Fundamental Rights Forum closing speech

Michael O'Flaherty
FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty, gives his closing remarks during the Fundamental Rights Forum in Vienna on 12 October during the session 'Building a vision of hope: Where do we go from here?'

Dear friends,  

It is over. Two extraordinary days. Days that I would describe as astonishing have come to a close.  

You have heard all the statistics. You do not need to hear from me again how many sessions there were.  

We have had a worldwide audience. We have had people on every continent. We have had people in Russia, in China, in Afghanistan.  

We have had, on average, 2 000 people in any given moment, online, engaging in the Forum. 

Six hubs that have done a wonderful job. And, of course, the sheer vastness of the effort here in the Vienna City Hall, in room after room, over the last two days.  

Because the Forum has been so large, none of us has been able to be part of all of it. We all had to make choices. We have only been able to engage a fraction of the event. That is why it is impossible for me to sum up the Forum in any objective manner at this point.  

However, I have observed, at least in those parts where I have participated, some very clear and consistent elements. I will give you just three.  

The first one is that we have not been at all theoretical. We have been extremely applied in every discussion I have participated in. It has not just been about the purity of an idea. It has been about the fixing of a problem.  

Take, for example, the discussion about artificial intelligence. It had a quality to it, throughout the rooms.  

Second, I have been struck, and this is unusual in events like this, by how very honest everybody is and how very personal our speakers have chosen to be. They did not just tell us about stuff. They told us about themselves.  

I think of the High Commissioner Bachelet, who linked her work today with her experience back home as a child.  

Very closely related to that last point, I have been struck by how very respectful everybody has been in their engagements throughout the two days.  

Take, for example, the difficult discussion among the faith and the non-faith communities around the Article 17 Dialogue session. There was wide disagreement, but with great courtesy, mutually, to each other. 

In that context, what are my takeaways?  

Let me throw my own takeaways to those that we heard of from the panel. For me there are five “shout outs” from the Fundamental Rights Forum 2021.  

The first shout out is “Wake up”.  

I spoke about the extent to which the human rights system is under threat. Emily O'Reilly spoke of this incremental erosion that can happen without us even noticing it. But, during the two days, I developed a sense that I need to wake up to more than the system itself being under threat.  

Even more broadly, multilateralism is under grave threat at the present time. And as we heard this afternoon from Manuel Barrios Prieto and others, the EU itself cannot be complacent. It is not a permanent, infallible organisation guaranteed to live into the ever future. It too is under threat.  

And Agnès Callamard reminded us that we have to acknowledge the level of human rights abuse that we find within the EU as much as externally. And I can only agree, that is the core element of what the EU Fundamental Rights Agency works on.  

This dimension of waking up to the level of crisis was captured by Eva Schloss. I too need to quote Eva Schloss and that is maybe the most impressive single element of this entire Forum for me.  

As she described her experience of growing up as a Jew in Vienna, and then the appalling experience she had of the Second World War, she found herself saying: “I do compare it, that whole experience, to what is happening now. Not only now but for too many years.”  

And if anything captured that sense of needing to wake up for me, that was it.  

But then once we wake up, what do we do?  

Well, for me the takeaway, the shout-out here, is “Join up”. Joining up is at the very essence, the heart of the Forum. 

The Forum is all about bringing everybody who cares about human rights together to talk to each other about protecting human rights. This was well captured in a comment of Richard Köhler from Transgender Europe who said: “We will win a lot by standing together, but we will lose it if we are divided. We will be more concerned with infighting rather than recognising what we have in common”. He very much echoed that spirit, the whole logic behind the Forum.  

As I listened to the discussions over the last two days, I realised that our effort to join up has to go deeper than even what we have tried here at the Forum.  

I was struck by what Maurits de Haan, the young man from the Netherlands, said about how people with chronic illnesses are typically, normally always excluded from the decision-making room. And that is a very real and serious exclusion, but it is just one of so many that we have to seek out and rectify.  

In joining up, we have to develop a mutual literacy. Phillip McDonagh said that we need to find a vocabulary to be able to speak to each other.  

One example that came strongly through in the discussions on social rights over the last two days is the need for the human rights lawyers and the economists to find words, to speak to each other about their shared and common concern.  

But then once we are joined up, we have to – and here is my third shout-out – “Wise up”. Now, this notion of wising up has at least two dimensions. 

The first one is, that we have to acknowledge the skill of the adversary. We have to appreciate the extent that those who are struggling to deconstruct human rights respect are smart. They know what they are doing. They have a game plan. There are philosophies underlining them and we have to engage that. We have to engage with the same serious purpose with which they are seeking to destroy what has been achieved.  

Take, for example, the anti-gender movement we were reminded by Josefine Paul today, of how very smart and very well organised it is. And we have to be equally smart as we push back against it and its awful manifestations.  

