July 15, 2019
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European Union

EU rights agency director: “Europe is not a paradise for human rights”

Vienna, Jun 28 (efe-epa).- Discrimination, racism, inequality, child poverty. The European Union is still the scene of serious violations of fundamental rights, a situation aggravated by the rise of ultra-nationalism and the loss of ethical and moral values.

That is the picture described by Michael O'Flaherty, director of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), in light of a corresponding report on the situation in 2018, which the institution recently published.

In an interview with Efe in Vienna, where the FRA is based, O'Flaherty warns that the EU is not the paradise in terms of human rights that many think it is and that inequality is one of the main challenges, and action needs to be taken against politicians who spread hatred and lies.

Q. In the last report you say that fundamental rights alarm bells are ringing across the EU as inequalities, harassment and prejudices continue to grow. In the European Union we have laws, rules, democratic institutions. Where are we failing?

A. We have some very serious issues. We have to put a face on those issues. We are talking about the Jews of Europe, many of whom told us that they are afraid and are thinking on leaving. Something I find unacceptable in modern Europe. The situation of Muslims, including Muslim migrants, the people drowning in the Mediterranean: six people everyday, attending to migrate to Europe, drowning in the Mediterranean in 2018.

The situation of Roma: we have six million Roma in the European Union, there are situations of inequality, deprivation, marginalization. It is a scandal of global dimension. We have very serious problems. Does anything ever change? Yes it does, in 2018 we saw the basis for some real improvement. We saw important new EU legislation.

We need legislation, we can't just say that all more legislation never makes a difference. We need the building blocks of law. We have seen that in the area of social justice, the role of a new European labor authority. And many other initiatives of that kind. When we go local, we see more and more good practices to strength the respect for human rights, a focus of attention on taking care of our NGOs, civil society, of investing in national human rights institutions, human rights commissions. Things of that nature. There are also some signs of possibilities and hopes. But we should not take away from the fact that we are not in a good place right now.

Q. Would you say that despite all those problems, Europe is still a paradise of human rights if we compare ourselves with other regions. That is what we thought about ourselves.

A. Then we are fooling ourselves: Europe is not a paradise for human rights. Yes it is, the bit of the world which has the best protections for human rights. But that's not the same as a person enjoying all those freedoms in their day to day life. We have a long way to go, just like in many other places in the world. Europe is not unique, and distinct separate and different, is part of the world. It shares the same problems. Some of these problems are worse in Europe as they are elsewhere. So we need to look to the future with genuine humility.

Q. Would you say that there has been a reverse or set back in the fight for Fundamental Rights in the EU. Or at least that we are moving slower than we were moving before. That in the last 5-10 years?

A. Yes I would say so. It used to be that we just had those serious patterns of human rights abuse, which was never acceptable. But the system was accepted. Today, more and more people in high political positions who are repudiating the very basics, the laws, the treaties, the commitments, saying they are not what we need to advance Europe.

That's the difference, and we have to resist that very hard. We have to insist in legal compliance, we have to hold people to account when they break the law or when they abandon the law, we have to challenge myths. Part of populism these days is telling lies about migrants, about Roma, about all these people at the edges of our societies. My agency and all those other committed with human rights have to confront every lie with the truth.

Q. When was the turning point in this tendency, the financial crisis in 2008, the refugee crisis in 2015. When was the moment when this course was change?

A. I can't pin down this month of that year. I would answer in the same way you framed your question. There have been this bringing together of very disturbing tendencies, which have lead to this. And at a certain point, and this is very important, we lost the good will of our populations, of the guy on the street. The guy on the street forgot seeing the human rights is also by him and his family, and they think is only about people right on the edges.

And if this is how people perceive human rights, we are in trouble, and to save the system that we have built since World War II, to guarantee civilization, we have to show how it delivers for everybody. Including our neighbors as well as those people that have arrive recently in our communities.

Q. How bad has affected the rise of far right, populist nationalist parties to the fight on fundamental RIGHTS?

A. Of course it has not helped but human rights are not a political program. Human rights are apolitical, no matter which party is in power in which country. The human right commitments contained in treaties remain as valid as ever before.

As I said earlier, we have to insist on compliance with the law. When a politician, no matter how many votes (he/she) gets, says something that constitutes an act of hate speech, (they’ve) got to be prosecuted for it. And we do have sturdy democracies, we have stable societies in Europe that can turn full force of the law to deal with its violations. I want to see more of that. I want to see more prosecution of hate crime, I want to see people held to account when they speak of Roma as if Roma were less than human. This is not acceptable in Europe today.

Q. Are you afraid that in the new European Parliament, in the new European institutions after the elections, with the rise of this parties, this set back of fundamental rights will worsen with these parties having more power in the European institutions?

A. Frankly, I do not know. But I am not massively discourage because the voting returns also show a diversity in the Parliament. A strong representation, for example, of Greens. There are a lot of people coming into the Parliament with a strong position on human rights. And, from my experience with the previous Parliament, we can do business with all the main political groups, and I have every expectation that this will be the case.

Q. We have the tendency to blame these parties, or in general terms the politicians about what is wrong. But what about the normal citizens? When we have 40% of Europeans citizens regarding migration as a problem or people in countries like Slovakia or Hungary regarding their fellow Roma, neighbors as second-class citizens, and people voting for these parties, it’s not just a problem of politics. Do you think that Europeans have become more intolerant in the last years, that is not only a problem with the high politics?

A. I would not start there because I would say that people are very much influenced by what they are told and what they experience. If you live in an unequal Europe, if you are the second generation of your family that cannot get a job, it is not at all surprising that you are going to get angry. If you can't feed your children at night, you have to choose between food and clothes for your kids, which is a case in some places in Europe, you are going to get angry and you are going to reflect that anger in your vote.

We need a more equal Europe, so don’t blame people, blame our structures and our systems and the way we distribute wealth. Secondly, we do not blame people for distrusting migrants if they keep hearing lies about migrants, if they keep hearing ridiculously exaggerating statement about how many people are coming, if they hear lies such as migrants are bringing sexual violence to Europe.

Q. What is more important, the implementation of the law we have at our disposal or education and information.

A. It is both. My whole life working on human rights I have focused as much attention on education as on the court. Both are needed but the education side is often neglected. It is desperately important, particularly today in Europe where as I said, we see civic, ethic education falling away in many schools and places.

Q. The 2018 report identifies issues related to access to justice, person with disabilities, gender related crime so there is a lot to do in different fields. What would you say it is the biggest challenge in terms of fundamental rights?

A. I always find it difficult to rank human rights problems because (it may suggest) that your suffering has more or less value than somebody else’s suffering, and that’s not helpful. So I’d answer your question by saying what are the issues that are keeping me awake right now; what are the three most intractable problems that I think we must confront if we were to move forward.

The first of those is the one I’ve come back to in this interview in many occasions: inequality. If you are a child in Bulgaria, you are eight times more likely to go to bed hungry than if you are a child in Denmark; that is not acceptable. We need to seriously invest in equality and it’s coming. The EU is getting much more serious about this, particularly in some initiatives from 2018 and going forward into the 19/20. The second one is the situation of the Roma. Six million Roma in the European Union, an enormous minority whose life experience is absolutely dreadful, and even worse again if you are a Roma women.

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