Rediscovering Democracy and the Common Good: The Contribution of Human Rights

Speech by the FRA Director, Michael O’Flaherty, at the 2019 Sheehy Skeffington School on Social Justice and Human Rights, Dublin, 10 May 2019.

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Dear Friends

Thank you very much for this invitation, which I greatly appreciate.

Thank you also for framing the invitation in a way to allow us to revisit the Democratic Programme adopted by the first Dáil.

This is a stirring document. It it espouses a caring society that puts the individual at its heart. Thus it declared “the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour”; announced that “the first duty of the Government of the Republic is to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children”; and called for a “native scheme to care for the Nation's aged and infirm, who shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the Nation's gratitude and consideration.” As for the Declaration’s philosophical sources, I would not challenge the arguments emphasising strong socialist roots; nevertheless, I can also see a relationship with elements of Catholic Social Teaching, in particular with the 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum.

In 1922 Kevin O’Higgins dismissed the Democratic Programme as “mostly poetry” and indeed we do not see so strongly expressed a social contract in other foundational documents of the Irish State – with references to socio-economic entitlements expressed much more timidly in, for instance the 1937 Constitution.

Elsewhere, however, ideas reflected in the Democratic Programme became increasingly visible in international human rights treaty law. At the United Nations level I think of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the Council of Europe, the European Charter of Social Rights. Eventually social rights would also find themselves reflected in treaties dealing the human rights of various groups, including children and persons with disabilities. At the level of the European Union, socio-economic rights have high visibility within the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a ground-breaking source of EU law, whose anniversary we celebrate this year.

To the extent that Ireland is bound by treaties and instruments such as these, we can say that today large elements of the 1919 Democratic Programme have become part of the legal commitments of this State. In other words, the Programme is as much a living instrument as an historical text.

Before I proceed any further, however, it is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which the formal obligations contained in the treaties and the EU Charter remain unimplemented or are expressly violated.

Look, for instance, at how growing inequality continues to impact on many people across the European Union. As we come close to the end of the ten-year period of Europe’s 2020 strategy, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to achieve the target of at least 20 million fewer people in or at risk of poverty and social exclusion despite warnings that rising or persisting inequality is a serious threat to social cohesion and democracy.

While the risk of poverty affects millions of Europeans, it is children who are most severely affected. While a century ago the first Dáil proclaimed in the Democratic Programme that “the first duty of the Government of the Republic is to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children”, today across the EU, the richest region of the world, almost 25 million children a quarter (26.4 %) of all children in the EU are at risk of poverty or social exclusion; living in households with low income, experiencing material deprivation or housing deprivation, or, often, in households experiencing all these.

This figure hides significant disparities between EU countries: while 13.8 % of children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Denmark, this figure rises to 27, 3 % in Ireland and 49.2 % in Romania. Moreover, 2.6 million children in the EU suffer from severe poverty and more than 10 million face severe material deprivation, meaning they live in households that could not afford to pay for at least four out of nine basic goods or services, such as rent, mortgage or utility bills.

Minority ethnic groups are most impacted. I want here to highlight the specific group that suffers the highest rates of inequality simply because of their ethnic origin, namely Roma and Travellers. Our Agency is regularly conducting large scale surveys to monitor the situation across many EU countries, recently also Ireland – and we will have results on Travellers at the end of this year.

Our surveys show that over the years very little has changed. The overwhelming majority of Roma have an income below the national poverty threshold; about half of their children still live in households struggling with malnutrition or hunger. More than half continue to live in segregated areas, in accommodation that falls far below minimum housing standards. And only about a third has paid work, often precarious and informal, while most young Roma, 18-24, are neither working nor being educated.

Another large-scale FRA survey, EU-MIDIS, recently revealed also another reality, both shameful and infuriating: racism based on the colour of a person’s skin which remains a pervasive scourge throughout the European Union. People of African descent, are an integral part of the social fabric of Europe for generations. Nonetheless, many regularly experience racial discrimination, racist crime, racial profiling and social exclusion.

Ireland was one of the twelve countries covered by the survey and the results are worrying: In Ireland along with Finland and Austria we recorded the highest rates (13 %) of racially motivated violence; some of the highest rates of hate motivated harassment, 51 % compared to an average of 30 % in the 12 EU countries covered by the survey. In Ireland, 30 % of women and 34 % of men with African descent experienced discrimination in the five years before the survey because of their skin colour. At the same time less than a third (27 %) of those who felt racially discriminated against reported or made a complaint about the most recent incident.

