Standing Up for the Rights of the People of Ukraine

Michael O’Flaherty
Ukrainian flag with ribbon of solidarity.
tarasgarkusha © adobestock.com, 2023
FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty lecture to the Vienna Diplomatic Academy on 16 November 2023 recognises how Europe stands with Ukraine and calls for human rights to take centre stage in reconstruction plans.

Ambassador Brix, dear friends, I thank you for the invitation to deliver this speech as part of your series of lectures on current issues. It is a great honour to speak here, in an institution so established it has links to Empress Maria Theresa, and where dialogue, knowledge and language are promoted as the cornerstones of building and maintaining relationships across borders and around the world. People who have stood here before me, from alumni to directors, have helped to shape developments in Austria, the EU and internationally, using the skills they learned in the Academy to navigate our increasingly complex and globalised societies.

I have seen first-hand how diplomacy and dialogue can contribute to the development of human rights systems, and lead to a visible improvement in the lives of so many people. In my 30-year career in human rights, my belief in the power of constructive conversation has been reaffirmed, time and time again.

I was in Bosnia during the war there and I saw how the language of human rights played such a central role in establishing the peace. In Sierra Leone, I witnessed how human rights arguments, made by my colleagues and myself, helped to save lives. They helped, for instance, to save people from being executed. Also, in Sierra Leone, I experienced the inspiring collaborations by various groups – civil society organisations, faith groups, all working together towards the shared goal of a better future. In Northern Ireland, where I led the National Human Rights Commission, I saw how the respect for the human rights commitments written into the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement contributed to the sustained peace. This respect was shared by police forces and politicians, and within previously divided communities.

The careful fostering of language and the delicate cultivation of relationships should be especially celebrated this year. 2023 is a year of anniversaries, most notably, the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 30th of the Vienna World Conference – two landmarks for a hopeful future, representing the best aspirations of humankind.

The UDHR, in particular, with its remarkable breadth, scope and sophistication, is testament to the power of diplomacy, dialogue and positive, cooperative relationships. It reflects the extensive preliminary reflections of diplomats, philosophers, and jurists, as well as of the diverse global backgrounds of the core drafting team.

The more prominent members of that team were P.C. Chang of China, Charles Malik of Lebanon, Rene Cassin of France, and, as chairperson, Eleanor Roosevelt of the US. Recent studies have demonstrated how elements of the Declaration were inspired by sources as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and Confucius.  In summary, I think it is fair to say that the Universal Declaration constitutes a unique vocabulary, a language, to give meaning and content to the concept of human dignity.

The UDHR Preamble grandly says that “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”.

And yet, as we mark these anniversaries with praise and celebrations, they take place against the backdrop of rising conflict and violence, of an ever-increasing decline in the respect paid to the rights and obligations they promote, and of a growing anxiety for a future far-removed from that for which the drafters had hoped.

Ukraine and the EU

This speech is about standing up for the people of Ukraine. That is where I will begin, before turning to some wider observations about human rights, peace, and security.

Why start with Ukraine? Firstly, because Russia’s war of aggression is existential for Europe. If Russia can win, then we may see a domino effect as other states fall to Russian aggression. The future of the European Union is at stake, make no mistake. Secondly, if Russia is allowed to prevail, everything that we have put in place since World War Two – the Europe of principles and values – is repudiated. The post-war European project will have failed.

What is more, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine casts a long and dark shadow westward. We can scarcely think of human rights in Europe in isolation from Ukraine. There is the existential threat I have mentioned. But then of course, the nature and scale of the situation has given rise to profound challenges across a whole range of areas – asylum and borders, integration, socio-economic rights, discrimination and hate crime, to name a few.

But what to do?

The first thing is simply to reiterate what an abhorrent act of aggression this has been by Putin’s Russia, resulting in an appalling toll of human suffering. It is a human tragedy – with thousands of needless deaths, deep trauma experienced by a whole nation, and millions of people displaced from the land they call home. It exposes a disregard for and renouncement of international norms and standards that governments, organisations and individuals have spent years building.

Our abhorrence must be matched by action.

While EU Member States provide substantial military support, the EU has unlocked more than 20 billion euros in funds, and triggered its Temporary Protection Directive for the first time – of the eight million Ukrainians who have been forced by Russia’s aggression to seek safety in Europe, four million have received temporary protection in the EU. Fully one third of these are children, including a million under the age of 14. The human rights of the people of Ukraine and fundamental rights protection in the EU are profoundly interconnected, and people right across the EU, from governments, to local authorities, to people on the street, opening their doors and welcoming refugees, understand that.

FRA and Ukraine – the story so far

The Fundamental Rights Agency has made Ukraine a clear priority since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022. Almost immediately, we visited the borders of the four EU Member States neighbouring Ukraine and published our findings from the missions. We have since produced three detailed reports, one on the application of the Temporary Protection Directive for civilians fleeing Ukraine, a second on the situation of Ukrainians settling across the EU, and a third on the situation of children fleeing Ukraine and finding protection in the EU. Soon we will publish another report on the challenges facing local authorities in their efforts to implement the temporary protection directive, but also great examples of innovative good practice by European municipalities and regions.

