10 December 2021

FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty - Human Rights: what are we required to do for each other?

The Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, Michael O’Flaherty, welcomes the launch of the Philanthropy Europe Association (Philea), the merger of the European Foundation Centre (EFC) and the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (Dafne), on 7 December 2021.


Dear friends, Thank you so much for inviting me to join you today. It's my honour to be with you.

I'm sure you'll agree with me that we're all living through really complex and challenging times.

I'm recording this from Vienna where we're back in a lockdown as I guess are many of you.

We've been in and out of these restrictions and restraints now for almost two years and I think we're all exhausted.

And you know it's just exhausting for us but think of how Covid has exposed the inequalities in our society. How very unfair the impacts of Covid have been in terms of their impact across the different people in our communities.

I'm struck by how Covid has challenged the logic of our societies. How all of a sudden, the most important workers are the ones that we have valued least, at least in terms of economic aspects.

We in the Fundamental Rights Agency are keeping track sadly of the extent to which authorities in so many places are using the period of Covid to take advantage to limit human and fundamental rights.

As if all of this weren't enough my friends, it's happening in a moment of epochal change. Take just two maybe the most fundamental dimensions.

The first is climate change. We're at the end of the line. We're having to manage that in the middle of this crisis period. And then secondly there's the digitalization of our societies and our lives and I get a sense that it's truly only now that our world has woken up to the sheer scale, the inevitability and the comprehensiveness of the role of AI for every aspect of our well-being.

So without a doubt we need all to take stock right now, to stop, to reflect, to figure out are we in the right place and from whatever place we should be in, how we go to the future.

Well I'd suggest, like to suggest to you a group bonded to each other and with whom I feel a close bond by the pursuit of human well-being and of human thriving that we can put human rights at the heart of our where we are now and where we go. And I can sum that up very simply by suggesting that we look afresh at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as our core roadmap.

The declaration is pretty old now – 1948. But it has stood the test of time, it deserves to be shaken off and given a new lease of life if you will.

Look at its core central notion of human dignity. It's about the person not about people, the person.

The person with all the value at the heart of the project.

It's about the universality of human rights, the fact that we're all equal, we should at least aspire to a world where everybody is perceived with equal honour, equal integrity, indeed, equal dignity.

It's about the need to pursue and deliver, not only civil and political rights, but also economic social and cultural rights. And then last, but not least at all, is a sense to which the Universal Declaration is about human responsibilities.

It's not just about what the state can do for us, it's what we are required to do for each other.

Now as we build the world that's visioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are many actors with critical roles. The role of strong stable democratic states is of a vital importance, obviously. So too is the health of the multilateral organizations, be they global or regional such as here in Europe with the European Union and the Council of Europe. There's a vital role for civil society.

A civil society which is under unacceptable threat in too many places. And then within all of this, somehow woven into this, there's the role of philanthropy.

I've had the opportunity to see from the outside if you will the role of philanthropy for good in our societies for many years.

Way back, I got my first job in the United Nations as a human rights monitor in the former Yugoslavia. Not because the Member States of the UN provided the money but because a philanthropist saw that this is something the UN should be doing. And out of that act of philanthropy began a tradition which has blossomed and mushroomed into a world network of UN human rights monitors today.

To take one very different example, years later I was involved with other scholars and activists to draw better attention to the protection of the human rights of members of the LGBTI communities.

Ours was an ambitious plan to lay out a set of principles that could help shape law and policy.

Many people wouldn't touch the project. Philanthropists did. They saw the long-term value in what was then for them a somewhat risky exercise.

And so it's then fuelled with those experiences that I’ve come to understand how philanthropy can be so very principled, how it can deliver so much good and how it does it by playing the long game.

It's in that spirit that I so warmly welcome and endorse the establishment of the coming together in the context of Philea.

I love the name. I love the way it reengages us with the Greek origin roots of the word philanthropy.

Philanthropy in other words is about one of the highest forms of love.

It's a love, not of the philanthropist or to the benefactor, but it's the love of the equal to the equal.

It's a love that's steadfast and solid long-lasting. It's a partnership in which you can have trust.

Philea is the love with which the warrior guards the gates of the city, not just the access through those gates but the city as a place of values.

And so then, it's in this spirit that I make three modest suggestions as you go forward from this day. And these are drawn from my experience and I hope they're of some value to you.

The first is that, as you look at the problems and challenges in society, as you seek where to build a philanthropic partnership, I would urge you, go from the outside in, go from the periphery to the centre.

Above all, put your focused attention on those people who are marginalized, who are excluded.

It's only by bringing them into - working with them rather - to come into the centre that we can have societies of which we can be proud. Their inclusion is a test of the equality of our societies.

The second dimension that I would urge today is to work with young people. Young people are astonishing.

In 2021, if you were to take my take home from 2021, it's the power of young people, the resilience the quality of the ideas, the determination, the capacity to challenge us all to do a better job.

And then the final, third dimension, of what I would suggest to you today is, do what you do with hope.

Hope is not just some abstract virtue, hope is not wishful thinking. I believe that hope in a better society is evidence-based.

I see it every day, side by side with the horrors that I encounter as I travel around the tough issues and places of Europe, I also see the seed of a better future.

I see how astonishing humanity is, I see how great people are. And it's based on that conviction that I look forward to all of us going forward together to realize the dream of the Universal Declaration of a world free and equal where everyone lives together in dignity and in rights.

Thank you.