International Human Rights Day - 5th Anniversary "Wien - Stadt der Menschenrechte"

Michael O'Flaherty
Local is where you have your human rights, local is where you thrive, local is where you hurt. Local is also the level of government, that has the most immediate impact for the wellbeing of yourself and your family. On 10 December 2019 - International Human Rights Day - FRA Director, Michael O’Flaherty, spoke about how Vienna is a global leader when it comes to embedding the notion of a human rights city.

Thank you very much for the warm introduction.

I am delighted to be with you on the Human Rights day. It is a day that always fills me with mixed emotions. I never feel it can be a day of celebration. It can be a day of the acknowledgement of achievements, but always keeping in mind the vast challenges that we must confront in every moment. I spent a lot of my life travelling around the Europe, identifying or looking at the tough issues and seeing how we can address them.

And just to take three, by way of illustration. I would mention for example poverty. I would mention child poverty, I would mention the 25 million, the one quarter of Europe’s children who go to bed in a house where somebody is hungry this evening. I would mention how when you go to particular groups that figure of 25% shoots up to nearly 50%, when you for example ask how many Roma children go to bed hungry.

I would have in mind the patterns of hate that we see across our societies. A hate that is no longer just the normal low grade disaffection you would expect in any modern society, but as an intensified, organized pattern. Targeting Jews, targeting Muslims, targeting Roma, targeting people who are just different, are not like us.

And finally, by way of example of why I can never quite celebrate on Human Right’s day, I think of the situation of migrants. I think of the people I visited on the island of Lesbos a few weeks ago. I think of 14 thousand people expected to somehow survive in a camp designed for a 3 and a half thousand, within which camp, there is a waiting list for the doctor of 10 thousand people.

I could go on, but nevertheless it is a day, not only to label the challenges, but also to look at the solutions, at the ways to respond, to engage with the drama. And that’s why I so very much welcome why you are all here today, celebrating this 5th anniversary of Vienna as a Human Rights City, because we really have to do a much better job of going local, of getting local.

As you know better than many, local is where you have your human rights, local is where you thrive, local is where you hurt. Local is also the level of government, that has the most immediate impact for the wellbeing of yourself and your family. Now, acknowledgement of the role of a city for human wellbeing is nothing new. It has been long recognized and it has been codified, if you will, in the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Sustainable Development Goal 11 calls on us to, “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Cities matter for human rights. And this is recognised among other ways in the network of which you have played a part for the past 5 years, the human rights cities network.

But beyond signing up to a network, joining a community, what does it mean? I’d like to restate some obvious points. First, what is the point? What is the ultimate goal? I think here we can be reminded of the ultimate goal by reading again article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for societies where all persons live free and equal in dignity and in rights. That’s the ultimate test of human rights cities. Is it a place where we can say in pride that our city is a place where everyone can live free and equal in dignity and in rights?

That is the goal, how do we get there? Well, I would suggest that the roadmap to get to realise this vision is the roadmap of the formal human rights commitments that our States have entered into, especially, in the human rights treaties. We all know the European Convention on Human Rights. Let’s keep that to the forefront. Let’s keep in mind also the instrument that has its anniversary year this year, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Charter is underused. Not just at the local level, but also at the national level, right across the EU 28 Member States and the sorrow of that is that it has guidance for us across all of the experience of human life.

If I name for you the six chapter headings of the Charter you will see how it embraces our whole lived experience. First of the chapters is “Dignity”, second is “Freedom”, “Equality”, “Solidarity”, “Citizen’s rights”, And finally and obviously – “Justice”.

We next need a vehicle to get us along our route. In a particular context of a city among the very important vehicles, which I know you have been talking about today, let me mention just a few: 

The first one is participation of the residents of the city in the decision making of the city. Once we have done the decent proper consultation we need planning, we need hard wiring of human rights, of child rights, of disability rights at a heart of our planning. We also need a very vigorous attention to gender in all our planning.

And then, a good plan is not enough. We need to deliver it with strong accountability frameworks. We need to acknowledge achievement and we need to chastise failures. And that needs systems and structures that engage.

And so, having taking account of the goal, the map and the elements of the vehicles let’s turn to Vienna. How is Vienna doing? I was not here today, I am confident that there was much acknowledgement of achievement and there was much criticism of underachievement and of weakness and of things still to be addressed. I would expect that. This is a normal city, made up of normal people with normal challenges and issues. But I hope you will allow me as a foreigner, as an outsider, living in your city, to say that while I would not paper over the challenges, you should also be proud.

