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Visiting Luxembourg for an online citizen dialogue focusing on young people, the Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights spoke with the Lëtzebuerger Journal about his priorities but also his point of view on the respect of human rights in Luxembourg.
Recently re-elected as head of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) for three years, Irishman Michael O'Flaherty left Vienna for a few days to join Luxembourg for one of the four online citizens’ dialogues ahead of the Fundamental Rights Forum, a biennial event whose 2020 session has been postponed to autumn 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The FRA Director has planned three “intense” days during which he will meet HRH the Grand Duke, Ministers Corinne Cahen, Jean Assselborn, Sam Tanson and Marc Hansen as well as the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies.
Lëtzebuerger Journal: What are your priorities for this new three-year term at the head of the FRA?
Michael O'Flaherty: The FRA’s priority is to help rebuild post-COVID-19 society. The pandemic has been and is devastating for human rights and especially for people living on the margins of society. We are still in the midst of the pandemic, and we can hardly imagine the economic consequences. But we know that these consequences have a very unequal impact.
My mission is to help ensure that attention is paid to the people most at risk, the most marginalized, whether they are the 6 million Roma or the migrants and young people in general who will pay the price for this period – in some European countries, 40% of young people are unemployed, which is very shocking. We need to rebuild a fairer Europe.
The EU aims to be a pioneer in the field of human rights, particularly with the recent implementation of country-by-country Rule of Law Reports by the European Commission. Do you see the EU as a model for the rest of the world?
M.O.: My personal point of view is that we have a strong system for the protection of human rights in the EU, through the treaties, the Charter of Fundamental Rights – which is not everything but it is a strong and explicit commitment – and the European Convention on Human Rights which has changed our societies. In fact, in my own country, certain rights have been protected following decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. The EU can be a good model in this respect. And I know of no other region in the world that seeks to strengthen the Rule of Law as the EU does.
But that doesn’t mean the EU can tell other countries around the world what they are doing wrong. It has to be a partnership. I know from experience that there are challenges and successes all over the world, and it is about sustaining those successes. We have a lot to teach but also to learn from the rest of the world.
«Luxembourg is one of the very few countries to make explicit reference to human rights in its decision making in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.»
Michael O’Flaherty, director of EU Agency for fundamental rights
Is Luxembourg a model student in terms of respect for human rights?
M.O.: I want to start by saying that Luxembourg is a European country that is doing well in terms of the protection of human rights. I have seen on several occasions that the government is very open to human rights, publicly committed and honest about its own challenges. It is one of the very few countries to make explicit reference to human rights in its decision making in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. And this is a very good practice.
Nobody is perfect anywhere and each country has its own challenges. From our point of view, that of Luxembourg lies in constant efforts for integration and the fight against racism. People from sub-Saharan Africa who live here say that they experience this problem. A public debate took place in 2019 (after the publication of the study ‘Being Black in the EU’, editor’s note) and tended to bring more attention to these issues.
I would like to add that the people in Luxembourg have shown a commitment to human rights far above the European average in our survey last year on the attitude to human rights in the EU. 72% of those surveyed in Luxembourg believe that human rights apply to everyone, compared to 52% for the European average. So this is an extremely strong and very encouraging commitment. We sometimes hear that people don’t care about human rights, but here in Luxembourg, we see that this sense has infused the population. Because it also means that society works and that people stand up to protect their rights.
In Luxembourg, 67% of residents consider that respect for human rights is not a major problem, compared to 48% for the European average. This means that the society takes care of people. However, the figure must be treated with caution: it can also mean that people do not pay attention to people living on the margins. Nevertheless it is a good start.
During the public debate, the Minister for Integration, Corinne Cahen (DP), of all people, said following your study ‘Being Black in the EU’ that she was surprised to hear testimonies from people claiming to be victims of discrimination. Which is a bit of a surprise coming from the minister in charge of this subject …
M.O.: This is precisely my agency’s central mission: to put governments face to face with reality by gathering data, testimonies, and comparisons allowing the voices of those who are never heard to be heard. And the best way to rebuild post-COVID-19 is to ensure that their voices are heard.