RWI’s director, Morten Kjaerum, recently delivered a keynote speech at the European Commission’s final conference on the FRAME project, which stands for Fostering Human Rights Among European Policies.
European Union (EU) officials, practitioners, academics and civil society representatives all gathered to discuss themes linked to the EU and human rights during keynote speeches, panel discussions and a high-level roundtable at the Palace of the Academies in Brussels.
Below you can read the speech in its entirety.
Navigating human rights in the unknown world: A compass for the EU
Adj. Professor, Morten Kjaerum, Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute
“Thank you very much for the invitation. What I will talk about today is something that occupies me a lot. What is the role for human rights in securing a future for our children and grandchildren? How do we navigate human rights in a world full of unknowns? The number of autonomous developments that are converging these days and years leave us staggered and sometimes even paralysed. Developments may be interconnected or they may not – but in many ways it does not matter since it anyways impacts the unknown world ahead of us.
“To get us started let me ask you what Hasseris street in the city of Aalborg in Denmark has in common with the subway line in Stockholm going to Hässelby?
“They share the fact that it makes a tremendous difference whether you live at the one end of the street/line or at the other. You live on average 12 years longer if you live at the more affluent end of the street or the subway line. These are Nordic welfare states in 2017.
“Leave no-one behind is the overall call of the SDGs – Hasseris and Hässelby indicate that there is something we need to look into.
“Who are the people who statistically will live 12 years less than their street or metro line fellows? They are Danish or Swedish men, low education, poor salary or unemployed, often single with weak social networks. They feel left behind. They are frustrated – frustrated with low self-esteem, and increasingly via social media platforms they have channels for their anger.
“That is positive because now there is a chance that their issues are being heard. It may serve them well but also the rest of society. In the old days when the miners went into the coal mines they brought along cages with parakeets. If the parakeets started drowsing it was time to get out – it was a signal that oxygen was getting low. What we may have heard from the Brexit referendum, the presidential election in the US, 21% for Marine Le Pen, and throughout Europe today may be early warnings from important segments of the population.
“An early warning of something unknown. Jonathan Glover reminds us in his book Humanity, A Moral History of the Twentieth Century that the unthinkable today is real and thinkable tomorrow. He writes:
“At the start of the century there was an optimism, coming from the Enlightenment, that the spread of a humane and scientific outlook would lead to the fading away, not only of war, but also of other forms of cruelty and barbarism. They would fill the chamber of horrors in the museum of our primitive past. In the light of these expectations, the century of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein was likely to be a surprise. Volcanoes thought to be extinct turned out not to be.’
“What we have witnessed the last 10–15 years is an increasing authoritarian trend globally that is rapidly accelerating nurtured by populism from the right and the left. According to the Freedom House Freedom in the World Index, 2016 was the 11th consecutive year of a global decline in freedom. A key element is the attacks on democratic institutions, and in particular the separation of powers and the courts.
“In Europe, Hungary took the lead weakening the constitutional court by dismissing its judges, substituting them with supporters of the regime. Poland has followed. In many more countries populist forces attack the courts for being non-democratic and not accountable to the people through regular elections. This is a message that is easily picked up in populist circles.
“The hostile language against courts is accentuated when the discussion is about the regional or international courts. Most recently we have again seen harsh critics of the European Court of Human Rights followed by political attempts to weaken its impact on human rights protection of the most vulnerable groups in Europe. The same can be said about the International Criminal Court and to a lesser extent the European Court of Justice.
“Moving to the US, most recently we saw for the first time ever a “no-show” of the United States of America in an examination in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as well as that they are considering to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council. Serious financial undermining of the institutions may be the ultimate killer factor.
“Apart from the courts and the international system it should be mentioned that media freedom is scaled down. A fairly new trend is the attack on the academic institutions, most recently the attempted closure of the Central European University in Budapest. As is well known the space for civil society is also shrinking.
