What does it mean to do human rights work?

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty delivers his speech during the 20th Anniversary of the Human Rights and Conflict Management Master Programme. The event took place in Pisa on 10 June 2022.

Dear friends,

I am delighted to be here.

I do not think I have been here for the whole 20 years, but I certainly first encountered the programme a long time ago. I have the fondest memories of my intense week every summer, working with the students. But let me start my own intervention somewhere else.

It is back in 1993. On a Friday, I got a phone call asking if I could be in Geneva on Monday. I had a job to be a U.N. human rights field monitor in former Yugoslavia. Three weeks later, I was in Zagreb, and I was told to get myself a jeep, fill it with equipment and get myself, the jeep and the equipment to Sarajevo.

Bosnia was in the middle of a war. I did not know how to change a tyre. I did not know how to use a radio. I did not even have a radio, and I was told, ‘Go find a convoy, join it, and you will be fine.’

Some marvellous Danish soldiers took pity on me, put me in their convoy, and we set out on a horrific two-day journey across the war zone, across numerous checkpoints. At every search checkpoint, we lost some of our equipment. We went up into the mountains.

Somehow, I got to Sarajevo. I found an office and got down to work, but what did work mean? Nobody told me. I was a human rights monitor, but nobody told me what that meant in the middle of a war. I blundered around, and I eventually got the sense of what I wanted to do. I will stop the story there because that is the story of everybody who did UN human rights fieldwork back in those early days.

There was no doctrine. There was no rulebook. There was no common manual as to what it meant to do this work in the field. Rather outraged at this, I very quickly, after that story, began to work on a pathway towards contributing the doctrine, developing the core content, the notion of what it is to do human rights work in the field.

Again, I will not go into every step of that story. It is not all my story and I acknowledge the leadership of Bill O’Neill and many others. But a personal highlight for me took place in the years between 2005 to 2008. I had left the UN by then. I was at a university, and I led a project funded by Ireland and called ‘Consolidating the Profession’. In essence, a project about what does it mean to say you are a human rights field professional. One of the outputs of that project was a set of guiding principles for human rights field officers.

It is a pretty straightforward publication. It describes 10 principles: work on the basis of human rights law; be clear on your objectives; honour your mandate; remember that you are there to monitor what is going on, but also to report what is going on, and to advocate for change. You are reminded that you do not just monitor and report – you help to change the society by capacity building. You do all of this in partnership with the human beings whose lives are under threat in whatever situation you are in. Then you do it with integrity, and we explain what that means, and we always honour the principle of ‘do no harm’.

So, they were the 10 principles, and there was also an ethical statement attached to the principles. I must say it is impressive the extent to which the work we did on these principles has informed curricula ever since, and in fact you, to some extent, follow a curriculum that is, at least in part, building on this work, as are the similar programmes right across the world.

So this was a useful project, a useful tool. I have found in my own work that it has impacted how I have done my job ever since. I led a national human rights institution – I was Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. There, these principles helped my colleagues to understand that we have to stick to the law because when we deviated from law, our work became subjective and, therefore, subject to legitimate criticism, and it did not build the necessary consensus.

I then moved to the job I have now, running the EU internal human rights body. My mandate is internal, focused on what goes on in the geography of the 27 Member States. But even there this field manual has proved incredibly helpful. It is on the basis of these principles that our teams recognise the need for us to invest in capacity building – not just researching, not just advising, but helping shape different societies – and in this way we are very heavily engaged in the field now across maybe a dozen EU Member States on all manner of different issues.

And lastly, in terms of the impact in my present job, again, the principles here helped my colleagues understand that we do not work for people. That is old language. That is to be dispensed with, this language. We do not work for people, we work with people. So today, my colleagues in the field, they are not working for Roma but working with Roma, with people with disabilities, with the LGBTIQ+ communities. And you, every day, have to recommit to that principle of with and not for, because it changes how you work.

There is no doubt that the world has moved on. We did this work on the principles almost 15 years ago, and society has changed enormously. I would like to give you seven changed contexts that I believe you must, we must, take account of to impact how we work today.

The first is that the players in the game have changed. There are two actors, two players that are so fundamentally important today that they have to move centre stage. The first is business, and as you know, business actors, private actors in the business context are hugely influential in terms of human rights, respect and violation. The digitalisation of our world, the role of social media, has put commercial interests at the heart of our societies to a degree never seen before. And this must be central to our understanding of how we engage our societies, including for human rights. It is not just, by the way, about bad business. It is not just about remedies and penalties for business. It is about partnerships with business.

The second actor are national human rights institutions (NHRIs). Back in the 90s, they were around for sure, but they were still finding their feet. Today, they have taken on an important prominent role in so many countries. Those of us who work from the international dimension have to learn to respect the principle of subsidiarity and allow them to do the work if they can do it better than us. That is why my Agency is supporting NHRIs to monitor the EU external borders, to take just one example.

