Exchange of views with the Ireland's Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty delivers his speech during the exchange of views with the Ireland's Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The event took place in Strasbourg on 6 July 2022.

Your Excellencies, I am delighted to be here. I deeply appreciate the honour of the invitation.

This day, 25 years ago, I was in Ukraine on behalf of the Council of Europe. I had the task, with some other colleagues, of building awareness of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I do not remember all of the meetings I had back then in Ukraine, but I have a very strong unforgettable memory of one night in Donetsk. I was sitting with coal miners, and through the interpreters talking about human rights with them. I will never forget how, at a certain moment in the evening, those people lit up with what they were being given through the European Convention. They were being giving an instrument through which they could change their lives and the lives of their families: a human rights pathway from the dreadful work conditions.

I remember that moment as one of the uplifting moments in my life, in terms of this work on human rights. But of course, I think of those men, those coal miners in Donetsk everyday right now, because Donetsk is in the eye of the storm. That reminds me that this extraordinary achievement, human rights, is so fragile. The fragility is something you discuss every day. You do not need me to do the prognosis again, but just some key elements.

It is about the war. War is the ultimate deprivation of human rights. It is not just about Ukraine, it is about the impact of the war beyond Ukraine. It is the impact of people who may face starvation because they cannot get grain. It is the impact everywhere, including in the Member States of the European Union. It is on top of the already very worrying patterns. We had, and still have, very serious problems of human rights abuse in many forms in many places. No country gets a completely clean bill of health in terms of delivering on respect for human rights.

Of course, in recent years we have had the added quality, through populism, of not only a violation of rights, but in too many places, too often, a repudiation of rights. So, we are in a very delicate moment in terms of protecting, preserving and strengthening the human rights system.

The issue now is how we push back, and the extent to which our pushback has to be done on the basis of very strong partnerships across all of the relevant actors - be they governmental, intergovernmental, civil society and whoever else.

It is in that spirit that I am delighted to report to you today that the cooperation between the Council of Europe and the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU is in excellent good health. It is demonstrated across numerous subject areas.

We build the cooperation between the Agency and the Council of Europe based on what I would describe as strong complementarities. I will mention just two. The first is the complementarity of our distinct mandates. If I may be very brief: you make law; we don't make law: we support the making of good law through our research, our evidence and our data.

This is illustrated at the Council of Europe in a number of interesting areas. One is artificial intelligence. We have followed very closely and engaged very closely with the former CAHAI committee (Ad hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence), which used our work extensively as background research findings to help inform its views. I have every expectation that the new CAI (Committee on Artificial Intelligence) working group will, in a similar way, find the work we do of use and of relevance.

I will turn to just one other area: migration. Here again, there is an effective complementarity. Take the relationship we have with the CPT (European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment). The CPT does the tough monitoring and identifies the clear applicable standards in the context of, for example, the detention of migrants. We take the CPT findings and we then hard-wire them into our capacity-building tools that we roll out with our EU Member States.

The second form of complementarity on which we base our cooperation has to do with the differing geographic scope of our work. We at the Agency engage with the 27 EU Member States with three observer states in the Western Balkans and you of course are a community of 46 Member States.

But that also works as a complementarity because human rights is, by nature, very often transnational in the way in which it manifests itself in terms of problems and solutions. So, we need some means to have an internal-external coherence, and our cooperation with you is very helpful in that regard. Take the situation again in Ukraine. We have no mandate whatsoever to engage inside Ukraine, but the Council of Europe does, and so I have cooperated very closely with Commissioner Dunja Mijatović in terms of her work with regard to Ukraine and ensuring its complementarity with what we, at the Fundamental Rights Agency, are doing inside the EU, including at the four EU Member States’ borders with Ukraine.

Another context for the benefit of geographic complementarity has to do with the way in which we are able to mutually share methodologies. The Fundamental Rights Agency does the world's largest surveys of what it is like to be a rights holder in a vulnerable group. There is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world: the experience of being a Jew, the experience of being a member of the LGBTI community, the experience of being a Roma, from a human-rights point of view. We commonly share these methodologies with the Council of Europe so that they can consider whether to do similar surveys in the non-EU Council of Europe Member States.

Of course, the partnership with the Council of Europe can be made ever stronger, and that is the spirit in which we engage with the issue. It is on that basis that, just a few months ago, we at the Agency changed our Rules of Procedure so that the Council of Europe could have a more explicit and formal role in commenting on our work planning. It is also the basis on which the senior managements meet annually.

As we go forward, be we in the EU, in the Fundamental Rights Agency or in a Council of Europe setting, we can draw on what I consider to be a really smart road map, that is the Presidency priorities under the current Presidency of the committee.

Let's take them one by one. The first one: our founding freedoms. It is a reminder that law is the bedrock of everything we do, and as soon as human rights discourse strays away from the norm, it gets lost and it gets compromised and it gets contested, and so we must constantly remind ourselves, our colleagues, our organisations to stay with the law, albeit it is often challenging. It is also challenging to figure out what the law is in an EU setting where we have the human rights standards of the United Nations, of the Council of Europe, increasingly of the EU. How does the practitioner navigate these bodies of law?

That is the context for two important cooperations, with the Council of Europe: the first is by far and away the most popular product, if I may call it that, namely our handbooks on European human rights law. It is a joint project with the European Court of Human Rights – on asylum law, on child rights law… upcoming on data protection, and on a number of other topics. The most recent was on child rights. The second is the European Fundamental Rights Information System, which is a technical tool to make sure that Council of Europe and UN findings are more visible where they apply to EU Member States, so they are properly taken account of as national policymakers move forward.