“The authoritarian and populist forces work to erode the mechanisms stabilising the democratic state and the bodies protecting human rights. What was built after the Second World War is now seriously threatened. The attack on the institutions is what makes this period particular concerning. The authoritarian backlash has not eased but rather gained momentum over the past decade.
“It would be suicidal to try to give a full picture of why the democratic world currently is moving in this direction. The financial crisis and inequality are certainly important drivers in the process and some may add that the refugee crisis in 2014–15 has contributed. I will touch upon these elements but focus on other aspects and then offer some sparkles of hope.
“Fear and angst play into this in many different ways. Here we have to remind ourselves that fear in itself is real and so are the causes. But we may not need to fear all the causes – or fear so much. We have to recall that fear erodes life quality and in the end fear kills.
“The obvious elements when addressing fear is what dominates the political discourse and media headlines and here the list is obvious: terrorism and crime – and at the top of the list is currently refugees and mass migration. These are all real issues. However, are they so substantial and profound to allow them to absorb the political and public discourse to the extent that they do? Crime is in most countries declining; so in this case the attention only serves to add to the fear level.
“With regard to terrorism the very aim of these heinous crimes is to create fear, and it certainly works. Here there is a tremendous task for governments, media – all of us – to find solutions not to allow fear to take over our lives. I will not go deeper into this here but just mention that it is surprising how cases involving Muslims are capturing headlines across Europe whereas arson attacks on camps for refugees followed by swastika signs are called kids affairs or done by unstable persons. It is obvious to where the fear is directed.
“The same can be said on migration. Not that 1.2 million refugees arriving in Europe is not a considerable task. However proportionally we talk about 2:1000 Europeans. Thus, if handled in solidarity and with mechanisms in place it could be dealt with in a manner that would not inject fear and animosity in important segments of the populations. No wonder that people get scared when they see thousands of foreigners walk up the highway with the police watching. It could have been managed, but the political will was absent. Again Hungary is the front runner with the Islamophobic statements by Prime Minister Orban and the current asylum procedures that are far from any human rights standards.
“These issues are also the issues where the human rights world feels at home: addressing racism and Islamophobia, the protection of refugees and fighting for fair trials also for terrorists. As Professor, Philip Alston said recently in a lecture, “Human rights are always on the wrong side.” It was not to indicate that human rights should not address these issues but rather that the current attacks on the human rights regime can be explained from this perspective. When human rights protect terrorists and constitute the last bulwark for extreme restrictions and actions in the field of migration, human rights will eventually become the target.
“This is certainly true for the most recent attack on the ECtHR that is closely tied to its decision on family reunification and expulsion of foreigners. In many instances in Europe, the European Convention of Human Rights and the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights are the last instruments protecting refugees and migrants.
“However, there is another dimension to this, namely that the human rights world together with others are absent from some of the more profound and difficult topics and fear drivers. In short when did the human rights world last address the issues of the people living at the wrong end of Hasseris street or the Hässelby line?
“If they had belonged to the one or the other minority group, the human rights community and other political groups than the populists would have addressed their issues. That is so despite the fact that Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental rights mention as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination ‘social origin.’
“So what are the fear elements relevant for this group? Well looking at Maslow’s pyramid of need the answer is obvious, namely security, and in particular economic and job security. Now consider how many upbeat articles you have read the past month about the driverless car or the fully automated shops praising these new technological advances and how much we can save. It is only one in a hundred of these articles that address the effects of all this on the millions of truck and taxi drivers or the frontline personnel in the local super market.
“They read the same articles and they reflect on their future and they look for visions and ideas to what they shall do just a few years from now. And for good reasons. A trip to Silicon Valley will convince even the greatest sceptic that the world is up for a major re-do. The new technological platforms, new ways of transport, together with robotics, and millions of things that are unknown to us today but will be utterly familiar in a few years are now converging with a hitherto unheard speed.
