Communicating rights

Michael O’Flaherty
Speech delivered by Michael O'Flaherty at Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly side event on communicating rights on 10 April in Strasbourg.

Dear Meglena,

Thank you very much for the kind introduction and to Thorhildur for having said everything that needed to be said.

8th April, 2 days ago, was Roma Day. The day we mark the Roma community: somewhere between 8 and 12 million Roma living here in Europe.

It is a day to celebrate a fantastic culture and an amazing richness within European society.

But it is also a day to recall the extent to which we have failed the Roma community. We are very familiar with the figures: the two to three times worse level of poverty than that you find in the general population; the Roma children who only go to school at the level of half of the general population.

And I could go on and on with problems of access to healthcare, harassment, discrimination and de facto housing segregation – and, of course, the largely unacknowledged attempt at genocide during the Second World War.

In other words, a day in which we mark not just a wonderful civilization but also a desperate failure of human rights.

Why have we failed our Roma community so badly in Europe?

We have failed them because we failed to deliver justice and accountability for human rights violations. We failed them because we have been unable to deliver sufficiently strong and smart policy. We failed them because we have not committed adequate resources. But also equally of significance, we have failed them because we have not convinced, we have not persuaded, we have not been effective communicators of our messages.

We have failed to convince at least three vital constituencies that it is worth standing up and fighting for the rights, the human rights, of the Roma. We have failed to convince policymakers to make the issue a true priority in governance at the national and regional levels. We failed to convince rights holders themselves, in my example, the Roma, that human rights is a valuable and important tool.

And thirdly, we have failed to convince the general population that we are managing a scandal. We failed to get people angry on the streets, in the way they get angry about climate change, or any other of the great issues of today.

The issue a communication of rights is not just an add-on, it is not just icing on the cake. It goes to the very heart of delivering the human rights commitments that all our States and organisations have entered into.

In addition, I really welcome that we are finally talking about effective communication of human rights.

Why now? What has happened? What is different in 2019 to wake us up to the theme?

We have already heard a few of the issues from Thorhildur. But let me headline six motivators that have brought us to where we are.

The first is that the system of human rights, be it the regional one, be it the global one, is just 70 years old now.

It can no longer just ride into town on a great high horse and say ‘obey, because it is good’!

You could maybe achieve something like that until recently, but the system is ageing, and it can no longer command respect and authority just by the fact of its existence.

Secondly, people are ageing, people are dying. And we no longer remember why we have it.

The survivors of the Roma genocide are nearly all gone now. The survivors of the Holocaust against the Jewish community nearly all gone. And so, those people who experienced the horror that motivated our parents and grandparents to create the system are no longer reminding us of the why.

Third, we have had a change in the nature of our discourse and of our democracies. Authority has no longer the same quality to deliver things as it once did. It is no longer the case that it will be done because it is a law, it is a rule, it is an order. Something more is needed to convince.

Fourth, particularly in the context of digitalization of our lives we have had a shifting of what I would call the social tectonic plates. Our societies are shifting under our feet and becoming day by day something utterly different to what they were yesterday.

A fifth of my six, and maybe the most important of all, in our rightful preoccupation with the human rights of the most vulnerable on the edges, we have forgotten about the human rights of everybody else. We have paid inadequate attention to the human rights of our brothers, our sisters, our parents, our families, the general population. The people who are not in that ‘at risk group’ that we typically focus on. We must stay focusing on the at risk groups, but not at the expense of everybody else.

And sixth and finally, and this is in a way a result of all of the rest and very much related to all of the rest, we have of course the rise of populism with all of its lies and its deceits.

I think that it is these contexts that have brought this to the front of the agenda and I really welcome that we are now paying attention. At the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU, we have invested as a priority in how we do a better job of delivering our message.

I would like to say a word about our work. But before I do, let me just say that there are two basics things that we have to acknowledge before we ever got to communication, which are so fundamental, that if I do not do mention them today, I would give a partial presentation.

The first one is that we have got to deliver for everyone. If we cannot deliver human rights for everyone, the system will fail. That is why my Agency, why this Organisation and why everybody else is waking up increasingly to the promotion of social and economic rights. I am not saying waking up in the sense that it is new, but in the sense of identifying how critical it is to the future of everything.

The second of the two general observations is that we must do a better job of making the business case for our claims. It can no longer be ‘do it because that’s the judgement, do it because that’s the rule’, but it has to be: do it because it will lead to a better outcome in our societies. And again, that is a big part of what my Agency does. We do the research on the ground to show that the human rights approach is a socially better approach. If we do not’ associate that evidence with our claims, then why should we expect anybody to pay attention to us.  