We also carried out a major survey capturing the experiences of 14,500 people displaced from Ukraine in ten EU countries – their experiences in the ordinary business of life, including language, housing, education, the cost of living, and health, including mental health. We prepared a practical tool for supporting unaccompanied children. Our 2023 Fundamental Rights Report began with a lead chapter on Ukraine.

Our commitment to this type of work is not waning. We are currently preparing a survey on women who have fled Ukraine into Czechia, Germany, and Poland on their experiences of sexual violence, and will publish this in 2024.

We have gathered so much evidence from our work. We have collected the experiences of thousands of people, including children, women, members of the Roma community, disabled persons. We have heard stories of deep trauma experienced by those fleeing, of challenges faced by people starting a new chapter of their lives in a new country, and of the hope and ambition held by people in respect of their post-war plans.

Above all, three threads emerge from the overall story of our reporting.

  1. The first is that the solidarity and kindness of many people across the EU has been a tremendous and deep resource – including in the high levels of sympathy for people arriving from Ukraine, and from the extraordinary numbers of people willing to open their homes to strangers.
  2. The second is that, although governments across the EU have done much to welcome and make life liveable for people arriving from Ukraine, in reality the practical obstacles are very considerable – including language barriers affecting access to employment and participation in education, the lack of capacity to address deep psychological needs arising from experiences of trauma, and serious financial worries, as well as the affordability of housing – in a context where the cost of living has been rising rapidly. Arising from all of FRA’s work in respect of Ukraine is the need for systematic collection of up-to-date and comprehensive disaggregated data, which can allow for evidence-based policy design, both in terms of immediate provision of services and supports, and in planning for any future integration. Take, for example, the particular case of children. There is no comprehensive national data available on the number of them displaced in the EU. Only about one third of Member States regularly update and publish the data they do have. There is no cohesion between States when welcoming unaccompanied or separated children – countries deal with the issue of guardianship in very different ways. Many countries may collect data on when children arrive, but do not know when children leave, and so cannot update that data. Without this information, we cannot provide targeted and useful supports. We cannot know how much mental health help those suffering from trauma and anxiety need. Or how to ensure that children evacuated en masse from Ukrainian institutions have access to critical supports and services.
  3. The third thread emerging from our work is that it is not all about solidarity. Some Ukrainians, especially Roma, have not always been welcomed. People fleeing Ukraine have faced the threat of trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation, which is a particular worry since the overwhelming majority of those fleeing are women – many of them with caring responsibilities. As the war continues, governments and communities are now re-evaluating the open arms with which they welcomed people; the rhetoric is shifting in some places towards a more negative discussion about the ongoing cost and stretched resources required to host Ukrainian refugees.

FRA and Ukraine – looking ahead

In recent months, there has been a noticeable shift towards looking forward to Ukraine’s future. With the European Commission having now given its backing to accession talks with Ukraine, it is time to look to a future in which FRA will have a more direct role within the country.

My Agency is looking forward to when it can work with Ukraine on the reconstruction of what we hope will soon be a post-conflict state. This will require Ukraine to seek observer status with the Agency, which is something that I will continue to encourage in every engagement with Ukrainian officials. Indeed, it will be a central tenet to interventions I will make, in an upcoming trip to Kyiv.

But how can re-construction be supported? In recent months, we have witnessed much discussion of the issue. While these forward-looking conversations are to be welcomed, I continue to be surprised by one glaring gap: attention to the role of human rights. For sure, there is acknowledgement of how economic and other reconstruction strategies are in large part about improving human wellbeing; there is a welcome focus on the recovery of abducted children and other prisoners; there is the strong attention to criminal accountability. But, aside from assessment reports of the European Commission in respect of the prospect of accession, there is little about the specific role in reconstruction of human rights laws, standards, and institutions.

I find this odd since I know that paying explicit attention to human rights can set a State on a path towards a better future. I have personally seen this repeatedly, through my work in conflict and post-conflict countries across the world.

International human rights law is a comprehensive road map. It addresses every aspect of our lives. It guides difficult choices, for instance about the delivery of scarce resources. It puts the most vulnerable in our societies at the front of the queue. It demands respect for the diverse mosaic of our societies. And it is backed up by an array of international monitoring and expert bodies to support its implementation. What’s more, it is law. It is binding on Ukraine as well as on all States that will support that country’s reconstruction.

Putting human rights at the heart of planning for reconstruction would require three things:

First, to bring human rights expertise into the room. The think tanks and organisations that are imagining what the Ukrainian future might look like, need to work with the human rights expert colleagues that most of them have.

Second, they need to bring all human rights to bear – for sure it will be about respecting civil and political rights, but social, economic, and cultural rights are no less important.

