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Equinet Interview: Discrimination and inequality are key challenges for European countries

February 19th 2015

An interview with Anne Gaspard, Executive Director of Equinet, with www.diskriminacija.ba (Bosnia and Herzegovina - BiH), highlights that while EU Member States have made ​​significant progress in the fight against discrimination, there are still problems and prejudices which vulnerable groups face. The interview outlines the lessons which authorities and organizations in BiH can learn from European colleagues in the field of combating discrimination and ensuring equal treatment of all groups in society.

1. Can you tell us bit more about yourself in terms of your experience in the field of equality and fight against discrimination before you joined Equinet, and what is your current role?

I have been involved in the field of equality and non-discrimination from the very start of my professional experience following graduation from university studies in European studies and political science (in London). It was a clear step for me to choose to engage in this specific area of work based on my personal values, convictions and flowing from my education and the completion of my studies. I had the opportunity to start work in the field of equality by contributing within a first traineeship in the European Parliament to the European Year against Racism in 1997. Subsequent work within the Council of Europe (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance ECRI), the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC – predecessor to the current Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna) and a European consultancy specialized in diversity management, allowed me to strengthen my specialized experience working in the field of equality and non-discrimination in a European context. It is in 2008 that, as a result of the recruitment and selection process for the position of Executive Director, I was given the unique opportunity to join Equinet as the new Network of Equality Bodies (which was then just created thanks to core EU funding support). My key tasks at the time included the setting up of Equinet Brussels-based Secretariat and the development of the work of the Network with the engagement of expert equality bodies, which I am heading since then together with a small great team of colleagues and experts.

2. What are some of the main methods and tools that Equinet use in promoting equality on the Europe wide level?

Equinet is the European Network of Equality Bodies and our activities build on our members’ activities and experience across the different countries. National equality bodies work at Member State level to promote equality and tackle discrimination. Their core mission is to ensure that equal treatment legislation is applied effectively on the ground, through investigating cases of discrimination, building a culture that is respectful of rights, providing information and in some instances legal support to victims of discrimination, monitoring and reporting on discrimination issues, conducting research and providing policy recommendations as well as engaging with society to foster inclusive and non-discriminatory practices.
Equinet serves as a professional platform for cooperation, capacity building and peer support amongst equality bodies around the legal interpretation and implementation in practice of the EU equal treatment Directives and around the promotion of equality and the elimination of discrimination. It does this through trainings and seminars aimed to improve the knowledge and skills of the staff of equality bodies, as well as strengthen their strategic and organizational capacity so that the full potential of these organisations can be realized and innovative approaches in the work of equality bodies be stimulated. Our network also facilitates exchange of information, practices and networking among members to enable peer learning and peer support amongst the various national equality bodies across Europe.
Equinet further contributes to the European equality agenda by promoting the work of equality bodies to support relevant policy and legal developments at EU level. It does this by facilitating a coordinated contribution to the further development of equality policy and legislation on the European level: Equinet collects and analyses the learning from the experience of equality bodies and produces expert publications and policy recommendations on selected grounds and specific issues that are communicated to European level policy makers and stakeholders, and form the basis for debates and work on the occasion of Equinet events and other platforms for cooperation with equality bodies and stakeholders.

3. You are coordinating the activities and cooperation between dozens of equality institutions from different countries. Yet these institutions vary in terms of its structure, funding, size etc. What are the some of the best and worst practices in terms of equality institutions’ organization, structure, principles and size?

There are currently 42 member organisations from 32 different countries engaged in the work of our European Network, and indeed this covers a large diversity within our membership with different types of equality bodies in terms of their structures, mandates, powers, funding and size. Some are quasi-judicial bodies and can make their own decisions in legal cases, while others act as promotional bodies potentially also offering different levels of legal assistance to victims of discrimination. Some are stand-alone, independent bodies while others are closely linked to other public sector bodies. The majority of equality bodies hold a mandate covering multiple grounds of discrimination while some are single-ground bodies (e.g. focusing on the gender or disability ground). Equality bodies mainly greatly vary in resources and size (as regards both staffing and funding) as well as the length of their experience.
It is clear from the composition of and discussions within our membership that there is not one typology that suits the workings of all equality bodies across Europe. However, the experience of equality bodies clearly shows that greater standards should be introduced to ensure that all equality bodies are well placed to fulfill their potential – with the necessary level of independence, resources, effectiveness, adequate process of leadership appointment and accountability required to deliver the impact of their work within society. During this year, Equinet will be working on the developments towards such standards for equality bodies, bringing together experienced strategic thinkers from its member organisations to identify the basic standards that all equality bodies should adhere to.

4. How do you assess the current situation in the EU when it comes to the problems of racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrants sentiment and other forms of discriminatory behavior? Is Europe “turning extreme right” or the size of this problem is being exaggerated?

These are indeed real areas of concern that must be taken very seriously. Discrimination and inequalities are key issues and societies are under pressure to deal with them effectively. On the one hand, austerity measures increase the vulnerability of some minorities and social groups unnecessarily, as there are close links between poverty and discrimination. On the other hand, people are frustrated by their loss of prospects and see key achievements of the European social model dismantled, thus populist sentiments can be fuelled in certain circles.
In this context, the institutional framework for equality has unfortunately been weakened in quite a few countries as a consequence of budget cuts or mandates expansion, despite the fact that there is clear proof that equality is good for society. Equality is necessary for balanced and sustainable economic growth, this is indicated by the social integration-related goals of the key EU policy framework, the EU 2020 strategy and especially its employment, education and poverty-related goals. Equality bodies have an essential role to play in making this strategy a reality.

