Human rights

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights turns 10

Vienna 28 February, 2017

These are difficult times for human rights. To mark its 10th anniversary, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights is hosting a discussion to take stock of the human rights successes in the European Union over the last decade and at the same time consider the enormous challenges before us. 

Symposium: Are we facing a crisis of#rights in the #EU today?

Speech delivered by Franco Frattini 

Ten years ago when – in my quality of Vice-President of the European Commission – I had the honor to celebrate the birth of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights here in Vienna, I said very clearly that fundamental rights are a pillar for the European identity. I even added on that occasion that, if Europe forgets or does not adequately consider the defense as well as the promotion of the fundamental rights of people, Europe becomes an entity without head or heart. 

2007 was a year in which Europe was permeated by enthusiasm towards a greater integration. I remember that at that time I worked for the enlargement of the Schengen area of free circulation of people; we prepared to recognize the visa-free freedom of movement for citizens of the Western Balkan countries. And, obviously, with the Agency for Fundamental Rights we intended to mark a further step towards the better consolidation of that identity of our common European home. 

Today, to answer the question giving the title to our symposium, I must say that unfortunately a crisis of rights – or rather a crisis of the promotion and protection of fundamental political rights – exists.

There are many factors which have led to a deterioration of this positive tension to non-negotiable rights of the human person over the years. Certainly, the unprecedented crisis gone through the economies of all the EU countries and not just the European countries, has created such conditions that caused that economic and social tensions and government reactions addressed towards mechanisms and actions based on protection, selfishness, and sometimes resurgent nationalism, within the various countries. All that, certainly has resulted in a situation of closing instead of opening. National self-interest, often determined by an economic crisis or by disputes between the governments of the capitals and the Brussels institutions, certainly did not help the path that we had started in 2007, when -with many illusions and many hopes – we thought that Europe could really make progress along the path of political integration, and not only of economic and monetary union.

The explosion of the migratory crisis and the plight of refugees, have worsened a situation in which national policies have declared themselves against the common European action aiming at shared policies of welcome, integration and certainly respect of the laws against those who had violated them. 
On the contrary, we have assisted to a run-up towards closure: the closure of the borders, which gave raise to questioning the extraordinary achievements of the free circulation granted by the Schengen Treaty; closures by means of walls that some countries have built and are still building; closure through the stubborn refusal to accept solidarity in the distribution of immigrants and refugees among all the European Union countries proportionally to the possibilities of each one. 

This atmosphere certainly has not helped the reaffirmation of some pillars of the European identity such as respect for the dignity of every woman, of every man and, of course, every child, as already mentioned. 

There have been initiatives taken by individual countries: the generosity of Germany; the historic opening of Italy, at first alone in facing the phenomenon of migration, and today luckily accompanied by a greater attention of the European institutions. Next to that, however, we have seen the closure of countries that, because of historical and cultural traditions, we would have preferred being closer to the solution of a common European policy, rather than involved just in national policies of closure and rejection. 

I know that, when we speak of the promotion and protection of fundamental rights in matters such as immigration and asylum policies, there are political forces that take the opportunity to counter Europe, solidarity policies, and reception policies. They even excite the feelings, the popular feelings, maybe those of poorer population categories that are most exposed and vulnerable, to obtain closure policies that governments often follow just to avoid losing electoral consensus at home. 

When the national political parties and political forces aiming at seeking consensus and votes are to the detriment of non-negotiable fundamental rights of the human person, however, I believe that all of us would have the duty to remember that we are not talking about numbers, but about human beings. 
It is clear then that, in addition to the fundamental rights of vulnerable people who are often victims of human trafficking by horrible criminal organizations, there are also the non-negotiable fundamental rights of those who have been, are, or may be, victims of other barbarities of the twenty-first century, next to the smuggling: the barbarity of terrorism. 

It is clear that the barbarism of those who kill in the name of God – that in my opinion blaspheme the name of God, because no religion should ever encourage the killing of innocent people – well, the savagery of terrorism must be fought strongly, with inflexible rigor, with the cooperation within Europe and outside Europe, because here the most important right of all is at stake: everybody’s right to life, one’s right not to blow up because of a bomb placed in a disco or in a subway.

And then there are the rights of girls and children which are still terribly exposed to the threats of our time: those groups to which I devoted, as European Commissioner, the European Charter on the Rights of the Child, to face violence, kidnapping, traffic, and the horrible sexual exploitation, are particularly vulnerable. These rights today require even an increased security. I do not think that today for those rights there is a sufficient protection, or at least a protection adequate to the one that Europe, land of the fundamental rights, should be able to guarantee. 

