European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation graduation ceremony

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty addresses gradautes on 26 September 2021 in Venice during their Graduation Ceremony of the European Master’s Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation.

President, Secretary General, dear friends,  

Let me at the outset offer my own warm and sincere congratulations to all of you who are graduating today. It has been an extraordinary year, but you know that - you have lived through it. Well done to you and to all those who have supported you. Welcome to all the new students who are with us online.  

As I was preparing for today, I thought back to why I ever did a Human Rights degree: what motivated me all those years ago. In my case, it was two inspiring teachers who somehow convinced me and many others that human rights could make a dramatic change for the better in society.  

Now there are as many reasons as people in this room as to why you chose to study human rights, but my guess is that, at the essence, at the heart of your choice, was something just like mine: it was something about studying human rights in order to contribute towards making our societies that little bit fairer, that little bit more equal.  

Sometimes it is very challenging to keep the faith in the ability of human rights to make these changes. Every speaker today has quite correctly spoken to the shocking situation around the world.  

You do not have to go far away to see deeply disturbing patterns of neglect and abuse of human rights. Here within the EU too, we have much of which we cannot be proud.  

I think, for example, of the way populism for a number of years now has been eroding our systems, our structures, our rule of law.  

I think of the frankly shocking inequality in our European societies, a fact that has been made so visible in the context of COVID during the past year.  

I think, for instance, of a Roma child who last year was told to go home and distance learn, who was asked to go home to unsuitable, barely adequate accommodation and where he or she was expected to use a computer that they did not own, with an internet access that they did not have. Their parents were expected to support that child, even though the parents were probably out of work. It was bad work to start with, but now it was gone. They did not have access to social welfare and every day it was a choice between food or clothing just to survive. I think of the little Roma child that said to a colleague of mine: “I miss school, because school was the only place where I could dream”. 

We face a deeply worrying pattern of human rights abuse and deprivation everywhere on this Earth. On top of that, we also see in academic circles increasingly loud voices dismissing human rights, suggesting that human rights is yesterday’s agenda, yesterday’s way, and suggesting to build better societies or better models that we should follow.  

With all of this, where do we look for our hope? Where do we look for the confidence to get us out of bed in the morning and do the human rights work we either are already committed to or are embarking on? 

Last year, a group of friends of mine came together virtually. There were seven or eight of us from all over the world working in widely differing settings and contexts, and in as many countries as were individuals on the call. 

We met about 10 times to figure out for ourselves where we would find the hope to keep on going. I would like to share with you just a few of the learnings from our discussions last year.  

The first one, of course, was the obvious one: let’s never forget how much has been achieved. Manfred Nowak spoke about it earlier this afternoon: this astonishing story, since the end of the Second World War, of how much we can be proud of at the national level, the regional and the global level in terms of our laws and institutions.  

Also, for those who have been working in human rights, we can search back in our own lives to see those moments where our work made a difference for human well-being. I, for example, was able to think back to how my colleagues and I gave evidence in international courts, which led to the locking up of war criminals. That is a cause of some satisfaction.  

To take an entirely different context, I recall how I worked with a group of other human rights academics and activists to map out the application of international human rights law for LGBTI people, and I recall how we got an email the day we launched these principles from somebody who said: “I am a trans person. Yesterday, I did not exist, but now, reading these principles, I am a human being.”  

These are just two memories I have from my life, but they can be replicated across the lives of everybody who has worked for the cause of human rights. 

Of course, from there we went on to acknowledge that we have a lot that we need to fix: we can do our work much better. I could give all sorts of examples where we, as a human rights community, could do a better job, but I do not want that to be my focus because we went further in our reflections and we set about exploring what is the spark, what is the essence, what is the fire in the belly of human rights – the thing that will really get us to jump out of bed in the morning, active and engaged.  

We threw many concepts around in our discussions. Ultimately, we settled on the idea of dignity. Dignity is a concept familiar to human rights. It is in Article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but honestly it is neglected as the driver of our work. We considered, and I consider now, that if we restore dignity to its proper place at the heart of what we do, we will transform our work in human rights activism, or whatever form it might take.  

When we put dignity at the heart, for instance, we can no longer tolerate any hierarchies between people, hierarchies of the value of any human. The idea that any human, or any group of humans, is more deserving than any other becomes unthinkable.  

If we put dignity at the heart of our work, then we can never avoid the universality of human rights, and the need for us to be ever-committed to supporting and defending universality, but a very particular kind of universality: a universality that goes out of its way in delivering universally to reach out to the most vulnerable, the people at the very edges of our societies. 

Dignity also transforms some qualities of the goals of human rights. By putting human dignity at the heart, we are not promoting, through human rights, societies where we tolerate each other: we are promoting societies where we rejoice in each other – in all of our astonishing diversity.  

Finally, I will give one more example of what happens when we put dignity at the heart. By putting dignity there, we also recognise that we also have human rights responsibilities. Those responsibilities are not just of the state: they are of ourselves. There is a person-to-person commitment when we engage with dignity. Again, this idea is in the Universal Declaration, but often overlooked. 

There is one last dimension of our reflections over the past year that I want to share with you this afternoon, and it has to do with the spirit that animates us. Dignity is the core idea, but what is the spirit that must drive us? What is the attitude – the emotion - that we should capture for our work.  

Certainly, it is clear to us what is not acceptable as our attitude: apathy has no place, passivity, business as usual, things of this nature. The issues before us are far too urgent. What can we replace those with?  

Well, we considered anger. We tossed that around for a while, and then somebody suggested that anger was not great because it would exhaust us. So, we decided that anger was not the spirit to inform our work.  

But then we thought back to a book published in 2010 by the extraordinary public intellectual of France, Stéphane Hessel. He wrote a book in 2010 called Indignez-vous! It was a book about the need for us to wake up and save the human rights system that we had constructed so carefully since the Second World War.  

Indignez-vous! – Get indignant! We thought: that is it, we need to do our human rights work with indignation. But what would that mean? Well, we went back to Stéphane Hessel’s book, and for him and for us, it means that in our work, we must first wake up to what is at stake, and we have heard about this from the speakers this afternoon. Second, we must be aware of the need for urgent response. This is not a slow-burning fire, it is an all-consuming one that is already upon us.  

Third, indignation means we must never turn away from injustice.  

And fourth, indignation means that we must be unapologetic in demanding respect for law.  

My friends, my wish to you today is that, as we all go forward together as human rights practitioners, we will be filled with indignation in a shared struggle to honour the dignity of everyone.  

Thank you.