How can we place human rights at the heart of our actions?

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty, joined leading voices for a TedTalk in Varese on 6 November where he shared his vision of human rights and innovation for a more inclusive and sustainable future.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights.

These are the words from Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human

Rights. For me these words are a fact, a vision and a challenge.

A fact because I believe that is exactly how we are born - free and equal. A vision because we have so far to go to realize that fact in reality in our World. And I will come back in just a few moments to why I see the words as a challenge.

Let me begin by sharing with you some memories from my life of when I have seen the astonishing power of human rights to transform lives.

I was in Bosnia during the war there and I saw how human rights standards and human rights institutions played such a central role in establishing the peace.

A few years later, I was in Sierra Leone during the Civil War there. I saw how legal arguments, human rights arguments, made by my colleagues and myself helped save lives. They helped for instance save people from being executed.

Some years later, I worked in Northern Ireland. There I saw how a police force that was once seen as an instrument of oppression was transformed by putting human rights at its corporate heart.

All of us every day see how our societies are changed by human rights. Take my own country Ireland. It was repeated judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that changed my society for the better. For instance, by the decriminalization of same-sex sexual activity.

In 2022, we saw how the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a group of activists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia who were fired up by human rights, by its vision driving them in their vital work.

What is this human rights that I am speaking about? It is a very old story, long in development. You could go back to 2500 years ago in Persia to see the origins of human rights. But the key date for us today is the 10th of December 1948 with the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted from a draft that was put together by authors from across the world. From the Declaration followed all those treaties and institutions that we see today here in Europe and across the world.

You can sum up the essence of this human rights machinery with four foundational principles. The first is that human rights engage all of our lived experience, all aspects of our lives. For sure it is about freedom of speech, it is about privacy. But it is also about our socioeconomic well-being. It is about basic issues of social security, such as shelter and health care.

The second dimension is that while some rights are absolute - you can never be enslaved for instance – most rights are subject to limitation in the public good. This is essential if we are to have societies and communities. We also had to limit our own rights in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

A third, very important dimension of the modern-day human rights system is that it is law. It is binding on States, it imposes duties on governments. That means that you can go into a courtroom and have your rights stood up for by the judges.

The fourth and the final dimension of these basic principles is the unique quality of the human rights system. There is nothing else like it. It is the only universally shared roadmap or language to show the way to honour human dignity and human values in our societies. Or to put it another way, there is no plan B.

Where is this astonishing achievement today in confrontation with the enormous challenges we see in our world?

This is arguably the most challenging moment for our human rights that we have seen in many generations. We have the war in Ukraine, the horror that it is inflicting for the people of Ukraine as well as for people right across the world. You have the story of Covid - not just the disease, the pandemic, but also our own responses to it.

We are in the end days of the climate crisis. Our future is at stake if we do not move quickly and smartly. We have a rampant crisis of disinformation across our societies – lies driving debate with terrible consequences for our institutions.

We are only now recognizing the legacy of colonialism and how so many of the problems we confront in the world today are in part because of that colonial history. Very closely related to that, we have shocking levels of inequality. The poor getting ever poorer, the rich getting ever more distant from the very poor.

In this moment of grave crisis, where is human rights? To at least some extent, it is missing in action. We do not see human rights at the centre of the responses to fix our societies and to advance them. Very often we see governments treating human rights like a buffet. I take those rights, that is useful. I will leave those rights behind on the buffet, they are just inconvenient.

Still worse, we are seeing a new a rejection of rights from some politicians and even some governments, saying: “I do not believe in those rights, we will no longer stay committed to those treaties.”

Another problem we see today is that human rights is often presented as an ideology, something strange, something to be controlled, something to be marginalized. And for most people out there on the street human rights are something vaguely good, but they say: “They are not about me, they are not about my family.”

We have got a big job to do. We have got to find ways to restore the promotion and protection of human rights, engage the law and the institutions for the well-being of our society in this moment of grave crisis.

Let me share with you four ‘shout outs’ on what we need to do now:

The first is, we have to ‘wake up’. We have to acknowledge what is at stake, what is at risk. The great French intellectual Stefan Hassell said on exactly this topic: “Indignez-vous!” Get furious! Do you realize what you are losing.

The second thing we need to do is ‘wise up’. We need to go back to human rights and get familiar with them again. If you read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights once, pick it up and read it again. Let's get human rights back into our school rooms, so that our children can learn about this extraordinary achievement.

Once we have wised up, we need to ‘act up’. We need to frame our claims for a better, fairer and more just society using the language of human rights. What would that look like in practice?

Take one of the most important issues for today – artificial intelligence. It is an astonishing development in our lives. It carries vast potential for human well-being, for thriving societies. But if it is not tamed, if it is not properly directed, it can bring enormous damage for us and for our communities, for the protection of human rights. A human rights approach to making our claims is one where we insist that the tech industry knows about human rights. Not just about privacy, but of all the impacted rights. It requires that the industry tests every application in every use context to see to what extent it might impinge on human rights. It requires that we demand to have strong institutions to oversee the use of artificial intelligence, overseeing bodies with the capacity, the resources and the knowledge to stand up for our human rights in the AI context. Of course, it demands that AI be transparent, so that we know when our rights have been affected and we can go somewhere to claim a remedy.

We have to do another thing. We have to ‘join up’. Human rights is about and for all of our society. Therefore, the whole society has to work together to achieve respect for those human rights. Take AI again. If it was left just to the human rights gang people like me, then we would not be successful. We need to sit together with the tech people, with the industrialists, with the scientists and even with philosophers to figure out what the problems are and what the fixes look like. Then we will have success.

There is one further dimension of joining up that I would like to mention. It is the extent to which human rights can play a role in joining us up across generations. A lot of trust has been lost in recent times. Younger people do not trust my generation because they see, quite correctly, that we have let them down. Older people do not trust any of us because they feel that they have been overlooked, forgotten, pushed to the side.

But this shared universal language of human rights which unites us all can provide the vocabulary for us to work across all of those generations to build a better society.

Let me leave you with the word of hope. I believe that we can reclaim the centre ground for human rights. I believe that what was achieved in 1948 and all the years since then has gone too far to be completely reversed. But I also draw hope from my personal experiences. I have shared memories with you earlier of hopeful moments in my career. Let me finish with just one more.

About 15 years ago, with a group of my colleagues I was very upset and worried about the extent to which members of the LGBTI communities were not having their basic human rights respected. We set about to do a map of the ways in which the existing human rights commitments applied to the lived experience of members of the LGBTI communities. We distilled these into a set of principles. They were published and they were quite impactful.

But the memory I want to share is that of a gay blogger who posted a few days after the principles were published and said: “Yesterday, I did not exist. Now I have read these principles, today I am a human being.”

It is memories like that that keep me going. It is memories like that that convince me that we can indeed realize the vision of a world where everyone is free and equal in dignity and in rights.

Thank you.

You can watch the talk here:


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