Those threats, those attacks against fundamental rights, are further aggravated in the digital world, when the great opportunity of the opening to the rest of the world in real time, through the internet, through the networks, which are now available to billions of people throughout the world, show the other side of the coin as the great danger, the great penetrability of these networks by and in favor of unscrupulous criminal organizations and to the detriment of vulnerable groups that sail on these networks, for example children. Although as a man of the institutions I have always resisted against the idea of censorship over the access to networks, I think that today we need a further protection for network users: a protection able to uproot sites, links, networks praising terrorism, which make propaganda or recruiting, that teach how to build bombs, or, dramatically, what happens nowadays, the great paedophile networks through the internet, which attract young people and children in absolutely horrible traps. 

I think we should strongly reaffirm the concept of education and culture of fundamental rights. An education and culture which must start from schools, from younger pupils, to educate them to a culture of respect for the others’ rights and the awareness of their own rights and duties. I stress the word “duties”: there are not only rights, but there is a balanced position that anyone who wants to live in a democratic society has to maintain. 

When I was the European Commissioner and Foreign Minister of my country, I fought a lot for the right to profess one’s faith. This is another fundamental right: it is a right which must be granted to all of us, that the General Assembly of the United Nations has solemnly recognized, and that cannot be translated into the possibility of professing one’s faith only privately, at one’s home. I think of a fundamental right to profess one’s faith through places of worship, and then for us – for me as a Christian – the right to express my faith freely, even where most of the population does not belong to the Christian religion, as obviously among the Muslim, Islam, and when in contact with other religions that are professed in the world. 

In Europe, we still face real problems of anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. We have real problems affecting believers of the great monotheistic religions, like Jews or Islamic people, who instead have the right to be respected, in the difference of points of view but also in the name of what unites us. I believe that education religious leaders should give to believers is precisely to find what unites us: the right to life, the dignity of every person, equality between women and men. These principles are so fundamental that – based on the three great monotheistic religions – they should form a common basis on which I know well how the European Agency – whose tenth anniversary we are celebrating – is engaged. 

My conclusion is that, nowadays, we certainly are facing an even greater challenge than the one we faced ten years ago. Over the years there has been distraction, there have been oversights, there have been other priorities that have passed through the European Union and the European Union member states. But it was a mistake. We cannot, and we must not, leave alone the Agency for Fundamental Rights of the European Union to fight its battle to promote and defend fundamental rights. It must be a greater effort of the institutions of the European Union, but above all we need a major effort by the Member States, because it is easy to blame Brussels when in the capitals political debate is between those who are unwelcoming and who is not welcoming others at all. Those are two forms of closure and one looks just which of the two should prevail, because we are afraid to say, very clearly, that the rights of the person cannot be defended and cannot be promoted with the closure, but with the inclusion.

And I’m not naive. I know that there are parties that are increasing their fortunes on intolerance and closure policies. But if in the political concept there is a sense of nobility, that concept is the construction of an open – and not closed – society, where the right and duty are equally considered, and the state is nothing but the promoter of the development of the rights and the guarantor of the protection of every human person. 

I believe that ten years after the great moment of creation of this Agency, it is necessary to strongly repeat that a new European Humanism is needed again.   

In Italy we have known Humanism and the Renaissance in culture and art. Today, Europe needs a humanism and a renaissance, a rebirth of people’s rights in which the individual human person, regardless of his passport, as a human being, has the right to be respected in his dignity and his humanity. 

Only this humanism, only this renaissance, will be useful to train young people and today’s youngest people to live in a world that is not a world of constant clashes, is not a world where the strongest wins over the weak, in which the wall prevails on reception and on the bridges towards different cultures and civilizations, but a world – let me say that in conclusion – where the identities of all are respected. As an Italian and a European, I feel that my identity, my history, which is a Christian history, is a history of culture, is a Mediterranean history: it cannot and should not go back, cannot and should not disappear, but instead should meet with other cultures and identities. That is exactly the opposite of the message that the extremists, the radicals go on repeating around the world. 

When we see those horrible images of the black flag of Daesh hoisted above the Vatican, we must be sure you can answer, “Our identity is much stronger than your culture of death, and therefore the culture of rights and life will always win.” 
Only this conviction will enable Europe to continue to have a soul.

More info:
Programme of the Symposium

Watch the full event live via facebook live (link is external) from 15:45 CET.

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