Third, it is essential to work out pathways to the future in full, deep, and respectful consultation with the Ukrainian government and other national institutions. It is no less important to engage with Ukrainian human rights experts and more broadly with the country’s rich and diverse civil society.

Human rights and security

My friends, while focused today on Ukraine, I cannot but be mindful of the other dreadful, raging conflicts. There is the horror of the conflict in Israel and Gaza – with fears that it could spread in the Middle East. And then, of course, there is the renewed fighting in Sudan. I must restrain myself from commenting directly upon these conflicts, as they fall outside of FRA’s mandate. But like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict between Israel and Hamas reaches right into the heart of the EU – with shocking and alarming incidents of antisemitic and anti-Muslim hatred, and very real risks that governments overreach in clamping down upon legitimate forms of protest and expression in response.

The resurgence of conflict asks deep questions of Europe and its identity and values. We must ask ourselves: What are the values that we choose to stand by? And will we be able to do so?

We know, of course, that Europe is not, and has never been, a walled garden. That infamous metaphor, for which Josep Borrell has rightly apologised, has always been a mirage. But we see the truth of this very clearly today. Europe bears a heavy burden of history, Europe carries huge geopolitical responsibility, and Europe is profoundly affected by the anarchy and human suffering in the world because we are so interconnected.

And this is an era of growing militarisation – including within the EU. What we are seeing is partly a response to the invasion of Ukraine and its consequences, and also because of heightened ‘great power’ competition in the world.

Militarisation is not a topic for FRA to comment upon directly, but it does confront us with a changing context that we have to acknowledge. And in this context, I want to make a plea for renewed attention to the relationship between human rights and security.

Human rights exist to help secure the conditions for peace. As we see the proliferation of conflict, the increasing number of deaths, the forced migration that it causes, the weight of suffering, and the deep challenges to global order, we need to respond in a way that is deeply anchored and committed to human rights.

Human rights and security do not exist in an ‘either/or’ relationship. In the end, they serve the same purpose: achieving the right conditions for people to live fulfilling, peaceful, dignified lives. In this time of renewed conflict and growing disorder, we need to avoid the trap of thinking about human rights somehow standing in the way of security, and to think about human rights for security. Security without human rights is simply tyranny.

We have to stand up for a rights-based approach to human security – putting the wellbeing of humans at the centre of our conception of it. Security and insecurity cut across many domains: we speak of physical security, food security, energy security, cyber security. Where there is insecurity in one area, it is likely to create insecurity in others. So, the challenge is, how can we create the conditions for security across as many domains as possible?

Human rights can help to give us a vision of what true security looks like. For most people, living in times of peace, security means the most basic things: a roof over our heads, food to eat and water to drink, steady and decent work. Security is also about protection from violence, either from each other or from the State. These are precisely the conditions that human rights exist to protect and foster. And because of that, adding human rights to the equation yields better security outcomes.

And we must defend international humanitarian law – the laws of war which seek to protect civilians in conflict. The historian Yuval Noah Harari has noted that humankind has faced three great scourges throughout history: famine, plague, and war. We have made tremendous progress in addressing all three of them. But we are also seeing how we can take nothing for granted – with widening inequality, a pandemic, and a significant rise in war deaths in the past two years, which in 2022 hit their highest levels in almost 40 years.

In this context, we must recommit to international humanitarian law and demand respect for it everywhere and regardless of the context. The late and great Karel Schwarzenberg put it better than I ever could, when he prophesised what the violation of law would lead to. In 2014, regarding the annexation of Crimea, he said we are at “the end of a considerable and very successful period of peace in Europe. Because the moment a breach of law is accepted, the next one follows closely.”

Friends, I am not naïve or in denial. Much of what I am calling for will – at least for some of you – sound unrealistic, even unachievable. What is more, even the concept of human rights is increasingly challenged.

Recently, many of us in the human rights world have confronted a question mark over our vocations, our causes, our activism. Human rights – the very manifestation of what is right, and fair, and good in the world, a hard-fought-for concept - has been exposed as a fragile thing, which can be brushed aside by those who act as though there is a hierarchy of rights-holders. Increasingly, we have seen people of goodwill declining to hold these norms with the same trust and respect as do we. The temptation is to give up.

But I refuse to submit. I insist that human rights, as based in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as I said at the outset, constitute the only universally agreed roadmap to honour human dignity. There is no Plan B. And my refusal is also based on my hopefulness.


I draw my hope, for instance, from the courage of the people of Ukraine. I think of the solidarity shown to Ukraine and its people by the millions of citizens of Europe. Across our continent, in the encounters between ordinary people, I have seen how countless sparks have been struck – sparks of indignation at the affront to human dignity and the values that we hold. In our societies, there is a powerful sense that we stand for the antithesis of Russian aggression. This is the fertile ground in which we can have real hope for the future of human rights.  

Let the last words be those of the poet, Seamus Heaney:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Thank you.

See also