Human rights-based philanthropy: a common impact for all

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty delivers his speech during a joint event of Ariadne and Assifero, the Italian network of foundations of non-banking origin. The event took place in Duino, Italy, on 21 October 2022.

Thank you very much for the kind invitation.

Let me begin dear friends with the quote: “All people are born free and equal in dignity and in rights.”

That is from Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and those lines constitute for me both a truth and a goal.

It is the truth because that is how I believe we all are to each other, free and equal in dignity and rights.

But it is also a goal because we have so far to go to honour that truth in reality, in our world, a world where everybody is genuinely free and equal.

The story of human rights is the story of walking along the pathway towards the movement from the truth to the reality.

In the past I have been really greatly honoured to have had opportunities to witness the realisation of that vision in reality.

I saw it in 1998 when, through the use of human rights arguments, my team of UN human rights monitors in Sierra Leone were able to rescue people from being executed.

I saw it in 2006 when I gave evidence in war crimes trials regarding the criminals operating in West Africa and Sierra Leone and Liberia. Then, I witnessed mass murderers being sentenced to life imprisonment, on the basis, at least in part, of the work of human rights monitors.

I saw it when I moved to Northern Ireland in 2012 where I ran the Human Rights Commission. I found myself beginning a cooperation with the police force which historically had been recognised by some as a tool of oppression in that part of the world, but had, by 2012, by embedding human rights at its heart, become globally respected.

Just a few weeks ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to human rights activists in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Activists who found the energy, the bravery, the vision and the path to do their Nobel Prize winning work through the invocation of human rights.

What is this impressive human rights system that has evolved? It is something that has been a very long time in gestation.

You can begin the story of human rights at various points. I like to begin it quite legitimately 2,500 years ago with the King Hammurabi in Mesopotamia, who through the first codes developed by him for his city, marked the earliest origin of the identification that people are not just commodities, but they have rights which must be respected by the monarch.

Moving forward quite a long time to 1215 and you have a further development of this concept. Back then, in England the Lords were seen as having rights against the king. The king had to respect certain entitlements of the Lords, as it is laid down in the famous document, the Magna Carta.

Another 500 years later in 1786, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany abolished slavery and capital punishment. An astonishing achievement in the 18th century.

And then, in 1789, you have a monumental moment in the history of the articulation of human rights with the adoption of the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen in France.

I should move forward to another significant period of time - to 1948, where you have the formal expression of what human rights looked like in terms of its civil and political entitlements, as well as socio-economic guarantees, in the vision contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on the 10th of December that year in the United Nations General Assembly.

Then, a couple of decades later on the 2nd of October 1979, Pope John Paul II went to the United Nations General Assembly and gave a remarkable speech about human rights. He declared that there is no hope, if we do not embed human rights at its centre. That human rights are, as he put it, the foundation stone for any modern respectful society. It is the most articulate expression of why human rights must be central for our societies that I have come across.

But let us come back to today, 2022, which happens to be the 74th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Next year is going to be a big year of commemoration, but where are we today? Well, let me say in the first place that we are at a moment in our human history where human rights have never been more needed.

Words are being invented in the last few months to describe the reality. Words that I have never heard before. Polycrisis, omnicrisis. It does not matter what the word is. What they are reflecting is a scramble to find language to capture the dreadful situation that we are all in right now.

We have numerous crises, all intersecting to create our reality. There is the Russian aggression in Ukraine, which is causing unspeakable suffering for the people of that country, but it is also triggering all manner of problems and human rights violation and abuse right across Europe and more widely. There is the COVID crisis.

We are living with the impact of COVID and the impact of our actions in seeking to engage COVID. We are in the end game of the climate crisis. We are at that point where we will have no future if we do not finally wake up. We are looking at shocking levels of inequality in our societies. We are more unequal than ever in human history in terms of the disparity between the situation of the very poorest and the very richest, and it appears to be getting worse. We have gone backwards in terms of the combat against poverty.

And here in Europe, in too many places, we are seeing an erosion of the institutions of state which guarantee respect for our rights and the wellbeing of our communities.

On top of all of this, we have to take account of the scale of disinformation to be found right across every aspect of our lives, massively magnified by social media. We have always had lies. That is nothing new. Humans have always lived with lies. But we have never had anything like the scale of now because of the impact of digitalization of our world. And so, all these lies interacting and spreading combined with the current and ongoing crises create the most troubling moment certainly of my life and many would say , at least here in Europe, since the Second World War.

But then what about human rights? Where is this astonishing creation, evolved over thousands of years, so praised and indicated as essential by Pope John Paul II? Where is it playing its role today?

We have to respond that it is not sufficiently visible, not sufficiently enough, not sufficiently centred in terms of the great pushback against all of the abuses.

For reasons too complex to analyse in detail we have allowed human rights to move to the edge of our society, to the periphery of our consciousness. We have allowed a situation to evolve where you can choose the human rights you like and stand up for them and at the same time ignore the ones that you find inconvenient. We have allowed the situation to develop where human rights do not set the street on fire. Where human rights do not put fire in the bellies of people in our societies as the focus for their energy and the articulation of their vision for our societies.

