Council of Europe and the role of National Human Rights Institutions, Equality Bodies and Ombudsman offices in promoting equality and social inclusion

‘FRA and the EU – promoting and supporting national structures’

10 December 2015, Helsinki

Thomas Schwarz

Deputy Head of Communications and Outreach Department, FRA


Ladies and Gentlemen,

My thanks first of all to the Council of Europe, the Finnish Human Rights Centre, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman of Finland for the invitation to this important conference. The issues of equality and social inclusion have become particularly critical in the wake of the events in Paris last month, a point I will return to a little later. I would like to start, though, by running through the mandate of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights and its cooperation with National Human Rights Bodies.

FRA provides the EU institutions and Member States with independent, evidence-based advice on fundamental rights. Contrary to many other organisations, the Agency does not only look at the duty bearers such as the European Commission or national governments, but also at the experiences of ordinary citizens. And this makes our cooperation with our partners at national level so important. NHRIs and equality bodies are a vital link between the international, national and local levels, and this is reflected in the emphasis we put on our cooperation with them.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Just three weeks ago we invited our key national partners to a conference in Vienna entitled ‘Connecting to strengthen fundamental rights’. The meeting was unique in bringing together representatives of ministries, NHRBs and civil society, a number of whom had never met each other in their own national context, to discuss ways of improving cooperation but with emphasis on thematic cooperation. A number of prerequisites were identified for good cooperation and I will list just a few here:

·        Trust and Openness

·        Complementary expertise

·        Shared objectives and responsibility

·        Informal connections

·        Engagement

·        Early consultation

·        Political will

Now, I suspect several of these points may be familiar to you. But how many of these prerequisites are in place in your own cooperation? How can more of them be realised? I hope to hear your views on this in a few minutes when you have the floor. As we also said at the stakeholder meeting, “change is not only about what we cooperate on but also how we cooperate.”

But these are not the only questions. In this difficult time for fundamental rights, we need more than contact. We need to act together on issues that are calling into question Europe’s raison d’être in ways we have not seen since the Second World War. Migration; religious freedom; respect and tolerance; and security, both physically and online: all these areas present massive challenges.

And so the cooperation between the organisations with a human rights remit, whether they are international, national or regional and whether governmental or third-sector this cooperation has to change and expand. FRA has been seeking to rise to these new challenges in a number of ways.

1) At the stakeholder event I’ve just mentioned, participants also discussed the issues that concern them most, including:

·        Migration, especially security vs. fundamental rights, and integration

·        Youth education on law and rights

·        Unaccompanied minors in the asylum process

·        EU responsibility sharing post-Dublin

·        The growing phenomenon of hate speech and hate crime

·        The role of public institutions in guaranteeing public services and rights

·        The external dimension of migration, including border policy, cooperation with 3rd counties, and how to protect rights in these areas

·        The impact of security-related emergency measures on fundamental rights

These are big problems. One part of the solution, as I hope you’ll agree, is FRA and its work. The Agency has been working in the areas of equality and discrimination since its establishment in 2007, and has already built up a large body of data that is constantly being expanded as new challenges arrive. To give you just three examples which we also see as opportunities for intensifying our cooperation:

·        The Agency is in the course of repeating its Minorities and Discrimination Survey from 2008, which will give us vital information about trends over time and the impact of legislative and policy measures in the EU over the past seven years.

·        At the same time, FRA is also implementing an important project on the inclusion and participation of migrants and their descendants in the EU. It is more than a project, it is a thematic area to be further developed during forthcoming years.

·        In 2016, FRA will also step up its efforts in building capacities on monitoring forced return in Member States, which may be of interest to some of you here today. In this context, FRA will be offering training in February targeted at experienced but also newly appointed return monitors and invite you to participate.

Of course, the challenges we are facing cannot be solved by FRA or any other single organisation. We have to work together – and indeed, we are. For example,

2) Together with the Council of Europe, Equinet and ENNHRI, FRA last year set up a forum for thematic cooperation in four areas:

·        the rights of migrants and asylum seekers

·        hate crime

·        Roma equality and

·        social and economic rights

This forum aims to enhance coordination, cooperation and exchange of information between national and European level institutions, as well as to facilitate cooperation between national level institutions. We have had a first series of exploratory meetings to assess the best means of cooperation, but the urgency of these issues means that we must now focus on targeted activities that achieve real impact.

FRA has also been working intensively with selected equality bodies, NHRIs and Ombudsmen on an interactive online tool called Clarity, or ‘Complaints, Legal Assistance and Rights Information Tool for You’. Since you’ll be watching a video about the Clarity project shortly I won’t go into detail here, but will just say that this online tool enables people throughout the EU to easily identify the most appropriate non-judicial body with a human rights remit for any given fundamental rights issue.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The flip side to hate and intolerance is respect and inclusion, which are key to developing a socially cohesive society based on the principles of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

With this in mind, FRA will be holding a workshop next week with representatives of EU institutions, national governments and civil society to develop a toolbox on how to communicate respect and tolerance, for use at EU, national and regional level.

For to close as I opened: in the aftermath of the horrific events in Paris less than one month ago, working together to ensure real implementation of fundamental rights for everyone, whether you are a refugee who has just arrived, a third-generation migrant who is a member of a religious minority, or a native in the twelfth generation. Communicating tolerance and combating discrimination must be a priority for all of us.

Thank you for your attention.