“This is not a gradual change; it is not a revolution; it is in the words of Ulrich Beck a metamorphosis. So far it has been the blue-collar workers that have been touched, but just last week 40 investment advisers were laid off from a large asset management company and replaced with computers that can do the work better and faster. Very soon it will dig deep into the academic middle classes in Europe, and the first ones will be the economists, the legal profession and doctors. Robots with advanced algorithms will soon carry out the work.
“Just to complete the picture it must be mentioned that many of the most vulnerable people in Europe and elsewhere live in places that are first hit by climate change. The droughts in Spain and Italy have caused severe hardship for many thousands of peasants and wine growers. What is their future? The same weather changes are also what lead to refuge movements today and most likely even more dramatically in coming years. This is what ironically ties the frustrated voters to their fear objects.
“The convergence of technologies has to be linked to the acceleration of climate change, and in that light the picture of metamorphosis makes sense. The forces are getting out of our hands since this is not driven by a master plan or with the outset in a particular ideology, it is driven by millions of daily actions and side effects of these actions. Thus, what will come is unpredictable; some of it may be good and other things may be bad.
“This is detected by all; and it injects fear. Due to its high complexity the visions and discussions that could help us take charge of some of it or create new visions are high jacked by the simple cry that sounds across Europe today: Look there – there is a Muslim. The fear is personalised in the other.
“Let me go back in history for a moment, and here Roosevelt provides a good bridge to the glimmers of hope that I promised and the role human rights can play. In 1941 he addressed the US Congress with his State of the Union speech presenting a new ‘moral order’ based on four freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The ‘four freedoms speech’ is famous due to its influence over history, forming the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the UN General Assembly 1948.
“The sense of security is intimately tied to freedom from fear and freedom from want. Thus, Roosevelt saw what the West has neglected since: that civil and political rights are interrelated and interconnected with economic, social and cultural rights. This was underscored in the UDHR and reaffirmed at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 in Vienna.
“The paradox that we are currently in is that the challenges that confront us, be it climate change or the technological developments, cannot be addressed by any single state alone. Only through cooperation and solidarity is there a chance that human kind can regain a minimum of control. This is a paradox since nationalism has become a dominant feature of our times.
“So what is needed is that key politicians keep their focus on the issue and do not let themselves be drawn into the easy populist nationalistic hate discourses. People are receptive to visions and ideas about a future that looks different but they still do not hear the visions. The drivers of globalisation and the new technologies that are hyper-modern in one sense are utterly old-fashioned in another.
“The old-fashioned part of these companies is their constant drive for profit and reluctance to share. They have to embrace the modern world that they have a big share in creating and offer their creativity to all of us about what the chauffeur, the cashier and the lawyer shall do in the future. What is their take on this? And when will they fully contribute economically to the collective
“A lot of these companies have embraced in their modern self-perception corporate social responsibility and human rights. But at the same time they contribute in a considerable way to undermining human rights protection by avoiding tax. Tax payment has moved up on the human rights agenda alongside the fight against corruption.
“Where companies resist contributing or offer the minimum protection of workers, governance structures need strength and encouragement to challenge them. Human rights and labour rights have been hard won and shall not be thrown out over night by the introduction of a new app. That happened with Uber and partly with Airbnb. We have seen how the liberal Danish government has passed legislation that so far had the consequence that Uber closed their business in Denmark. This should not be a matter for a single member state but for the European Union since there is nothing modern in eroding the rights of people introducing zero-hour contracts and Uber-systems.
“Where governments often are far away from the people on the Hasseris street in Ålborg the local authorities are close. Local authorities throughout Europe are now reacting to some of the nationalistic and populist political agendas. We have seen the city of Gdansk going up against the Polish central government on the issue of refugee protection. Numerous cities are now declaring themselves human rights cities.