Now that is a big worry. The Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU has been preoccupied with it for quite a long time. But this year we could not wait anymore. We thought we have got to do something imaginative and creative to contribute to fixing this, to ensure that this astonishing achievement, is put to proper use to engage the shocking reality of our world. We invited 60 human rights leaders from across the world to come together, tasked with the job of analysing and diagnosing the problem and prescribing steps towards addressing it.

And a key to this meeting was the diversity of people there. We had human rights experts, but we also had invited people from different parts of society engaged with building better societies, but maybe not always using the language of human rights. We had all manner of groups including philanthropists and a strong component of young people and young activists. They all sat together for two days and had an incredibly rich discussion out of which came a number of very specific action points, which I am going to share with you now very briefly.

The first one, which is fundamental to any hope of our going forward, was that there is no plan B to human rights. There is no alternative to using human rights to map a way forward. They are the only universally agreed upon articulation of what human wellbeing can and could and should look like. So, if we dispense with them, we do not have anything else left. There is no plan B.

Second, they rightfully said that we have done a very bad job at acting on all elements of our human rights. What they meant was that we typically, here in the global North, are great at standing up for, shouting for, demanding respect for civil rights and political rights, while we are bad at demanding at the same level and the same intensity social rights and economic rights.

If you look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it contains all those rights. It is civil rights, the right to vote, the right of freedom of expression, the right not to be tortured, the right not to be enslaved. These are civil and political rights, but also side by side with them, the right to food, the right to healthcare, the right to shelter, the right to all the basics for my family to survive. That is socio-economic rights. And we have done a bad job of standing up for that half of the human rights package. That is what they said, and that is why we lost the street. That is why people do not get fired up about human rights, because it is about something else, somewhere else. It is not about us and the things that keep us awake at night worrying for our families and our children.

By the way, a quick example, a long time ago now, I went to Iraq on behalf of a government to do human rights training of officials, and I was told "your priorities will be freedom of expression and combating torture". I prepared myself, ready to train on these two topics, my students, civil servants revolted on day one and said, "no, that is not what you are going to talk about. You are going to talk about healthcare, education, care and how to get a job, they are the human rights that matter to us". And that is a really telling illustration of this reality. We had to do a much better job, of working across the entire spectrum of human needs and human rights.

The third point they made was that if human rights is about rights, it is about my rights. Your rights. That we have to work not for you but with you. In other words, a rights holder has to be a partner in the effort to secure human rights. And again, that is so easy to say and sound so obvious, but we do such a bad job. We are forever throwing solutions at you, at me, at people, at groups, instead of sitting with them and saying, "OK, let us work out together what is wrong, what needs to be fixed, how do we fix it, and how do we fix it together?" And again, we have to constantly make an effort to be partners.

Very closely related to that, the fourth point they made was that we have to become much more imaginative in building partnerships for human wellbeing, building partnerships to secure everybody's human rights. Human rights have too easily slid into a specialist zone populated by experts and people like me who do nothing else. And we are disconnected notwithstanding the human rights belong to everybody, but we treat it like it is our private expertise. We have to build the necessary partnerships across society to create change. That means we have to work with the arts world, with the culture world, with sports, with business, with faith communities, and we are trying to do that, but we have to do it so much better.

The fifth and final point is about partnership as well. They reminded us of that we must find new ways to work with young people.

We have left young people behind when we have pretended to listen but have not really listened. And when we told them to give their opinions, but we have not given them the space where they can express their opinions.

We keep doing things that are messing up young people’s lives and their futures without consulting them. And as a result, we have lost a lot of trust. It is very important to seek to rebuild that trust, rebuild meaningful, profound partnerships with young people to fix our world.

These were five of the key points that were made by our groups last month. And if I was to sum up the process, I would say it was humbling because it was tough. It was challenging. And above all, it was hopeful. Because it would not be challenging if it did not set out the possibility of a better future, and they did set out the possibility of a better future, they gave us loads of suggestions. Pathways for us to implement a better future based on respect for human rights. And let me now turn to the young people in this room in terms of how we might be able to go forward together to implement this better future.

I would like to suggest four things that you might consider keeping in mind as you reflect on how you will bring our world forward. First one is to be indignant. I did not invent the term. It comes from a great French philosopher, Stefan Hessel. He is dead now but he had seen the horrors of the Second World War and saw the effort made to build a better world out of that. He saw the central significance of the Universal Declaration.

He saw the marginalisation of human rights. And he was furious. He said, wake up, be furious, be indignant. Do not be ashamed of being angry. Be proud of your anger and use it. So that is the first thing I would say to you, be outraged.

But do not just be outraged. Be informed. It is so important to use this human rights system. Get to know it, get to know its content, get to know the institutions that stand up for it, use them and use the analysis of the human rights bodies out there that are measuring what is going on in our society.

Right now, at FRA we are rolling out youth specific data from across our surveys where we are measuring the experience of what it is like to be human in Europe. And we always have a capacity to disaggregate by age, including the experience of young people. So what is it like to be a young Jew in Europe? What is it like to be a young gay person, a young trans person, a young member of the Roma community?