Moving now more narrowly to communication, the little booklet you have in front of you might be nice looking and maybe interesting, but there is nothing new in there. It is all common sense. And many organisations such as religious communities in particular, have been applying all the content of this booklet for centuries. Therefore, it is not that we have suddenly had a Eureka moment. It is just that we have harvested good sense and rechannelled it in our work in the human rights sector. There are 10 keys for effective communication in there. I will just flag five before I finish.

The first is that we have to find new messengers for our message. I am an old messenger and I am not necessarily the best messenger. We need to build new coalitions, bring new voices into human rights.

For instance, we should not just give token lip service to, for example, musicians but recognise that a sombre piece of music can be a much more effective communicator of a human rights message than all the words I can spin until tomorrow.

We need to work with young people, in a way again that it is not tokenistic. One of the joys of my job, as I travel around the European Union, is that I find the energy for human rights, the passion for human rights, the smart ideas for human rights not in rooms like this, I find them communities centres, in youth clubs, and indeed on the streets (with children protesting against climate change in these weeks).

So new messengers.

The second of the five is that we have to make a much better job of giving voice to the rights holders themselves. There is nobody more compelling to tell a human rights story than the person him or herself. And again if you have the privilege of my job going around meeting with rights holders, visiting their homes, listening to people in their sitting rooms, sitting out on the street –, then I hear the message, then I get the point and then I can be the conveyor back of that message.

Third, and again nothing new. The humanitarian community got this already a decade ago, which is: yes, we have many bad stories to tell, but we need to tell the good stories too. People are fed up with our misery. They want to hear about how human rights were used to make something better. Of course, we must never paper over the atrocities, the tragedies. This is the anniversary week of the Rwanda genocide. There is no good story to tell about that. But side by side with the atrocious stories, we need to be able to convey that human rights is a force for good that delivers good and tell inspiring stories when we have the inspiring stories to tell.

I used to be a member of the UN Human Rights Committee and I used to push to identify and speak to and write up the good practices we came across in member states. I never succeeded because the majority of my colleagues said no, we must focus on what needs to be fixed.   

I am convinced now more than ever that we need to pay more attention to what has been fixed as well.

Fourth of my five is that we are not in our messaging engaging a sufficiently big range of the legitimate values in our society. Typically, when we deliver or frame a human rights message, we base it on values such freedom or fairness, or equality. They are great values, but they do not speak, predominantly or dominantly to many people in our society. There are people in our society who value order over equality, who value discipline over freedom. And that is legitimate. In addition, many of our human rights messages can be framed engaging those values. So when we talk about human rights and counterterrorism, show how human rights approach to counterterrorism leads to greater safety, to greater security and that will speak to people who normally never listen to a human rights argument.

In addition, the fifth of five, and we know this from ad agencies and from publicists is: segment our audience. We cannot have just the same message for everybody. We have to have messages as diverse as the diversity of our audiences. I spoke earlier of the policymaker, the rights holder and the general population. They need the same message in three very different ways. Our Agency has not, as yet, done a good enough job in doing those segmented messages.

So, that is what we have learned so far. We are not finished with this work. We must continue, and so it remains a priority for the Fundamental Rights Agency this year and going into next year. What I can tell you is that the incoming focus of our attention in this context is the other dimension of communicating, which is listening.

We recognise and we are ready now to take this on board. The next phase of being better communicators is being and demonstrating ourselves to be much better listeners, listeners towards everybody: the doubters, the naysayers, the rights holders, the passionate enthusiasts, everybody.    

So, to wrap up: I spoke about Roma at the beginning as they are really on my mind this week. Three days ago, I was in Vienna and I participated in an event organised by Roma. It was extremely well organised. The participation was very diverse, different dimensions of the very diverse Roma community were invited. There was a good gender balance, there was a very good age mix, young and old. There were also many diverse voices. There were word voices, but there were also music voices and arts voices. And frankly, the music and the arts voices were louder than the word voices.

There was a lot of recounting tragedies because there is a big preoccupation right now with remembering the genocide. There was a lot of anger expressed. But side by side with the anger, there was a lot of laughter and celebration and rejoicing in a fantastic diverse culture.

I came away from that night, engaged, motivated, inspired, thoughtful… and I thought maybe that Roma celebration that night is how our human rights meetings increasingly should look if they are to be effective.

Thank you.


See also