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Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights: “Human rights have to be the golden thread, the infrastructure of the future of Europe. Civil society is a critical, non-negotiable dimension of this”.

29 March 2021

Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) since 2015 has a rich experience in human rights. He was a professor of Applied Human Rights and Co-director of the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. He held a number of senior posts at the United Nations and established the UN human rights field missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1994) and Sierra Leone (1998). In this exclusive interview with Philanthropy Advocacy, he shares how he became involved with human rights and what experiences have shaped him, his thoughts on the shrinking space for civil society and some of the key human rights challenges in Europe. He also tells us a forgotten story about how philanthropy has made a key contribution to the beginnings of the human rights fieldwork of the UN.

 

by Dr. Hanna Stähle, Philanthropy Advocacy

 

EU leaders have finally agreed to launch the Conference on the Future of Europe in May. There is no information yet on the involvement of civil society in the dialogue. What is your take on this?

I think it is extraordinarily fortuitous that the new Commission flagged the Conference on the Future of Europe before we had ever heard of COVID-19. COVID stood the world on its head. Everything is now different, and everything has to be different in the future. This conference is a primary platform to reimagine the future. So, it is extremely welcome. The future of the Union rests on this project to a very large extent in terms of public buy-in.

The Conference needs to incarnate the values referred to in the Lisbon Treaty, in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Human rights have to be the golden thread, the infrastructure of the future of Europe. This will only succeed if all of the energy that is critical to human rights is engaged. Civil society is a non-negotiable dimension of this.

What are the key challenges requiring action across Europe?

Covid is the new arrival but it is so very important. Covid hits the enjoyment of basic human and fundamental rights to a degree that is still little understood. It affects so many different dimensions and it is a restraint on human rights that we haven't seen outside of war contexts. It is also an extraordinary impact on otherwise vulnerable groups.

Every conversation on human rights in Europe must talk about Roma who represent six million people living in the EU. If you are a Roma child and you are told to do remote learning, you are sent home to a community where you probably do not have the internet and you certainly don't have a decent computer. Your parents are supposed to support you, even though they themselves have never been through formal education. Your family is told to maintain hygiene through washing hands, but you do not have access to running water. Your parents are expected to bring the basics of food and clothing into your house, but they were already in precarious employment and they have lost their jobs and they don't have access to the social welfare system. That is a perfect nightmare of human rights deprivation and you can apply elements of it at least to many other groups on the edges of our societies.

The situation of civil society also worries me: there are pressures on civil society in the EU and, regardless of COVID, these seem to be getting worse. We generally see an increased enthusiasm for regulation and restriction of capacity to access finance, for a closing down of pathways for consultation. If you undermine civil society, you undermine one of the pillars on which our civilisation is constructed.

The situation of civil society also worries me: there are pressures on civil society in the EU and, regardless of COVID, these seem to be getting worse. We generally see an increased enthusiasm for regulation and restriction of capacity to access finance, for a closing down of pathways for consultation. If you undermine civil society, you undermine one of the pillars on which our civilisation is constructed.

I should also mention migration, which takes up a notable amount of time and capacity for my agency. It is not about giving asylum to everybody who arrives on our shores, but it is about making sure that they are rescued from the water, treated with respect when they arrive and that those who wish to apply for asylum have the necessary support and opportunities to make their cases.

Why are there still so many human rights challenges in Europe?

The shared scriptures of Judaism and Christianity refer to Jacob's ladder, describing a pathway from the earthly mess to the heavenly paradise and that all of life is ascending that ladder. This is not a bad idiom for where we are, we are on a ladder and we are not at the bottom step - we have made a considerable degree of progress that we must acknowledge without in any way under-acknowledging the extent to which we still need to go.

What role do you see for civil society and philanthropy in helping you address the human rights challenges? 

Civil society plays a vital role, and institutions and states need to avoid adversarial models with not only service-providing civil society but also advocacy civil society. Advocacy civil society is inconvenient, its disruptive but we need states and institutions to recognise that it is a very positive and healthy disruption that enriches societies and helps us do our jobs.

I got my first job in the UN through a very unusual exercise of philanthropy. Back in the early days of the war in Yugoslavia, there was a recognition that atrocious human rights' abuses were being committed but the UN had a very limited culture of putting human rights' workers in the field. George Soros spotted this and was very irate. The UN lacked the capacity to do this, so he gave them the money. I was hired from those funds. At some point, philanthropy pulled back saying that this is the responsibility of states, but philanthropy provided the seed investment. This is completely unacknowledged in literature and is probably forgotten. But, the initiative of that man, at that time and in that way, played an important contribution to the early human rights' fieldwork of the UN.

I got my first job in the UN through a very unusual exercise of philanhtropy. [...]. At some point, philanthropy pulled back saying that this is the responsibility of states, but philanthropy provided the seed investment. This is completely unacknowledged in literature and is probably forgotten. But, the initiative of that man, at that time and in that way, played an important contribution to the early human rights' fieldwork of the UN. 

Philanthropy can provide seed resources and seed capacity to do new things that need to be done, either in terms of new methods or new ideas.

In terms of new ideas, I was involved in the development of the Yogyakarta principles on the application of human rights regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Back then, there was a massive under-acknowledgment of the extent to which LGBTI issues were human rights issues. The Yogyakarta principles played an important soft law role in increasing understanding and perception. This exercise was entirely funded by philanthropy.

