Fragmented notes brought home from the Fundamental Rights Forum

The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) organised the first European Fundamental Rights Forum in Vienna on 20-23 June 2016. The event brought together about 700 people from and beyond Europe from policy, practice, governments, civil society, research, arts and several other fields. The organisers did the huge job of discussing the issues of inclusion, the refugee crisis and digital challenges on a human rights basis by providing the organisers with an enormous amount of food for thought as well as opportunities for networking and discussion.

The following paragraphs are not intended to be a full report, but rather a collection of a few thoughts and issues that echoed in me as president of EPA, vice president of the Lifelong Learning and Social Platforms, as a child rights activist for over 25 years, as an apt reader, a Hungarian and a mother. It is unusual for this blog, but I hope they will also resonate with the readers, and given the richness of the programme I couldn’t find any other ways to make a report.

The main and mainstream policy areas that kept being challenged were the necessity of the nation state in a globalised world, the need for protecting the borders of Europe from refugees, and the need to install surveillance systems and thus violate rights. The role of education, civil society, cities and mothers were highlighted by several speakers regardless their topic and institutional background. A vivid picture by one of the speakers called present political actions an act of only moving the deck chairs on Titanic.  The need to ‘go beyond the glass ceiling of politeness’ was another very easy-to-visualise starting point.

The hosting country, Austria is a real example of openness in times of humanitarian crisis as well as of the present success of those supporting the raise of hatred and xenophobia on national levels. Austria has proven its openness not only by accepting 88,000 asylum applications in 2015, but also to offer asylum to Hungarian refugees in 1956 and welcoming our fellow Hungarian fleeing the country nowadays. This was perfectly illustrated by the winner of a school competition on human rights, a little film showing the right to mother tongue by introducing a Hungarian-speaking girl. Yes, in Vienna a newly arrived migrant is very likely to speak Hungarian, they hugely outnumber the 88,000 refugees. At the same time people living in the countryside nearly managed to elect a far-right president only a few weeks ago.

The thought by Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission opening the Forum, resonating most with me was that looking at the past will not help solve today’s problems. It was a re-occurring issue: those countries – like my own – that are highly obsessed by their history are the more likely to violate human rights and not to be open to newcomers. He also emphasised, that he believes – regardless official EU policies and trends – fundamental rights must be in the core of the EU’s response to the challenges of migration, while solidarity must be balanced against the fear of losing our identity.  He also emphasised that diversity is the most outstanding feature of Europe and it should remain to be highly awarded.

The Romanian State Secretary of Justice called the audience’s attention to the fact that in the EU we often use very complicated language and invent new phrases, often just to hide the fact that we have failed. He also challenged the EU target of economic growth while living in times of a human rights crisis. A civil society representative further contributed to this by saying people, especially young people are not interested in politics, because it is not in their own terms, plus politicians are afraid to talk to youth as they are likely to challenge them. His message was also highlighted by his Swedish colleague who underlined that human rights were not invented for the sunny days, and these days are not sunny.

Coming back to Eastern Europe, two speeches supported each other, by on the one hand simply stating that this area is unable to live up to today’s challenges, since rights protection has never really been implemented, while the level of individuality as compared to the importance of community is high. On the other hand the solution was identified to be education, and active citizenship exercised first in schools by students given real responsibilities.

An MEP with migrant background called the attention to also think about those already in Europe, not only those arriving now. It can prevent the creation of extra tension. Stefan Hertmans, a Belgian writer introduced the issue of European-bred Islamic extremists, a group of post-modern, extremely well-connected, fast and resourceful people, but also a group that has felt excluded in their birthplace, Europe.

Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner on Human Rights introduced the issue of globalisation into the discourse, by emphasising that it is not possible to have a global system of communication, transport, and a global economy while sustaining national-interest-led policy. She said that we have to find a global solution as there is no Planet B. One global challenge, climate change was also discussed as a bad climate for human rights by some speakers. Benjamin Barber went as far as challenging the nation state in general, the shear existence of national  borders, and called for an interdependent network of cities, them being the most innovative and most traditional existing structures.

Prof. James Hathaway was challenging the EU asylum policies saying that too much is spent on managing the asylum systems instead of introducing a kind of insurance policy, based on respecting rights and responsibility, offering assisted access instead of barriers, early assignment instead of spending money on determining refugee status later, no detainment, but offering the possibility to get right to their lives, supporting third countries with most refugees and supporting refugee startups, accompanied by organised resettlement.  

The first Director of FRA called the Mediterranean the bloodiest sea at present. He challenged the possibility even to mention ‘too many rights for refugees’ while all EU countries have ratified eg. the UNCRC. He also called the attention to the fact that the EU is not facing a number crisis, but suffering from a lack of solidarity and bad management. He also praised civil society for offering long-term support as well as cities opening their gates where national governments often failed. According to him humanitarian robustness is there regardless newspaper headlines.

Another re-occuring theme was participation and empowerment, participation that should not be confused with representation, and empowerment as the basis of all human rights approaches, where the power is of the people and not of governments. One aspect of participation, inclusion and their being restricted was identified in the issue of language, the necessity to speak the majority language. At the same time for real inclusion we should not talk about tolerance anymore, but we should aim at non-criticism. In this respect it is very important what teachers and parents say, but schoolbooks should also be inclusive, and not just show stereotypes. The role of media as well as mother-power were important elements mentioned in discussing there aspects. According to one of the contributors one key element is to educate girls and let them become intelligent women, as terrorists are afraid of them.  

On security and digital rights the quickly spreading mass surveillance policies and people’s ignorance of their dangers were also put in the limelight. In this respect it was asked how we make other aware of the value of our rights and prevent them being restricted for short-term trade-offs. Privacy protection is a key issue. As one of the speakers said ‘if you have nothing to hide, you don’t have a life; go and have a life.’

Another topic raised by several speaker was economy, businesses and entrepreneurship. The evident still needs to be emphasised: the main role of businesses is to provide decent jobs for decent pay, to make it possible for everybody, also newly arrived migrants, to provide for their families in a dignified way. The connection between businesses and human rights primarily is not about how you donate money, but how you earn it. In this field we need to be ‘possibilists’, looking at what is possible and setting a 100% target (if the target is 90%, 50% will try to opt out). It is also important to rethink the distinction between formal and informal economies, based on the success of share economy and other startups. It is also important not to only talk about entrepreneurial spirit, but also appraise intrapreneurs, the people who are willing to reform existing structures.  In the field of economy one of the largest issues is that while the differences between large economies are decreasing, economic differences within these economies (eg. USA, China, India) are larger than ever.

If you are interested in more a formal report, or want to listen to or read some or all contributions, visit the official website of the Forum here.  
If you are interested in human rights in general you will find the homepage of FRA informative.

Eszter Salamon 
EPA President

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