One of the few good facts to emerge from the survey regarding Ireland is the relatively high degree of awareness among impacted groups of where to go with a complaint – a detail that I think reflects well on the awareness raising strategies of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and other relevant bodies.

Dear colleagues,

In surveying what is not working in Europe from a human rights point of view I have focussed principally on socio-economic issues. I could have ranged more wisely, drawing attention to the abuse of migrants, the growing acceptability of racism, the explosion of hate speech, especially on-line, the attacks on the media, including the murder of journalists. However, given the particular nature of the 1919 Democratic Programme, we do not need to be comprehensive. The inadequate delivery for our peoples of their socio-economic rights is more than enough to illustrate how grave are the challenges and how far we have to go to realise the democracy imagined in the 1919 text.

By the way, the link of respect for human rights and sturdy democracy is not just an idea developed in the Democratic Programme and other texts, it may be an empirically observable reality.  Last week, the Washington based research organisation PEW published the results of a major global survey (30,133 people) in 27 countries, including ten in the EU (not including Ireland) on satisfaction with how democracy works.

In six of the 10 EU countries surveyed, half or more of respondents say they are dissatisfied with how democracy is working. Discontent is highest in Italy, Spain and Greece, where 70% or more say they are dissatisfied. In contrast, roughly a third or fewer hold this view in Sweden and the Netherlands.

Opinions about how well democracy is working in a country are related to whether people believe that their most fundamental rights are respected. In every country studied, the people who say that the statement “the rights of people to express their views in public are protected” does not describe their country well, are dissatisfied with democracy. This pattern is especially apparent in the EU, where in nations such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Hungary those who believe free expression is not protected are significantly more likely to be unhappy with the state of democracy.

So then, we have worrying levels of human rights non-compliance and an increasingly evident impact of such a situation for the very wellbeing of our democratic societies. We need to push back, to defend and strengthen what has been achieved. Fortunately, that push-back is underway, at least in a partial form. Let me take some principal examples within an EU context:

Two years ago, the European Union sought to match its commitment to civil and political rights with a joint proclamation of the new European Pillar of Social Rights with its 20 principles and rights aiming to strengthen social rights protection across the Union. All Member States agreed that economic and social insecurity needs to be addressed as a matter of priority” in order to “safeguard our way of life”, in an era of digital revolution, changing work patterns and critical societal and demographic developments.

The proclamation of the Pillar signals, at least formally that EU institutions and Member States are committed to make full use of the EU’s legal and policy framework in a wide range of areas related to social rights including social policy, employment and vocational training, public health and non-discrimination.

The EU is already taking steps to transform the abstract ‘rights and principles’ to legally enforceable (justiciable) entitlements. For example, the EU institutions have agreed on a new Directive that will improve workers’ information about their rights and establish new minimum standards for working conditions.

Furthermore, the EU revised in 2018 its Directive on posted workers, those posted on a short-term basis to another Member States to work: posted workers will now benefit from all mandatory elements of pay that apply to country nationals, as well as rules concerning workers’ accommodation and allowances.

In addition, EU institutions have agreed on new work-life balance rules which open up opportunities for working women and men to share caring responsibilities, for children and relatives, equally. Last month the Council adopted the EU’s Accessibility Act on the accessibility requirements for products and services which will benefit more than 80 million people in the EU, affected by different degrees of disability.

Straying slightly from my own thematic focus I would also point to the genuine efforts to strengthen the EU capacity to challenge backsliding on the rule of law within Member States. In this regard there have already been achievements that receive too little attention. And some of the institutional initiatives, such as for a new inter-State peer review mechanism are encouraging, albeit still some way from realisation.

Friends,

Developments such as these, while welcome, are not and will not be nearly enough. Realising the vision of the 1919 Democratic Programme will require action from all of us.

In that regard I am reminded of Stéphane Hessel’s pamphlet Indignez-vous! Or, in a rather weak English translation, “Get indignant”. In other words, what is wanted from us today is a fierce passion and repudiation of the unacceptable.

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 our countries and the European Union the fair, just, and decent society we want.

Allow me to conclude by quoting Francis Sheehy Skeffington. It seems that, when he was branded a crank, he responded, “Yes, that is right, and a crank is a small instrument that makes revolution”. That is not a bad image for anyone committed to the peaceful revolution of ever-strengthening our democracies founded on respect for human rights.

Thank you.