The second of the priorities is ‘Hear our voices’. Again, we think that this is absolutely fundamental. It is about participation. It is about honouring the rights holder as the co-equal partner in the human rights project. But again, it is incredibly easy to say and difficult to do. Let me flag here with appreciation how we have learned, walking together with the Council of Europe, what it means to have meaningful participation of the rights holder. I think in particular of the work we have done together and in partnership in the area of standing up for the human rights of the Roma communities.

As a dimension of ‘Hear our voices’, the Presidency has put a focus on young people and we also feel that this is extremely timely. Young people do not benefit from a treaty. We have treaties for everybody, we have treaties for children. We do not have treaties for young people, and their particular experience, their human rights experience, can be overlooked. That is very much the case after COVID. I would argue that ultimately we will see young people as the greatest victims of COVID. The loss of education opportunities, the prominence of young people in precarious employment, and on top of that I am repeatedly told by young people that they have ideas, but we are not listening.

And so it is on that basis that we have tried a number of experiments, again in cooperation with this House, including in the convening, every two years in Vienna, of the Fundamental Rights Forum, which is a formal space, predominantly for young people, to hear their views about where we should go in the work of human and fundamental rights. Out of the forum last year, we have triggered a set of structured dialogues with young people. I have just come from one in Paris a few weeks ago, we will have one in Prague later this year and they will continue and they will feed into various policy fora of the EU.

What are young people telling us? Just three headlines, repeated consistently, and extraordinarily because they come from different people in entirely different places. The same three core messages: a demand for social justice, a demand for the end of intolerance and discrimination, and a message that none of this will matter at all if we do not fix our planet. These are the three consistent messages.

The third of those priorities, which I like very much, is the one with the Irish word fáilte: ‘welcome’. I think that the concept of ‘welcome’ as a goal is actually a really beautiful one and an appropriate one for human rights. The human rights tent has to be a welcoming tent where everybody is treated with great dignity, a place where we do not tolerate diversity, a place where we celebrate diversity.

When I think of celebration of diversity in these early summer days, I think, of course, of the Pride month, which has just concluded, which is an astonishing celebration of diversity in the context of the LGBTI communities. Let me pause here to express appreciation, again, to the Council of Europe for its early leadership in this area. I was in one of these rooms 12 years ago, maybe 13, when the first discussions were taking place here about developing what would become the LGBT set of recommendations that was globally ground-breaking.

That was the beginning of the setting of the normative space, which I would argue led ultimately to such manifestations as the European Union's strategy on LGBTI rights and the work my Agency does today on measuring the delivery of human rights for the LGBTI community.

Let me conclude my point on this priority by saying that a celebration of diversity must be a celebration that embraces everybody on the edges of our societies. It has to include the Roma, as I mentioned earlier; it has to include victims of hate; it has to include the victims of antisemitism; it has to include our brave human rights defenders and journalists.

I would like to conclude with a few words towards the future. If you will, and I hope it is not considered offensive in these dark days, but I would like to offer some words of cautious optimism. A cautious evidence-based, I would argue, optimism for a future upholding of human rights and the human rights system.

What is my evidence for this? Well, the first, which I will just mention, is the remarkable resilience of our institutions. Our institutions have proven themselves in the years since their establishment after the Second World War. They have proven their ability to adapt. But let me not focus on that area which you are all experts on, and turn more generally to society. I see here also a basis for hope. I see evidence for the basic decency of our populations.

As I said, we are constantly surveying, in the EU setting, our populations for their attitudes to each other. And we are persistently seeing evidence of a belief in tolerance and of mutual respect from majorities. I see that evidence of tolerance reflected in social movements. Black Lives Matter is maybe the most famous one in recent years. That is a channelling of goodwill to bring about a social change. I find that encouraging.

Secondly, going more specifically to human rights, we have evidence that there is a surprisingly high level of awareness, explicit awareness, of human rights, and of the need to put human rights at the heart of our societies out there in our general populations. We did a survey two years ago, the Fundamental Rights Survey, the first of its kind ever done in the world, to measure attitudes to rights in our general populations.

We asked how many people had heard of the European Convention on Human Rights. An astonishing figure of 68% said that they were aware of the convention – much higher than anybody would expect – and just 1% lower, 67%, for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is impressive.

No less impressive and closely related is an experience I had. I spoke of Donetsk at the beginning, but just a few weeks ago, in the city of Cork in Ireland, I was sitting with members of the Traveller community. They invited me to come and listen to their situation, but what I did not expect to hear was how well-versed they were in human rights. They knew their rights; they were able to cite their rights; they were able to cite articles; they knew where to go with their complaints; they had strategies to bring about change through human rights. Again, this is a demonstration of a level of alertness that I would not have expected.

Finally, coming even narrower, and this is the last point I will make in terms of why I am hopeful. I would like to come back to the strength of the human rights movement: it is much bigger, much stronger, much richer than we often acknowledge. I referred earlier to the Fundamental Rights Forum in Vienna last October. The energy, the ideas, the passion, the commitment were deeply impressive. The breadth of engagement was no less impressive. It was not just the people you would expect in the room. It was not just those in government who work for human rights or human rights NGOs, they were there for sure; but it was musicians; it was artists; it was poets; it was people from the business world, from football – you name it – all coming together and self-identifying as a human rights movement. Again, this gives me cause for some encouragement.

Your Excellencies, Chair, notwithstanding the enormous challenges, I conclude by saying that we can still dream of the world set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a world where everyone is free and equal in dignity and in rights.

Thank you.

See also