NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS BODIES – TO PROMOTE AND PROTECT.
COUNCIL OF EUROPE CONFERENCE
Morten Kjaerum, Director
Raoul Wallenberg Institute on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law
1. Thank you very much for the invitation to speak at this panel. This conference is a very good opportunity to make a stock taking of where we are and where we want to go in the protection of human rights in Europe today. With the outset in promoting equality and social inclusion the organisers have wisely chosen the most burning topic today in Europe and globally. We are confronted with a world that is being torn apart by us and them dichotomies across ethnic, religious and other possible dividing lines.
2. For that reason it is important to consider what is in our toolbox at the European, national and local levels to address these issues and how they can meet the current challenges. The discussion has been on-going since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on what sort of national mechanisms could be created to oversee the compliance of the Declaration and later the international and regional conventions. Let’s recall that the Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination was the first international convention to give substance to the declaration. It underscores the seriousness of what we are here to discuss.
3. The development of human rights bodies only gained momentum after the end of the cold war. With the World conference on human rights in 1993 in Vienna we got the first international plan of action that recommended that national human rights institutions should be established in all states. Back then there were globally only 5 such institutions. Today there are more than 100 across the world and 37 members of the European network although not all fully in compliance with the so-called Paris Principles governing the independence and mandate of the National Institutions.
4. Following the EU Racial Equality Directive in 2000 all EU member states have established equality bodies with a mandate to promote racial equality. And up through the 1990 and in particular the 00 more and more of the traditional Ombuds-institutions have strengthened their focus on human rights issues and discrimination in particular in the public sector, which is the core remit of the ombudsinstitution.
5. We will hear much more about different aspects of the work of the institutions in the next interventions. However, from an overall perspective I will commend the work done over the years by most institutions. They have contributed to ensuring that racism, xenophobia and social exclusion is on the map in Europe. There is hardly any other region in the world where there is such a high level of recognition of the fact that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with and where strategies have been developed to change the situation.
6. However, when all that is said there is also room for improvement and much needed improvements in particular in the light of the current immense challenges that Europe is faced with when it comes to social inclusion and the fight against discrimination.
7. So let me point to some challenges.
a. The institutions often lack governmental support. Not only in the sense of political support but also in terms of getting sufficient funding, wider remits and independence.
b. Far too many equality bodies are only given a remit, which is the minimum to avoid an infringement procedure form the EU Commission. When it comes to National Human Rights Institutions we have too few in Europe which fulfils the Paris Principles, this can be read out of the long list of institutions with B or C status.
c. Both Ombudsinstitutions and NI’s often lack the necessary independence, which is a pre-condition for them to gain the popular trust they need to be an efficient guarantor of human rights protection.
d. Finally, many institutions lack sufficient funding to fulfil their obligations. On this it could be said that all public bodies suffer from lack of funding following the financial crisis, however, it may exactly be in the time of crisis that human rights bodies should not be cut, because it is now we need them the most.
8. Aiming at the governments is easy. So what about the performance of the institutions in the day to day work? This is partly dictated by my previous remarks, however things can still be improved. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency in its surveys on ethnic or sexual minorities disclosed a high level of discrimination in a number of areas including an alarming level of un-recorded hate crime. When asked if the victims of discrimination or hate crime could mention an institution that could assist them, around 80% of the respondents in most Member States replied in the negative. When shown the name of the equality body or NI still 60% claimed they had never heard about the institution. In essence this means that those who are most in need of assistance know of no-where to turn.
9. One of the most deprived groups in our societies is the Roma population. The FRA has conducted many surveys and done other work in relation to this group and so have the Council of Europe and many civil society organisations. However, in countries with large Roma populations I have often missed interventions from the established human rights bodies. The outreach and more strategic approach on how to assist the Roma population is often left to others, despite the fact that the role of the human rights bodies is often needed and called for.
10. Finally, let me also mention the lack of coordination at the national level – horizontally. The multiple bodies working on these issues often work side by side but not together. So what is not accommodated for in the budgets of the institutions could to some extent be gained by closer cooperation and exploring complementarities. Later we will hear about the cooperation between national, regional and international organisation – the vertical interaction, which in some cases is more developed than the horizontal.
11. So where does this leave us? We have build an excellent human rights landscape the last 25 years with important institutions, now we have to ask ourselves how they all added up can achieve a greater impact in relation to the highly complex situation we are faced with in Europe today.
12. In this regard the new perspective that has developed in recent years in relation to the protection of victims may come to our assistance. This new approach is well illustrated in the EU Victims directive.
13. Since the early days of addressing the issue of victims in the early 1980s it was all about harsher sentences to perpetrators and in reality it had very little to do with the victims and their situation. This has changed in recent years. There is a change in understanding and perception of what it means to be a victim as well as the importance of addressing the needs of victims.
14. When asking a victim of racial discrimination about his or her needs the answer is simple, he or she wants someone that takes the case seriously and deals with it. He or she does not care if it is the ombudsinstitution, an equality body or an NI. The same goes for the more systemic work such as human rights education, equality campaigns etc. The receiver of the message is more concerned about receiving an understandable message that reaches the relevant target groups from a reliable institution. It is less important who the sender is.
15. A lot of the discussions and work carried out the last 25 years has focussed on the institution building and less on the actual impact. On what they deliver. At a broader level it was the FRA first turning the page to a victim approach. That needs to be done more systematically in years to come.
16. So in conclusion. The first 25 years of the national human rights bodies have been spent on establishing the bodies, testing and trying different methodologies and coming to terms with the important role that they play in our societies. Now, the next 25 years need to be spent on a firm focus on the situation on the ground, for the most marginalised and for those most endangered of being confronted with discrimination and exclusion. The good news is that there is a lot of promising practise to be harvested all across Europe.