We have this evidence, and you can use it in your outrage and in your indignation. And then insist on being involved. Do not be put off, do not be shut out. Insist on being respectfully included in the discussion. Sure, the fora are not there, but demand that they be put there. And do not give up on that insistence.

And then the final thing I would say that in your anger, fully informed by the reality and by the tools, having gained the space because you did not give up, we all need to work together, in an intergenerational way.

So it is the older gang like me and it is you. We have got to work together. We can build a future together. But when I say intergenerational, there is one group I want to include specifically and that is a group older than me.

I am horrified by the extent to which, when you retire in Europe, you disappear. Did you know that the national statistical agencies stop measuring human wellbeing when you reach 75? I did not know that. I was appalled.

We must involve older people, just as we involve everybody else. I look to the young people here to insist on this intergenerational way of facing our future. But let me turn now to philanthropists and representatives of philanthropic organisations in the room and let me share a few thoughts with you.

The first is that you are natural allies of those who seek respect for human rights in society. The one thing every philanthropic organisation represented in this room has in common is a desire for a better world. And human rights are about the vocabulary and road map to achieve a better world. There is no tension whatsoever between human rights actors and philanthropic actors. In fact, there has already been a fantastic cooperation going back decades between these two sectors and these two ways of looking at the world.

Much has been achieved. Back in 1993, I got my first international human rights job because of a philanthropist. I was recruited by the United Nations to put together a human rights monitoring programme in Bosnia Herzegovina during the war. The UN member States would not pay for this, despite the fact that it was evidently needed, albeit it was a completely new idea. Before then, the only place that human rights monitors had been sent out by the UN was in Cambodia.

And that was only two years earlier. It is a completely new idea, but it was obviously valuable. A philanthropist paid and that single philanthropist said: I believe in that, I will pay for it, I will pay for it for a few years, and then we will get the UN member states to take up the bill. And that was the basis on which the first human rights officers of the UN went into the field in Bosnia. That was important in Bosnia, but that was the beginning of a development whereby there are human rights monitors of the UN in dozens of countries today doing good work.

For example, most of what we are learning about what is going on in Ukraine from a human rights point of view, is from the UN human rights monitors, and it is not a stretch to say that philanthropy played a part in the beginning of that story.

But of course, we can go further. So let me suggest advancing this partnership. Earlier I spoke about our neglect in the global north of economic and social rights. Much of the philanthropy that I have come across is passionate about social justice.

And there is not much of a jump between the goal of social justice and the route to get there of using the economic and social and cultural rights map that is given by the UN human rights system. That is just one suggestion of where we could intensify cooperation and engagement. And the second way in which we could intensify this partnership, has to do with how we do things. And I have two things in mind here.

The first is the role that philanthropy can play, even more than it does already in building those missing partnerships I spoke about earlier. I can think of nothing better engaged than philanthropy in reaching out to the worlds of culture, of music, of the arts, of sport, of close ties to the business world, which is the origin of much philanthropic giving, or close ties between much of philanthropy and certain faith communities. Philanthropy is extremely well placed to deepen these partnerships for the attainment of human rights goals.

The other dimension of the ‘how to do our work using human rights’ has to do with how we embed human rights approaches in the way we work. How you work, how you can embed a human rights way of being philanthropist is worthy of really fruitful reflection and that is why I so greatly acknowledge and appreciate the fact that today you will be discussing exactly this topic. I applaud you for that.

The last thing I would say about the specifics of philanthropy and human rights has to do with the way you work. Now as I say, I am not, I have never worked for a philanthropic organisation, but I have had the opportunity on a number of occasions to engage with you and to and to see how you operate.

I think there is some qualities to the way you operate that are needed for the world we face today. The first is your courage. You often take steps that nobody else will take, as I demonstrated earlier.

There is also the vision of philanthropy that you can often see a better future, or a future that does not even exist yet, and you can invest in it in a way that for a government is impossible. Voters would not tolerate governments investing in invisible futures.

Philanthropy can operate very quickly and is often able to overcome bureaucracy through light methods which deliver quick results. But the other beauty is not only are you quick, but you are often patient. You are willing to take the long-term vision, you are willing to recognise that the change you are seeking could take a generation and very often you are willing to stay with the story for that entire time. And again, other funders and other donors do not do that. They think in two, three, four-year terms, they think in this project, that project. But this long-term perspective which is so needed in so many situations is difficult to support.

I think of the appalling way we treat our Roma community in the European Union. There are six million of our Roma brothers and sisters in the European Union pushed to the very margins of our society. Frankly, we have treated them so appallingly that any meaningful work with them to change their lived experience is going to be across generations. And it is difficult for many funders to recognise that, to stay with that pathway. But philanthropy can do it.

And then the final thing I have seen from philanthropy increasingly in recent years is respect. I have seen the way in which philanthropy engages with its clients in a deeply respectful manner, indeed a manner of the partnerships that I spoke of earlier. And so that is my last word as to why I think that there is great scope to ever deepen the relationship of philanthropy and human rights.

Thank you.

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