. The first is the LGBTI communities. Again, our evidence continues to demonstrate persistent discrimination in employment, education, healthcare, housing and other services. I’ve just come from the celebration of Children’s Day in another part of this building, where a 16-year old girl who spoke about how she is pushed to the periphery in her school because of her sexual orientation and that is just one story of so very many.
And that is why I so welcome the attention you pay to this issue including your discussion today on the Commissions List of Actions and I’m very pleased to inform this honourable committee that in 2019 the Fundamental Rights Agency will repeat its survey on LGBT experiences in Europe, but we will add the “I” this time, intersex, will be included in this survey examination.
Secondly and finally, in terms of discrimination targeted against groups, I would mention persons with disabilities, where the rhetoric may be good, but we have so far to go in terms of the reality in our societies.
For instance, there are one million two hundred thousand fellow Europeans living in institutions, the size of a medium sized country, living in institutions for reasons of their disability, this is the focus of attention of the Agency right now and we will publish a report on the 4th of December on how to de-institutionalise, how to respectfully receive people with disabilities into our communities, so they can live with us on our streets. May I finally make one last remark with regard to persons with disabilities, in the particular context of the upcoming European Parliament elections? It is high time to put further focus and attention on the issue of the political participation of persons with disabilities.
And by way of my last remark on discrimination more generally, allow me please to restate the firm policy commitment of the Fundamental Rights Agency to support all initiatives of our European decision makers, including you, for the delivery of the so badly needed Equal Treatment Directive.
The final area I would mention of these three is the independence of the judiciary. It goes without saying and I’m telling nobody in this Committee anything they would disagree with, that a free fully-functioning judiciary is the sine qua non for protection of human rights and the rule of law, for the common EU area of justice, and let me add also, for a healthy economy in our societies. And it’s given the crucial centrality of an independent and free set of courts that we so greatly appreciate the powerful and sustained focus that your Committee is paying to this topic, and the manner in which you’re displaying leadership.
We for example applaud and acknowledge the proposal made by you to strengthen the Commission’s initiative to develop the rights and values program.
And I take the opportunity this morning, honourable members, to reassure you of the continued support from our agency as you carry out your work in these and other fields. Rely on our evidence and data, rely on our legal analysis, such as through the vehicle of opinions delivered to you, and rely on our new tools such as the one, which will be launched next year, the Fundamental Rights Information System, which I can speak to if anybody finds it of interest.
And so to wrap up Mr. Chair, as I look forward long term, I think we are not yet at the bottom, I think things will get worse before they get better. But I’m absolutely convinced that they will get better. Ultimately, I am convinced they will get better because of the inspiring leadership from young people (that is being demonstrated in another part of this building this morning). They have the ideas, the vision, and the decency that will rescue us from the pit we find ourselves in.
But also in the short term, I see valuable opportunities that we have to grasp. And if you allow me to mention just one next year, and that is the 10th anniversary of the coming into force of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This cannot be just an anniversary; it can’t just be a day for a debate. It has to be an opportunity to take this astonishing legal instrument and bring it to life in the way that was intended by its creators all for the benefit of our European citizens.