20 years of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights

Michael O'Flaherty
FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty addressed a national round-table discussion on 25 May on the role of the Fundamental Rights Charter in the EU. The European Commission Representation in Poland was FRA’s partner for the '20 years of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights' event.


There is also a recording of the speech.


Thank you very much, good morning. It's a really great pleasure to be with you. I'd like to thank the Commission Representation for co-organising this event with us. I'd like to warmly thank and welcome Vice-President Jourova and the other distinguished speakers.

Dear friends, whenever I speak about human rights and values in a Polish context, I do it with a good deal of defference and even diffidence. I am after all speaking in a country that produced Irena Sendlerowa, one of the greatest and bravest humanitarians of all time. Poland is also the country of Agnieszka Holland, who through film forces us to confront and learn from our histories. Poland is the country of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, for whom I had the honour to serve – he was my first boss in the United Nations when he was the UN special rapporteur for former Yugoslavia. And Poland of course is the country of Paweł Adamowicz, who showed us so recently, with his own life, what it means to put human rights and values at the Heart of the City. These names, in other words, remind us how to deliver the necessary leadership for ethical societies. These examples are more needed than ever today.

We've already heard of some of the problems our societies face in the words of Vice-President Jourova. We're all reading today of the shocking incident in Belarus over the weekend. But instead of going through the litany of the things that are not working in our societies, if I could just stay for a moment on the story of Covid. It’s been 15 months now: our societies have been wounded and are tired. Everybody has been impacted but different generations have been hitt in different ways. We focus on old people, and quite correctly, early in the days of the pandemic and now we look to young people and children, and we worry about their futures. We’ve seen the extraordinary extent to which Covid exposed pre-existing inequalities, and made them worse in our societies. And of course we've seen, in some places, how authorities take advantage of the pandemic, to use law in an abusive manner.

So what we do? Where do we look for a guidebook to navigate to a better future? Well, human rights must be central at that navigation. Again, figuring out how that must look like I turn to Poles. I think for example of Raphael Lemkin, one of the great proto-authors, pre-designers of the human rights system through the crafting of the crime of genocide. I think of my friend, Dzidek Kedzia, who is an underacknowledged principal author of The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted just over 25 years ago - that has set much of the agenda to strengthen the human rights system globally ever since. The Vienna Declaration points to law as being at the heart of the human rights system – treaties and the other instruments. And of course today we're gathering virtually to acknowledge and discuss the most fundamental of those legal instruments in an EU context – the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights is a remarkable instrument, groundbreaking.In the first place it puts together, in one single instrument, in a joined-up manner, the protection of civil rights, political rights, economic, social and cultural rights. Second to the extent that it addresses rights that are familiar from, let's say, the European Convention on Human Rights, it goes further, it expands those rights. For example the due process of law and administration of justice protections in the Charter are considerably stronger than those to be found in the European Convention. We find not just expanded, but we find new rights in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. We find an explicit right to protection of rights in the context of the environment, the rights of older people, an explicit right of asylum, even a right to establish a business. And regardless of which rights we’re talking about,  across the instrument we see a profound respect for the universality of rights, and of the need to protect the astonishing diversity of our people regardless of  ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or whatever other category. And finally, in terms of this being a remarkable instrument, we have of course it's powerful domestic legal effect quite unlike that to be found in let us say the United Nations treaties.

Of course I acknowledge that the Charter is only applicable within the scope of the application of the EU law. This is not much of a restraint - EU law runs right across our administrations, right across the governance of our societies.

So how are we doing? Well, as we've already heard from Vice-President Jourova we could do better. The Fundamental Rights Agency, on an ongoing basis, is measuring the application of the Charter across the EU institutions and the Member States - and on all levels we see that a further push is needed. Courts - yes of course the Charter is referred to, yes questions are put to the European Court of Justice, but less than you might expect. Parliaments - you’d expect the Charter to be much more visible in the act of lawmaking, and it’s not. Government - we would expect governments to be actively promoting the Charter but there is little evidence of this.

And even in civil society, when we checked just a few months ago, we saw that civil society itself concedes that the Charter does not play a sufficiently large role within its own operations.

It's in this context that we warmly welcome the leadership by Vice-President Jourova and the rollout of the strategy on the EU Charter. And the Fundamental Rights Agency will do everything within its appropriate role to support the delivery of that strategy.

We welcome in particular within the strategy the emphasis on the importance of institutions, of protecting and strengthening the national human rights infrastructure. This of course goes well beyond the bodies of the state and let me, as did the vice-president, concentrate on some elements of that architecture.

In the first place - national human rights institutions. I want to echo what we've already heard that NHRIs play a vital role for a healthy human rights culture within a society. And I want to echo what the Vice-President said in a deep appreciation and respect for Adam Bodnar and the leadership that he has given and continues to give in the role of the national human rights institution in Poland.

The second of the institutions that I want to mention this morning is equality bodies. Not much that I want to say about them today other than that I welcome the extent to which they're getting attention right now, as we mark 20 years of the equality directives, and the recognition increasingly given now to the need to strengthen equalityy bodies and their mandates but also the resources available to them.

Then of course Civil Society. Civil Society is the lifeblood of a thriving human rights culture within any society and that's why the Fundamental Rights Agency will stay committed to offering all appropriate forms ofr support.

We published a report a few years back on the state of Civil Society in the EU; we’re publishing a second edition of it in coming months,  and frankly we’re worried. The new report is still being drafted so I can't speak to its specific contents, but I would have to say that we see multiple forms of pressure on civil society in different parts of the EU. We see for example limits being put on the fundraising capacity of Civil Society such as with regard to access to foreign funding; and we see pressure being put on groups because of the work they do. So for example in some places groups that work on LGBT issues get targeted in a way that groups working on other issues do not - this is obviously a matter of grave concern.

As we go forward in addressing these and all the other issuesyou can count on the continued solidarity of the Fundamental Rights Agency. We will continue to generate the comparative data to help us all to shine a light on the realities. That's the important context for the surveys that we do - on the experience of minorities, on violence against women, just to take two examples. We will continue also, to generate the qualitative socio-legal research that we need to map our way through difficult new realities, such as that of the digitisation of our lives and the application of artificial intelligence. We will continue to offer capacity-building support including at the level of Member States, e.g.in supporting the use of the Charter at the national level (and here by the way I should mention that we have a number of tools to promote use of the Charter, including many of which have been translated into Polish. For example, you can access on our website a handbook in Polish on the use of the Charter at the national level).

And finally, in terms of how we will continue to support you, we will continue to use our convening power in support of promotion and strengthening of fundamental rights, including at the national level. We will for example, in October, conduct a third Fundamental Rights Forum.I very much look forward to a strong Polish engagement in both physical and online dimensions of the Forum.

I would like to conclude by recalling the words of another great Pole, Pope John Paul II. John Paul II championed human rights. Read the speech he gave at the United Nations General Assembly in September 1979, a tour-de-force defense of all that has been achieved in the area of Human Rights since the Second World War. In that speech he use the following words, he said: “Although each person lives in a particular concrete social and historical context, every human being is endowed with a dignity that must never be lessened, inpaired or destroyed but must instead be respected and safeguarded”. My friends, that is what human rights is all about. That is the purpose of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.