The third of my seven is the digitalisation of our lives. I am referring, of course, to social media, but also to the role that artificial intelligence is playing in every moment of our, I was going to say every waking moment, but also, frankly, our sleeping moments. Why is that relevant today?

Primarily, it is a locus of abuse. It is about disinformation primarily driven on social media, but also about malign algorithms and the harm that they can do. This raises challenges for human rights monitoring. But you have got to monitor this, and to a large degree, we do not know how to do that yet. My Agency is studying malicious algorithms to see how we can best control them. We are examining methods to take down data on social media that crosses the line. A major issue is what is the public-private partnership to take down data in a way that gets the bad stuff but respects free speech? Again, we are still not there in terms of getting the balance right.

Another dimension of the digitalisation of life is the extent to which AI and all the related technologies can be tools for us. For instance, how do we deep-dive into data to understand the problem in society? Frankly, a lot of human rights monitoring going forward is going to be with large datasets, and yet we still, in large part, are not developing the appropriate tools.

Then, there is the business of smart use of social media as a communication tool for our human rights messages. That brings me to the fourth of my seven, and that is the challenge today to get our message across. It is fine for us to spot the problem and report the problem, but we have all recognised in recent years that we can be bad messengers. We all have to invest massively in being smarter at shaping and delivering our messages, which also includes, evidencing our claims. We cannot just say, ‘Do this or do that because it is good or bad.’ You have to say, ‘Do this or do that because it will make for a better society, and here is the proof’. This is the topic of our recent publication ‘10 keys to effectively communicating human rights’.

That brings me then to the fifth of my seven, which has to do with data gathering methodologies. They have to be radically different today to the ones that we would have envisaged back 15 years ago. The UN already, about a decade ago, had started to develop new methodologies, but it did not go far with them. Indicators for human rights change in societies: they identified a triple categorisation of structural indicators, process indicators and outcome indicators. Today, we need to move this important work forward.

My Agency has been investing heavily in the population of the indicators to measure human rights change in Europe on some of our most intractable problems. On that basis, we do the world’s biggest surveys in the area of human rights, and these are pushing policymakers in Brussels to make the necessary changes. They are pushing them in the area of social rights and economic rights where you expect such data to be useful, but also in civil and political rights sectors.

Through surveying Jews in Europe, we have been able to wake up policymakers to how serious is the problem of antisemitism. We have just started work on a survey of Ukrainian women to measure the incidents of sexual violence that they have experienced, which in turn may feed into a prosecutorial strategy.

The sixth of my points has to do with what I would call the existential issues in our society today, quite outside human rights. The foundational questions that are preoccupying our societies and must inform our work, must be mainstreamed in our work. I will give you three examples. The first is gender. Again, we thought 15 years ago, by making reference to the equal rights of men and women and the importance of paying attention to gender, that we had done enough. Not so. We have learned in the last few years what a bad job we have done of understanding the different experiences of life by men and women, and how it is typically worse for a woman as opposed to a man. There is no argument anymore. We must gender everything we do, everything. I cannot think of a single element of human rights work that must not be gendered to disaggregate the different experiences of men and women in terms of the violation and the response.

The second is the environment. We are at the end. That clock ticking towards midnight is about 10 seconds from midnight, and it is not obvious that we are going to be able to save our planet. That is why I say existential. And so it has to be built deep into human rights work in terms of support for human wellbeing and the role human rights must play in climate action.

Then the third existential dimension that I have come to appreciate in the last few years is the legacy of colonialism. For those of us from the Global North who purport to do human rights work around the world, we have got to acknowledge and understand the extent to which colonialism has led to today’s problems and have to interrogate ourselves to make sure that we are not adopting colonialist models in how we ourselves engage.

The seventh and the final thought I want to leave with you has to do with that statement of ethics that we developed 15 years ago. We kept it separate to the principles, and we had a difficulty back then to understand what is the relationship of human rights law and ethics? Some said, ‘You do not need ethics. You have got human rights law, that is the ethical roadmap.’ But we worked out on reflection that human rights law was of very little help to us in making our choices every day. The law was very important, but it did not help us make those day-to day-personal choices of what to do and how to do it and so on, how to relate to our organisation.

We came to appreciate that a moral code was vital for our work. On that basis, we came up with our statement of 18 ethical commitments. I read them again to prepare for today. I must say they remain very fresh. They are fit for purpose. In fact, it occurred to me, we need them more today than we ever needed them 15 years ago because today, for better or for worse, we have multiple ethics at play in our societies. We are in an era of ethical relativism, whereas effective human rights work needs to be based on a commonly shared code.

Dear friends,

I hope these thoughts will assist your reflections. Ultimately my hope is that this will support even more effective human rights field work – in the service of our fellow human beings.

Thank you

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