“It’s an interesting and promising movement. In the human rights world for some time one has looked to the private sector to be a moderating factor when governments became irresponsible. That is fine when it works. However, we cannot abandon democratic institutions altogether, and those we find at the local and regional level. In several EU Member States there is a trend that while trust in central government is declining the trust in local government is rising.
“In Sweden, the Swedish Association of Local and Regional Authorities in March 2017 adopted a human rights policy platform for Swedish cities and regions. This is now to be implemented on a voluntary basis. The Raoul Wallenberg Institute is closely involved in this process.
“Does the human rights approach make a difference in a modern Northern European welfare state? It is astonishing to witness the changes that a human rights based hospital or class room can bring about with small means, when taking the outset in the right to health or education. One of the reasons why the life expectancy is shorter for the people on Hässelby line is that there are tremendous barriers for many people, in particular men, in entering a hospital. In a human rights based hospital that I visited recently they took the outset in the people living in the district with profound outreach to the most vulnerable. One of the findings was that 40% of the persons that they reached had the deadly chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“In the words of Ulrich Beck we are all globalised one way or another. We cannot escape it but rather take up the challenge. That is what many cities are realising, creating global networks of human rights cities, on equality or sustainability, environment and in particular climate. Hitherto it is best illustrated in the climate summit in Paris in 2015. Here cities together with the corporate sector managed to influence the outcome. Without the cities the outcome would hardly have been as positive. With more than half of the world population now living in cities, the cities are gaining self-confidence in the light of states not being seen to tackling the systemic issues.
“Generally speaking human rights offers a normative framework for addressing issues at the very local level. Human rights contribute to creating a coherent approach to issues that previously were dealt with in silos and isolation. It helps the officials having a focus on the individual. The most obvious example is the work on marginalised groups and minorities.
“The local communities have in their hands to engage citizens in the decisions about their life. In a time of fear and insecurity this is a very powerful instrument that should be used to reengage people and offer them a sense of control and influence. We see a lot of highly interesting experiments on this across Europe that should be developed further. The slogan from the disability movement – ‘nothing about us without us’ –should cut across all areas. Engaging should be added to the list of obligations for duty bearers: to duty to respect, protect, fulfil and engage.
“Human rights serve as a common framework for some of the global dialogues between cities. Here the Congress of the Regions in the Council of Europe as well as the Committee of the Regions in the EU play important roles. Both institutions need to be strengthened and drawn into the political processes more seriously. At the UN level a city forum is needed and avenues to the treaty body system should be explored. In this way globalisation will be seen contributing to the advancements at the very local. It all come together.
“Finally, there is an urgent need to address the freedom from want and fear. The human rights environment needs to engage stronger in the linkage between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. It was always a mistake that the EU Fundamental Rights Agency did not get a mandate in its multi-annual framework to address economic, social and cultural rights. When working on austerity measures the Eurogroup and Troika should have included knowledge and expertise on economic and social rights.
“Having had a stronger focus on economic, social and cultural rights could have addressed some of the concerns regarding the people living at Hasseris street and Hässelby line and many other places in Europe. It could have addressed some of the consequences of globalisation and neo-liberalism that have led to the extreme inequality in all societies.
“In this way, human rights work may not always be on the wrong side. By addressing the very legitimate concerns of this group human rights may regain credibility in the eyes of those who feel that human rights are about the other.
“To sum up, authoritarian trends and populism are gaining momentum, targeting key institutions and legal frameworks governing human rights, rule of law and the separation of powers. Partly the momentum builds on the immense sense of insecurity created by globalisation, inequality, new technological advances and climate change that all converge in this period of time. The convergence has the potential of a major transformation of the world if we continue along the current track. The unknown will hit us – unprepared.
“As illustrated, there are a number of avenues that can be chosen to at least address some of the concerns and to be better equipped to meet the unknowns with a strong legal framework and institutions in place. So let’s listen carefully to those that are left behind and let it be an early warning call for all of us. Like the parakeets in the coal mines.
Thank you very much for the attention.”