Speech to Justice and Home Affairs Council, Luxembourg, October 2018

Michael O’Flaherty
The FRA Director delivered a speech to justice ministers from across the EU during the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 11 October in Luxembourg. His speech focused on some of the key challenges for the human rights system in the EU and pointed to possible ways of safeguarding fundamental rights for everybody in the EU. ** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY **



I am honored to address you today and thank you, Minister Moser, for the invitation to speak at this Council meeting.

Dedicating time not only to consider the Council Conclusions on the Application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, but to have an exchange on the situation of fundamental rights in the EU in this high-level political setting has rarely been more timely, or more important.

I would like to raise three issues that, according to our evidence, require urgent attention.

First, our Agency’s data show that immigrants and ethnic minority groups endure persistent and widespread discrimination and harassment in their daily lives.

The Agency’s pan-European surveys capture, for instance, the magnitude of anti-Gypsyism:

  • Across our countries, Roma are among the groups least wanted as neighbours[1] after “drug addicts”, “heavy drinkers” and “people with a criminal record.”
  • On average 20% of Europeans would feel uncomfortable if one of their colleagues at work were Roma; 55% would be uncomfortable if their son or daughter had a relationship with a Roma person, and only 18% have friends or acquaintances who are Roma[2].
  • The consequences of discrimination and social exclusion are dire: the most recent FRA survey shows that one in three (27%) of Roma live in households where at least one person went to bed hungry in the month before.

Turning to another group: Last year, we presented our survey findings on Muslims living in the EU. To begin with the positive, the majority of respondents are strongly attached to their country of residence. And they trust their country’s public institutions, typically more than the general population. But the continued discrimination, harassment and violence they face can, over time, reduce trust in public institutions and affect their attachment to the country they live in.

Levels of hate crime are also reported to be on the rise. In November, our Agency will present a report on the situation of people of African descent in the EU. Results will show that racial discrimination, harassment and hate-motivated crime are a serious problem.

Nor has the horror of antisemitism disappeared. Between 2014 and 2017, nine people were killed in three antisemitic attacks across the EU. In December, we will be releasing the results of the second survey of Jewish people living in 13 EU Member States—our largest such survey to date, with more than 16,000 respondents.

Preliminary results show that the overwhelming majority of Jews consider antisemitism and racism to be serious problems today.

These examples underline the importance of continuing the work and implementing the findings of the EU High Level Group on combating racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. Using the tangible data in surveys and reports such as those we provide as the basis for policy-making is key to improving the everyday life and security of all people living in the EU.

Turning to a second major area of concern, with recent technological developments we need to ensure that rights offline are also respected online. For example, hate speech in social media remains all too common today. One sad reality for many in this room is that we are targeted online whenever we stand up for the rights of minorities. Women human rights defenders are particularly viciously targeted by online hate speech.

If we turn to big data and algorithms in decision-making, we see still other implications for fundamental rights. Yes, these tools can help facilitate decisions. But , computers also learn to discriminate. We should ensure that the use of algorithms is made conditional on fundamental rights impact assessments, in particular to identify potential biases and abuses in their application and output.

Furthermore, with the increasing use of digital solutions, it is vital that the EU leave no one behind. Here, the participation of older people, or people with disabilities, in social life and democratic processes require particular attention.

My third and final area of concern relates to challenges to the national human rights protection system.

In several parts of Europe, we have seen civil society being denied the funding and legal protections required to operate freely and independently. Similarly, we have watched judicial independence and the rule of law undermined when politicans, even from mainstream parties, attack the legitimacy of the justice system and reduce the meaning of democracy to majority voting. And, attacks on and harassment of human rights defenders remain recurrent across some EU Member States.

We have recently witnessed the murder of three brave investigative journalists in the EU, 2 of them women. These murders must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible held to account.

The right to an effective remedy and effective trials as guaranteed by Article 47 of the Charter of fundamental rights is a key provision, when it comes to protecting human rights defenders. In fact, we see that this is the Charter right most often referred to in national court rooms and the Luxembourg Court.

Without independent judiciaries, efficient remedies and fair trials, fundamental rights lose their practical relevance and become academic notions. It is the very independence of the judicial system that allows citizens and residents alike to, in the words of Hannah Arendt, have a “right to have rights”.


these challenges highlight the importance of mainstreaming human and fundamental rights across EU and domestic policy measures. Here, the Charter of Fundamental Rights must play a central role.

My agency has recently reported on the disturbing underuse of the Charter at the national level. Even though Member States are obliged to implement the Charter and promote its application, there are hardly any domestic policies promoting it. According to Eurostat data, only around one tenth of the EU population is aware of the Charter and its contents. And little is being done to address the awareness gap.

The Charter is also insufficiently considered in national law making. Although in most Member States there is an explicit obligation to check bills against fundamental rights standards, we find hardly any reference to the Charter in procedures for impact assessment and legal scrutiny.

Finally, the judiciary fails to consistently use the Charter. When national courts do refer to the Charter, they tend to do so in a superficial manner.

We have to conclude that the Charter is an untapped resource. In this regard we would encourage a regular exchange on the use of the Charter between Member States. And I welcome the initiative of the Austrian Presidency to hold a Conference on the “National Life of the Charter” in cooperation with the EU Commission and our Agency in Vienna later this month. In the course of this Conference, a number of Charter training tools will be presented, including our new Handbook on the Application of the Charter.

Mr Chairperson,


I would like to conclude by referring to the 2018 Fundamental Rights Forum, which we recently convened in Vienna. It brought together government delegates, national and European parliamentarians, civil society and business representatives, international organisations and many others.

While the Forum testified to the worrying situation of the EU human rights protection system, the over 700 participants also articulated a vision for Europe’s future, a vision in which belonging is defined in terms of inclusion, non-discrimination, free choice and pluralism, and where fundamental and human rights are used to realise that vision at the most local level. Participants called for a more scrupulous implementation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Council of Europe human rights standards. They recalled that these are binding for all EU Member States and a prerequisite for mutual trust across Europe. The interconnections between human rights and many of the goals in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development were also emphasized.

The conclusions of our Forum send a resounding message of hope, matched with an urgency to make use of the existing tools and mechanisms that you as EU policy makers have at your disposal to address threats to human rights. We must collaborate on maintaining and strengthening our human rights achievements, working alongside the various actors of any healthy society. We need to engage with citizens to reinvigorate the notion of all human rights for all.

Thank you.

[1]Data from the fourth wave of the European Values Survey

[2]Eurobarometer survey on discrimination in Europe (2015)

See also