Vienna is doing rather well by the standards of how cities deliver on human rights commitments. Some examples: social housing. You are the world leader on social housing. Gender sensitive urban planning. The “Start Wien” program for refugees. You have good practices in this city for the welcoming of a refugee, for the support of integration from which so many other cities could learn. Your work on LGBTI equality, as showcased at the Euro Pride just a few months ago. And finally in this non exhaustive list I would mention the Vienna Human Rights Office and the appointment of Vienna Human Rights Commissioner. These are international good practise. And allow me to join others in paying the warmest of tribute to Shams Asadi. Any city would be lucky to have her doing this job. Let’s now look to the future.

What do we, in particular European cities, need to do better as we reach towards 2030, the goal that you set for your reflections today? Well the first thing it is useful to look at the urban trends. Here in Europe, we can identify some obvious trends. One is increasing urbanisation. It is uneven. It is taking place at different speed and different places but people are moving to the cities including from outside Europe into Europe, they are not going to the countryside, they are going to the cities. Secondly, with the increased urbanisation we are facing increased housing pressure. You know better than me that having somewhere to sleep at night, is the basic element on which you build a life. If your housing is not sorted out, the job is not going to get sorted out, education is not going to get sorted out.

Moving to another issue, particular to Europe, we have an ageing population in our cities. We are getting older, our cities are getting older and in Europe, we are not particularly ready for older cities. Then we have the issue that I know you are focused on today – the digitalisation of our lives, positively transformative but full of risk if it isn’t managed very carefully indeed, including at the city level.

And finally, we have the risk which is already evident in some places of polarisation of different communities within our cities. The ghettoisation of our cities.

And, so as we look to this European future let me in my concluding remarks suggest what we can do. I have four suggestions, none of them earth shattering, but all of them, I believe, worth considering.

The first is that we should engage globally. I usually speak about how Europe needs to see herself as Europe in the world and speak to the rest of the world, but tonight I just adjust that slightly and say: whatever you do, be Vienna in the world and engage globally in terms of conversations that are needed to advance the human rights cities agenda, learn from other cities included in the Global South and allow them to learn from you. It is through this exchange of good practice that we will make significant progress in particular in terms of delivery on Sustainable Development Goal eleven.

Secondly, as well as learning from and supporting working with the Global South, let’s engage regionally. And here I come to something that didn’t get mentioned today. There is an important up-coming opportunity, the nature of which isn’t at all clear yet, but it will evolve quickly in 2020, and that is that the EU is convening a Conference on the Future of Europe. It is not an event, but it is a set of activities over two years. A European conversation about its own future and EU cities will have to ensure that your voice is heard in that conversation and that the concept of the Human Rights City is embedded deep into what it means to say that Europe is committed to values.

One dimension of that conversation, by the way, will take place here in Vienna, in that we will convene in 2021, in April 2021, the Fundamental Rights Forum which is the largest discussion, debate, conversation about Human Rights in the EU that takes place. It will be the third time, and I am so pleased that the City has graciously invited us to convene the next Forum in this amazing building.

Third of my four suggestions, has to do with looking at how we can strengthen the Human Rights Cities Network. You are members of a network that matters. It makes a difference, but it is underdeveloped. We at the EU Fundamental Rights Agency are seeking to support the network, to strengthen its core and it’s in that context that we are particular supporting the network to see if it could adopt a set of Commitments to which cities can join up.

My fourth suggestion is that I invite you to put the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights at the heart of your reflection and deliberation. It is only a tool, it is only an instrument but I think it is one that will bring dividends.

As we apply these recommendations what can we expect to achieve? Don’t set your expectations too high. Be modest. Recognise that social change requires many actors. It requires the engagement of the central government, the regional government, the city government. Somehow they all have to play their part to bring about the transformative social change.

That brings me to my last point for today in terms of the ambition and the efforts going forward. And that is that I am calling on Vienna this evening to be a global leader when it comes to embedding the notion of a human rights city. You are better placed than many other cities set up to assume a leadership role. You hosted one of the most important events of the human rights movement since the 2nd World War in this city, 26 and a half years ago - the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. That was an event which remains transformative globally today. You are host to the OSCE, which is at its heart very important human rights organisation. You are host to an important part of United Nations, all of which is committed to human rights. You host the EU’s dedicated human rights body, the Fundamental Rights Agency. Please acknowledge the very central position that you find yourselves in, and the obvious leadership you can deliver as we all work together, cities and States moving forward to achieve societies and countries by 2030 of which we can be very proud indeed.