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Equality at Fundamental Rights Forum: The importance of standards

June 23rd 2016

The European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) hosted the Fundamental Rights Forum in Vienna, 20-23 June. Under the motto "Rights, Respect, Reality: the Europe of Values in Today’s World", the Forum brought together practitioners, grassroots workers, thinkers and high-level decision makers to reflect on existing challenges and good practices as well as future challenges and opportunities.

Building a strong fundamental rights culture

The Fundamental Rights Forum 2016 comes at a critical moment when our human rights resolve is being tested. Europe is being challenged to find urgent responses to the continuing refugee crisis, persistent discrimination and exclusion, as well as mass intrusion into the privacy and personal data of everyday people throughout Europe. This is why the FRA have chosen these three themes for the Forum 2016.

Rights, respect, reality: the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Europe of values in today’s world, provides the bedrock for addressing contemporary challenges and a source of promising practices to better protect and promote human and fundamental rights across Europe and beyond.

Awareness of human rights is growing, thanks in part to the EU’s very own bill of rights, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Such momentum needs capturing. For example, policy makers should reinforce the implementation of our strong policy and legislative human rights framework; business should stimulate the growing interest in corporate social responsibility, and inclusive sustainable growth; and rights holders should be empowered to participate fully in life.

Based on the principle that a multi-stakeholder, systematic and future-oriented approach is vital to ensure everyone in the EU can enjoy their fundamental rights, the Forum encourages all actors to strengthen the protection and promotion of fundamental rights across the EU.

Day 3 - Less talk more action needed grant power to the people

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On 22 June, the topic of the day was empowering rights holders. This focus was introduced by Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner in his keynote speech. He spoke of the need for a ‘battle plan for Europe’ to address the negative trends, the fundamental rights backsliding that is becoming all too evident across the EU. Here he gave everyday examples such as the ‘epidemic’ of forced evictions of Roma, the restrictions of refugee family reunification to supposedly stem the migrant flow, and the adoption of bad surveillance laws and their impact on privacy and press freedom. “We need to be creative, clever and tough, combining impatience with patience,” he said, comparing the approach to a group therapy session where both sides get together to air their grievances to find common solutions.

He also spoke of the need for governments to help raise rights awareness, highlight obligations and strengthen access to human rights bodies that can help right holders. This includes making such bodies stronger with more powers, greater independence and better resources. These views were echoed by David Stanton, Ireland’s Justice Minister. He spoke of ringfencing NHRB funding and greater rights awareness so people can effectively claim their rights. This also extends to schools and college where teaching rights education and awareness is required.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was mentioned. It considers rights holders also as duty bearers. With rights also come responsibilities. It believed in creating a human rights community in which everyone owes each other respect, acknowledging differences. In the wrap-up debate at the close of the day, the issue of access was repeatedly referred to. Panellists discussed access to information about our rights and knowing what they mean, as well as access to data that will allow us to act. Lora Vidović, the Croatian Ombudswoman took heart from the fact that in her country complaints are on the rise, indicating that awareness is growing and know how to act on them.

In concluding, to move forward the panel suggested increasing access to information on our rights, and education on how to use them, greater support for independent NHRIs and equality bodies, and acting now to ensure their follow-up in the next time the Forum meets.

Read more on Fundamental Rights Forum - Daily Round Up

Equinet Engagement

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On 22 June, Eveyln Collins, Chair of Equinet and Chief Executive of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, spoke in Workshop 4 (Social inclusion in the context of the Europe 2020 strategy: what is missing?) on ’Making equality, diversity and non-discrimination central to the achievement of social inclusion’. She spoke of the need for a renewed focus on equality, diversity and non-discrimination in the Europe 2020 strategy and a real focus on these themes in the forthcoming Pillar of Social Rights, including through involvement with and by equality bodies at national level. She talked about the links between discrimination and poverty and the need both to understand these links fully and to ensure that actions taken to address poverty and discrimination contribute to reducing both. She underlined the important role and work of equality bodies to address social exclusion in their work to promote equality and diversity and combat discrimination, and the need for support for the work of equality bodies, including through the introduction of standards. Read full speech here

Tamás Kádár, our Head of Legal and Policy Team spoke in Workshop 1 (Inclusion and fundamental rights: addressing gaps in equality law and its implementation) about the current challenges in equality law and the role equality bodies can play in addressing these. He recalled the gaps in legislation and the need for a swift adoption of the so-called Horizontal Directive to address the hierarchy of grounds and levels of protection. At the same time, he called for better implementation and use of already existing legislation in the field. Despite EU and national legislation, discrimination is still accepted and sadly seems to make economic and political sense due to the low level of sanctions and compensation, falling far short of providing effective and dissuasive remedies. He called for a more positive approach to equality law, acknowledging that it is about much more than non-discrimination and should also comprise promoting positive duties, public and private sector equality duties and positive action measures to attain more substantive equality. As a prerequisite to effective equality legislation, he underlined the need for a strong institutional architecture with all actors working in concert, including strong and effective equality bodies with guaranteed standards for their independence, mandate, powers and resources, as well as a strong civil society sector, and local, national and EU institutions. Read our working paper on developing standards for equality bodies.

Many Equinet members were present and speaking on various panels throughout the week, such as Pedro Calado, High Commissioner for Migration, Portugal and Lora Vidovic, Ombudsman, Croatia on Local communities and migration hotspots: Taking a fundamental rights perspective.

Katrine Steinfeld, Equinet policy officer, also contributed to the Forum with a blog post on Equality: the cornerstone of real inclusion.

Equinet and ENNHRI

(Picture, from left to right: Lora Vidovic, Debbie Kohner, Evelyn Collins, Tamas Kadar)  (Click to enlarge picture)

Equinet Chair Evelyn Collins and ENNHRI Chair Lora Vidovic had the chance to meet during the Forum and exchange on the work of both networks for this year and next, as well as opportunities for collaboration and cooperation. (Picture, from left to right: Lora Vidovic, Debbie Kohner, Evelyn Collins, Tamas Kadar)