5. The Decade of Roma inclusion is coming to an end. Its success is being disputed by some while others already plan the extension of this well known program. What is your opinion on the topic of discrimination of Roma people in Europe?

Roma are the largest ethnic group suffering from blatant discrimination in Europe. Equinet and equality bodies pursue work as a priority on making sure the rights of Roma are ensured (e.g. see our publications Factsheet: Equinet’s work for the rights of Roma people and Making Equality legislation work for Roma and Travellers) and while progress has been made on this issue, it has been very slow in general. Equinet will therefore work to pursue its support to the EC’s efforts in the field (National Roma Integration Strategies, Council Recommendation on Roma Integration). We are also cooperating closely with National Human Rights Institutions, the Council of Europe and the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights to find ways of developing fruitful cooperation and work together in the field, particularly addressing key issues such as under-reporting, lack of political will and anti-Gypsism in general.

6. Among the Balkan countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania are not members of Equinet. Why is that? Could you elaborate more especially on Bosnia if you ever had any contacts with Ombudsman institution in this country.

Indeed, in the early period following the establishment in 2008 of Equinet as a European Network funded at the time by the EU Progress programme (2007-2013), there were a number of limitations or uncertainties as to eligibility of participation costs within certain geographic scope of potential membership, including the Balkan countries.
Since then, the new EC funding Equality, Rights and Citizenship Programme (2015-2020) supporting the core funding of Equinet’s work and activities has removed these potential limitations and clarified past uncertainties and we are now pleased that institutions fulfilling the role of equality bodies in these countries could be considered for membership if they decide to apply.
This was the case very recently with the Commissioner for the Protection from Discrimination in Albania, which – following review of its formal membership application in 2014 - was officially welcomed as a new member of Equinet only recently in December 2014, bringing our membership to a total of 42 equality bodies from now 32 countries.
Similarly, we have already been in regular touch with the Institution of Human Rights Ombudsman/Ombudsmen of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Colleagues from the Bosnian Ombudsman have attended Equinet events as observers and we visited their premises, exchanging with them on our respective priorities. An Equinet representative also recently contributed to the Regional Conference ‘Advancing the human rights of LGBT persons in the Western Balkans in Sarajevo.
We would be very pleased to develop this cooperation further and would now also be in a position to review a membership application would these bodies now wish to submit it to join cooperation within our European Network.

7. Assimilation and inclusion of immigrants in the economic and social life of European countries is a hot topic in many EU member states. Judging by the media reports, some countries like Germany achieved success while others are facing an increased animosity towards immigrants as well as the rebellions by its poor citizens. What can both sides (host countries and immigrants) do to make their relationship work?

It seems important here to remind that Common Basic Principles for Immigrant Integration Policy in the EU were adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs Council in November 2004 and form the foundations of EU initiatives in the field of integration. If these Principles were adhered to and implemented, it would surely facilitate the integration process both from the perspective of the host countries and immigrants.
These Common Basic Principles are important foundations in our views to allow and facilitate any positive and fruitful integration processes, and focus on their development and effective implementation should be seen as priority.
Furthermore, as a society we also need to generally and consistently fight racism and the rhetoric of populist parties and politicians who blame economic and social problems on immigrants. The use of facts and figures, that show the economic and social benefits that migrants bring, are very helpful in this regard.

8. Different treatment and (financial) status of men and women in the labor market is a well known issue in not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in many developed European countries. How are you fighting against this discriminatory practice and what are some of the lessons learned that authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina could also use?

Gender inequalities persist throughout European countries, in all spheres of society. Through the Equinet Network, we have strengthened some specific areas of cooperation with equality bodies focusing specifically on their work at national and local level to tackle gender discrimination and inequalities. Last year, we have worked with member equality bodies to collect experiences in relation to equal pay for equal work and work of equal value, and the role equality bodies can play to address this major issue of persisting gender pay gaps. The goal of achieving a better work life balance, and the current work of equality bodies in this area is also at the centre of our work. A third area in which we collected experience is in the field of access to goods and services, providing an assessment of the extent and scope of the effective implementation on the ground across countries of EU legislation on gender equality outside employment and areas for improvement.
In the course of last year, we also facilitated exchanges between equality bodies’ experts in the area of violence against women, and organised jointly with the EU Fundamental Rights Agency a working meeting on this important priority. A training event on harassment and sexual harassment was also held in late 2014 to build the capacity of equality bodies’s experts in dealing with this specific area of discrimination.
In the framework of our legal working group, experts from equality bodies have analyzed the use and impact of positive action measures, in a context where positive action for the under-represented sex (typically women) is a well-developed yet controversial field. The work showed that, if developed in a planned and strategic way, positive action can bring very good results and create impact where needed.
Finally, as part of our interaction with EU institutions, we support the advancement of proposals for new legislation on the protection of pregnant workers from discrimination and work life balance on the one hand, and on the gender balance in company boards, based on information from equality bodies’ experiences.

Interview in Bosnian - www.diskriminacija.ba
Written by Ajdin Perčo