OSCE Human Dimension Conference

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director, Michael O’Flaherty delivers a keynote to the opening plenary of the OSCE Human Dimension Conference in Warsaw on 2 October.

Thank you very much Chairperson, Minister, President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Secretary General and other members of the OSCE leadership, Excellencies, colleagues, and friends.

Thank you for the invitation, it is a great honour to be with you today.

There has been much mention of anniversaries already this afternoon. We heard from Teresa just now, on 30 years of World Press Freedom Day; I could add the anniversary of the Paris Principles for human rights institutions. Last Friday, we marked the close of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. But above all, I too would focus on that most seminal of all: 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is good that it was mentioned repeatedly today, because it is impossible to overstate its importance. The Declaration is the bedrock on which everything has subsequently been built in terms of human rights; the laws, the standards, the institutions, and the content of the third basket of the Helsinki Accords and all that has followed in the life of this organisation.

But what is perhaps less well acknowledged, less well noted is the extent to which the Universal Declaration declares that human rights are not just the key to honouring human dignity; they are fundamental for peace. In the very first paragraph of the Preamble of the Declaration, we read “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

I have had the great privilege over the last 30 years to see what that looks like in practice, to witness how human rights does contribute importantly to the establishment of peace.

I first saw it back in Bosnia-Herzegovina 30 years ago, when I was working for the UN in support of the mandate of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the great Polish statesman who had been appointed as the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur for that region. He, and we, working together with a mission of the then ‘CSCE’, undertook what was among the first human rights monitoring in the times of conflict. We were struck by the extent to which, over time, the human rights monitoring in that war helped to shape the peace, helped to frame the peace, ensure that there were strong human rights commitments in the peace agreement. In the longer term, we saw how human rights monitoring led to criminal accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A few years later, I was in Sierra Leone in West Africa, and here I saw another dimension. I saw how human rights civil society is so central to engaging the great issues of war and peace. I saw in the middle of war, how in the chaos, it was human rights civil society, together indeed with faith communities, that kept the ember of hope alive, that kept the defence of human dignity to the forefront. And then, in the peace process, I saw how human rights civil society played a central role in shaping the Lomé Peace Agreement, which has held ever since.

Some years later, I found myself in Northern Ireland, leading its national human rights institution, founded under a peace agreement- the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which has its 25th anniversary this year. What struck me, in leading that Commission, was how the human rights elements of the peace agreement were part of why the agreement had stuck, why peace had been sustained. There was the establishment of the NHRI, but there was also a human rights-based reform of the police, and a very strong locking-in of the human rights commitments in law.

Today, within the context of my leadership of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, I see the interface of human rights and conflict right now in the context of the Russian aggression and the receipt of four million into the European Union under a piece of law, the Temporary Protection Directive, which in itself, was designed in large part to reflect and honour human rights commitments.

In a broader context, I have seen in the EU in these past years, how the formal explicit commitment to rights and the establishment of related institutions – and by the way, there is much still that needs to be fixed – is the reason why it would be unthinkable for any EU Member State to go to war with another EU Member State. In large part, this is because of the commitment to human rights. I have seen how that is not a one-stop initiative, it is not something that is done and can be moved on from; it is something that requires constant investing and strengthening, to guarantee peace.

That is the context in which I welcome the Istanbul Convention coming into force for the EU yesterday. It is the context for the strengthening of the EU Rule of Law toolbox, for the promotion of equality and for the combat of racism.

But going forward, how can we maintain this role of human rights? How can we ensure that it continues to be a foundation for peace? For my own work, and that of my Agency, I would like to briefly suggest four areas – none of which will come as a surprise.

The first is the imperative to stand up for civil society. It is under pressure everywhere. In the context of our work in the EU, we see regulatory pressure, financial pressure, threats and intimidation, lack of access to decision-makers. We see pressure on faith communities in many places, and on national human rights institutions. As many speakers have done this morning, we acknowledge the primordial significance of these communities in standing up for human rights. I want to encourage that we keep that focus, and I commend civil society present here today for its courage, leadership, and inspiration. I commend also ODIHR, and the other parts of the OSCE for the work you do.

Secondly, I need to say very little about this as Teresa has done so very eloquently before me, is the need to keep investing in strong, independent, and pluralist media and in the tackling of disinformation, online and elsewhere. Let me move on from this point by acknowledging, with the deepest of respect, the work of the Representative on Freedom of the Media.

Third, the courts. It is essential that we continue to invest in strong, independent, well-resourced courts, so that they are able to do their job as primary guarantors of human rights in our societies. Again, I acknowledge how much cooperation we have been able to have with different parts of the OSCE in this essential work.

Fourth, and finally, and as was said to eloquently by speakers before me, standing up for human rights is essentially about standing up for people. I would suggest that it is ultimately about standing up for the most peripheral people, the most invisible people, the people on the edges not able to do it for themselves because of the extent to which they have been moved to the sidelines. I think today of the people who both remain and who have left Nagorno-Karabakh. I think of all national minorities elsewhere, and I recall the important mandate of your High Commissioner.

But I think of so many other groups as well. The one that is predominant in my mind is that with which we have had the honour of working very closely, in association with ODIHR, and that is the Roma community. The Roma community, to my mind, is one of the most important communities most at risk in our societies and must continue to receive high attention as we work together with that community to improve its lived experience.

As I conclude, I would like to reassure this distinguished gathering that, within its mandate, the Fundamental Rights Agency will stay with you, will continue to accompany you in the vital work of the OSCE.

Dear friends, as we go forward, I acknowledge that the situation is deeply challenging. Perhaps more challenging than at any other time in this generation. Some of us may be tempted to despair. But I argue that we need hope. We must be hopeful; indeed, we have a duty to be hopeful. That’s about knowing, from our own experience – the vast experience in this room – that change can happen, and happen for the better. Meetings such as this, organisations such as this can make the life experience better for human beings out there on the streets. But in any case, I suggest what we need to do today is to embrace the definition of hope that was given to us by Václav Havel: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well; it is the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Thank you.

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