Philanthropy's willingness to go the extra mile is also important as it can avoid a short-term project approach, recognising that certain intractable challenges for humanity require almost intergenerational commitments. Very few governments are able to sustain commitments in this way but philanthropy can. If philanthropy is willing, it can also support core costs.

I was involved in the development of the Yogyakarta principles on the application of human rights regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Back then, there was a massive under-acknowledgment of the extent to which LGBTI issues were human rights issues. The Yogyakarta principles played an important soft law role in increasing understanding and perception. This exercise was entirely funded by philanthropy.

What keeps you up at night? 

Everywhere, it is children. The plight of unaccompanied migrant children is a massive worry. I have just come back from the Canary Islands – I was there last week. There is something like 2,500 unaccompanied children who have found their way in a horrendously difficult boat journey. The local authorities are doing their best to look after them but these children are stuck. We need these children to get into loving families quickly.

Could you tell us about an experience from work in the field that deeply impacted your understanding of human rights? 

Back in the former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia Herzegovina, in 1994, my team unexpectedly gained access to a concentration camp. Because we caught the camp by surprise, they somehow let us in through the front gate. While we walked through the gate, some men were being marched out of the gate and I learned later that they were taken to do the human clearing of a minefield. As we walked out, a young man of about the same age as me caught my eye and held it - I didn't know where he was going at the time but he did. I don't know if he lived or died that day, but I have never forgotten him and I hold myself personally accountable to him.

Could you tell us more about the work of FRA in more detail? 

The FRA was set up 12 years ago by the EU institutions as an independent EU agency to provide advice and support so that the EU, its institutions and member states can be compliant with human and fundamental rights. We are an advisory body with no executive powers.

We carry out our work through a number of developed tools and toolboxes. The best know toolbox is our surveys: we carry out the world's largest human rights-related surveys to look at the experience of rights holders to help policy-makers figure out the correct responses to their needs and situations. We also have a specialism in socio-legal research where we look at an aspect of human experience, which is important to wellbeing and we see whether the laws are adequate to protect that space and whether they are delivered in reality across the EU.

We are heavily invested in capacity-building – the agency learned early on that it was not enough to point out problems and to come up with the bright ideas, but we had to work together with the relevant communities to make things better. It is on that basis that we have extensive programmes, e.g. working at the external borders with regards to human rights and the reception of migrants.

We are heavily invested in capacity-building – the agency learned early on that it was not enough to point out problems and to come up with the bright ideas, but we had to work together with the relevant communities to make things better. It is on that basis that we have extensive programmes, e.g. working at the external borders with regards to human rights and the reception of migrants. 

Lastly, we create platforms to bring the relevant communities together in ways that otherwise wouldn't be the case. We have nearly 900 civil society groups present on our Fundamental Rights platform, which creates a space for an exchange, debate and hopefully also some elements of mutual support and protection. Periodically, we host the largest conversation on how to go forward stronger in Europe, called the Fundamental Rights Forum. The next edition of which will take place here in Vienna in October 2021.

What is the FRA's role in protecting the space for civil society and philanthropy? 

Our role is to contribute to the protection within the limits of our capacity and mandate. Within this space there is a lot we do and that we can do. The first is applying our comparative data gathering function to have an ongoing understanding of the experience of civil society. We have already published a number of assessments of the pressures on civil society across EU member states. This is made generally available for anyone standing up for the rights of civil society and we are also feeding this into the policy cycle. We will publish a new report, fast-tracking its availability to the European Commission to be taken account of in its upcoming cycle of Rule of Law reports.

We have seen converging pressures in 2020 such as a loss of revenue, huge difficulties for service providers to engage with their communities and the limitation of spaces for public consultations. This leaves civil society weaker and in need of attention.

Is civil society receiving this attention? 

No, more attention is needed. I welcome the fact that the situation of civil society is of high interest to the Commission. I welcome the fact that new funding possibilities are being put in place. I do see a strengthened engagement but also plenty of opportunity to go further. Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty has great language about dialogue and engagement with civil society. It would be good to see how this could be realised in a more structured form.

I do see a strengthened engagement but also plenty of opportunity to go further. Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty has great language about dialogue and engagement with civil society. It would be good to see how this could be realised in a more structured form.  

Michael O'Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights

How did you get involved in protecting human rights?

I'm a kid of the 1970s, that's when I came of age. This was a period when heroic work was being done standing up for human rights in Latin America against the most appalling tyrannies. People motivated by Christianity played a central role in all of this. As a young Irish kid, this was hugely meaningful and I wanted to get engaged in some way with this way of working in the world so, in the first instance, I did this through the pathway of the Catholic Church. At a certain point, I felt the need to go past that and I was drawn into working for the UN in Bosnia during the War. In a way, it hasn't stopped since then.

I am not a human rights' doom-sayer, I very much subscribe to the glass-half-full approach. We have achieved an awful lot and we have a long way to go, but we can go a long way. We must absolutely be hopeful. I worry that some prominent human rights voices do not resonate with hope and that is not going to help build a better future.

I believe passionately that the protection and promotion of human rights is a fantastic social good, extraordinary progress has been made - and it is absolutely worth the human and institutional investment. And please do understand: I am not a human rights' doom-sayer, I very much subscribe to the glass-half-full approach. We have achieved an awful lot and we have a long way to go, but we can go a long way. We must absolutely be hopeful. I worry that some prominent human rights voices do not resonate with hope and that is not going to help build a better future.

Owen Morgan and Karalyn Gardner have contributed to preparing and editing this interview.