Young people: agents of change

Michael O'Flaherty
FRA Director address a Peer Learning Activity under the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU on 22 June 2021 on a rights-based approach to youth policies.

Dear Friends,

Last Saturday in Vienna, where I am based, I watched the annual Pride march. This annual fantastic display and demonstration of diversity and respect, honouring of diversity in our societies. I was struck as always by the fact that most of the people in the march and its impetus was from and of young people. The day before, I looked out of the window of my office to see a large demonstration forming on the street outside in protest with regard to climate change. Again, that big well-organised demonstration was made up mainly of and was organised by young people. Last summer, in Vienna again, I was struck how time and time again the Black Lives Matter protests were made up of young people and organised by young people. And all of these experiences echo something that we repeatedly find in the surveys we do at the Fundamental Rights Agency. As we survey group after group after group in our society, we find levels of tolerance and inclusion increase as the respondents become younger. Again, young people are somehow the guardians of the respect for diversity and tolerance and values in our societies. In other words, young people are the drivers of change. Not just for themselves, but for all of us. And this is a reality we should acknowledge, treasure and build on.

So much has been said this morning about the moment we are in. This is a distinct moment. It is not another crisis. This is the defining crisis of our generation. We have not even begun yet to feel the impact globally in terms of violation of rights, loss of the right to life and devastating economic consequences of COVID. Albeit it is not the topic of our discussion today, but I would argue that the primarily impacted people in the context of COVID are young people. They are maybe the group that got least attention paid to them in the past year, but as we go forward will be the most hard hit.

As we confront this huge crisis and all the other related challenges, we must recognise the young people are the drivers of change. I am so very glad that the discussion this morning is how young people can adopt a rights-based approach, and not just adopt it, but demand it from decision-makers. Demand it not just for young people, but for everyone. I am not going to get into too much detail of why we should adopt the rights-based approach. Let me just recall where human rights came from. Human rights came from the devastation of World War II, a sense of ‘never again’, a sense of we must do something transformative for society so that we never again visit the horrors of, for example, and above all, the Holocaust. It is out of this searing context that a human rights system was painstakingly put in place over the decades. A system that offers us a powerful inspiring vision of what our societies can look like. Or as the UN Secretary-General put it last year: “A common vision of what makes us human”. And beyond that vision also a roadmap. A pathway through treaties and commitments.

So human rights and, therefore, the human rights approach offers us a comprehensive ethical roadmap through which to guide our societies. Why is it so compelling? Well, you have heard much already this morning of participation. Of how the human rights approach requires as a matter of duty that young people participate in the decisions and the actions that impact their lives. And indeed, participation is a crucial element of any rights-based approach. But let me mention a few others. One primordial one, one which underlies everything else is that a rights-based approach is a normative approach. It is a law-based approach. It is not about favours. It is not about generosity. It is certainly not about charity. It is about entitlement. And this, as we have heard already this morning, is a non-negotiable and fundamental important element. The flipside of normativity is accountability. Under these treaties, under these legal obligations, we can hold accountable those who carry the duties.

Another dimension that I would like to flag that is central to the rights-based approach is its indivisibility. Meaning that all human rights are of co-equal significance and they rely on each other for their fulfilment. This most importantly means that socio-economic rights are no less important than civil and political rights. I was struck this morning as I listen to our friend from the OECD and how young people, according to a survey that they did, recognise that governments do a good effort on youth rights, but are not so good on housing. I immediately found myself thinking: but housing is a human right. And so we need to adopt the indivisible approach. A rights-based approach is about housing, it is about social welfare, it is about jobs as well as freedom of movement, assembly and association.

Then the final reason that the rights approach is so compelling, just the final of my examples and one, which I find particularly attractive right now, is that it is about society. Adopting a rights-based approach, insisting on a rights-based approach is about insisting not on ‘me’ but on ‘us’. And this is sometimes misunderstood about human rights. Human rights is a framework tool, which joins us together in a mutual cooperation and co-reliance. And the ‘me-approach’ is actually quite the opposite of what the modern human rights system seeks to achieve, which is about societies, communities, about ‘us’.