I was at the World Pride in Copenhagen a few weeks ago and I heard of how the anti-gender movement is triggering a risk of suicide among trans people, because they feel that their very human identity is being denied in the context of that rhetoric.  

The second of the two dimensions of wising up is about the need for us to improve our toolbox. 

We have to take the tools out of the box and we have to repair them. And we have to add new tools if we are to be effective in engaging with the great issues.  

Many examples came through over the last few days. One was the need for us to do better in gathering the data and making the business case for our claims. It came through very strongly in the context of promoting equality and social rights.  

The second and final example that I would give has been much discussed, so I can be brief – that is the issue of how we need to do better at communicating our messages.  

Smart communication is about finding new and different voices to deliver the message. And my goodness, how very effective drama and music have been over the last two days to convey human rights messages. Arguably, the most effective communicators of us all over the last 48 hours.  

The next takeaway I am capturing with the words “Catch up”.  

We have to catch up with the world. And here I am referring to the digitalisation of our lives. It is so commonplace to discuss it that I actually think we still fail to grasp its sheer breadth and its ubiquity, and the extent to which it is invading our every human space.  

Echoing the discussion about regulation, it is imperative that we meaningfully engage with artificial intelligence and digitalisation. My takeaway from the interesting discussion with Iain Levine of Facebook was that it is hugely complex. This is not about the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’. It is not about ‘we are right, they are wrong’. But the debate requires an acknowledgement of the complexity at the technical levels, at the legal levels and the ethical levels.  

And then finally, my fifth and my final shout out from the Forum is “Listen up”.  

The most dominant element of all is the need to listen to, to engage, to bring into the house the voices of young people. Not because they are the future. But because they are now.  

Young people need to be involved in the discussion about now and they need to be at its heart. And my goodness, that message came through so strongly from so many speakers over the last two days.  

Take Luisa Neubauer, she said: “I am completely optimistic. You know, youth is unstoppable. As soon as we have opened our eyes to inequality and opportunity, you cannot get in our way. We know that just an equal world is possible and necessary, and we can make it.”  

That is the self-confidence and the integrity and the straightforward honesty of youth.  

And Věra Jourová also had a memorable quote on exactly the same point. She said: “It is high time that young people get their lives and voices back and do what they do best: question, debate, discuss, shake up us politicians.”  

In the context of the centrality or need for the centrality of a young voice, I am very glad to say that on a pure statistical average, young voices where the dominant voices in this Forum. I am very proud of that. Most of the 500 voices in the structured discussions were young people.  

I also recommit today to a continuation of the dialogues with young people by the Fundamental Rights Agency.  

The last aspect of ‘listen up’ that came through very loudly in the Forum is that it also requires that we stop working for people and that we always insist on working with people.  

It is so central, the rights holders, the people in whom we invest, must be our partners in our effort for the promotion and the protection of human rights. This came through very strongly from sessions with migrants and with members of the Roma community, just to take two examples over the last few days.  

So then, how do I wrap up?  

Let me make some personal final observations in answering the question: “What's my own spirit at the end of these two days?”  

Yesterday, I said I was indignant. I am still indignant. I am indignant at the way in which we humans can mess around with the lives of our fellow humans. That makes me really crossed. 

That has not gone away. But on top of that I have got a strong sense that I am not alone. 

I have this sense that the human rights community is a strong community. It is a large passionate, committed and determined group of people across the world. And together we can make a difference, so none of us is alone as we go forward.  

Another dimension of my spirit is that I feel newly empowered by the proceedings over the last two days. I feel better enabled to do my work. I have a sense that my hope, because I am and remain hopeful, that my hope for a future built on respect for human rights is a well-placed one. It is a more nuanced hope today than it was yesterday, but it is an entirely justified hope.  

And so, with that, my dear friends, all that is left for me to do is to thank so many people.  

I want to thank the 3,000 of you who participated in the Forum. The, on average, 2,000 of you who we know are out there online right now, the few hundred people who are here in the room. I want to thank those 500 speakers. I want to thank the marvellous moderators who have led us over the last few days.  

I want to express my deepest appreciation to the city of Vienna for the extraordinary generosity in making the Vienna City Hall available to us, as well, of course, to the hubs and to the organizers of the hubs across Europe.  

I thank the technical crew for their wonderful job over the last two days.  

I have been in many hybrid events in the last two years and this one worked better than many. I have seen a lot more go wrong than I have seen here and I thank you for that. 

I would like to thank my colleagues at the Fundamental Rights Agency for your marvellous work, in particular to the Forum team leaders Nicole Romain and Miltos Pavlou.  

And so, dear friends, the Fundamental Rights Forum 2021 draws to a close. We will see you soon.  

Thank you very much.