But now, let me stop here for a moment and answer the question that may be in somebody’s mind, which is: but why a human rights approach? Human rights has let us down so badly. We may have constructed this amazing system since World War II, but look at the horrors since then. Look at the atrocities. Look at the genocides since the Second World War. Look at the profound inequalities in our societies. Look at the situation of the six million Roma in the EU and how can you talk of human rights? Let me try to engage with that just for a moment. First thing, I would say, and I do say when people throw this at me, is that we have exaggerated expectation for human rights. Human rights is a set of rules and laws foundational to changing our societies, but the actual change in our societies requires many hands. Or as the UN Secretary-General put it in the same speech, I quoted from just now, he said: “The levers of change lie in many hands.” And so we cannot blame human rights for the failure of the many hands to engage the levers of change. But that said, I am not going to give human rights a clear pass. It has many weaknesses. It has inadequacies. There may or may not be a need for another treaty on youth rights. But there are gaps in the protection in human rights for sure. And the system for the oversight of human rights is quite weak. So I acknowledge all of these things. I use this opportunity again to remind those who hold the levers of change that we need a stronger system of human rights. But until we get that stronger system or even while we are waiting for it, we can do a better job of using human rights to bring about better societies. The Fundamental Rights Agency, has identified a number of learnings where we, who work in human rights, can do a much better job. I will briefly mention a few of these.

In the first case, we have to make a better business case for our human rights claims. We for example, need the data. That is why my Agency invests so heavily in empirical data to demonstrate to decision-makers and policymakers that what we are claiming is based on verifiable empirical social realities.

Secondly, when we make our claims, we have to be much better at communicating them. We are not great at it within the human rights movement. We too often stand on a high mountain of principle and say they do it because it is human rights. We have to be more engaging, segmenting our messages to different audiences. Also having more positive messages, not just those of despair.

Third, we have to invest in partnerships. We have neglected the extent to which we can build partnerships right across society to achieve human rights goals. Let me take just two examples. Everybody is watching football right now. But are we really working enough for the world of sports, the world of soccer, to promote human rights messages? We see principled actions going on the football field. Are we engaging them in a joined-up way? Are we sufficiently engaging with the world of culture for partnership to change our societies?

Forth, which we are being reminded of every single day, is to go local. Change happens in the village and on the street. We invest too much of our time in the ministry in the capital. And so you will figure out what this means in your work, in your lives, but we all recognise that the town and the village needs far more attention for human rights activism.

Fifth, I just want to emphasise again what we heard repeatedly this morning: Be gendered! Gender must be hard-wired into everything we do. Experience of men and women, boys and girls is different. And it is usually worse for women. And so, gender is not a dimension for some of our work, it has to be central to everything we do.

Finally, in terms of what we could do better now. We could do a better job of demanding a strong national architecture for the protection of human rights. I was struck again listening to our colleague from the OECD this morning of the extent to which our national human rights bodies and Ombudsmen in some countries are not mandated to deal with youth issues. 14 % I think was the figure from the OECD. That is unacceptable. That is a demonstration of a weakness in the architecture for the protection of human rights. Similarly, civil society. Creating the space for a thriving protected cherished civil society is an essential element of the national architecture and I have learnt much from today’s discussion and other discussions about the extent to which the space for youth organisations is not what it should be. And when they are in place, the status for them to engage, to participate in public affairs is not what it could be. Furthermore, I was struck by what was said today about how young people are by large not involved in decision-making in the COVID context. I would add, the entire human rights community has been largely excluded from decision-making in most places.

My friends, whatever I might be, I do not qualify in the category of youth anymore. I have spent something like thirty years now working in the field of human rights at the international level. I have worked in Bosnia during its war. In Sierra Leone during the war there. I went on from there to countries like East Timor and Afghanistan. More recently, I have worked in Northern Ireland and now across the European Union. I tell you about my past because I can attest that in every place that I have worked in the past thirty years, advocating for human rights, adopting a rights-based approach has been transformative for the better. It has made many lives much richer in the short and in the long term. That experience of mine simply echoes a global reality, which is that the pathway since World War II of building up a human rights system for all its weakness, for all its failures, has made the world an appreciatively better and fairer place.

And so let me wrap up then where I began: young people as agents of change. I would ask that you and we all work together to deliver the world that is pictured in Art. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A world where all people are born free and equal in dignity and in rights.

Thank you for your attention!