Human rights: A scapegoat for the ills of Europe

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Street art attacking Germany's racist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. Berlin, May 2016. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

The public debate in the run-up to the Brexit vote was often based on racist and xenophobic resentments that wrongly associated human rights with the rights of minorities, writes Michael O’Flaherty. But human rights are simply not a minority issue. They are for everyone, he argues.

Michael O’Flaherty is Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, based in Vienna.

After more than two decades in the human rights field, I am deeply saddened by the fact that so many people around the EU presently appear to be making human rights a scapegoat for the ills of Europe.

And while it is not for me to question the decision of the UK electorate to vote as they did in the EU referendum, I am nonetheless concerned that some of the debate in the run-up to the vote was based on racist and xenophobic resentments that were as false as they were destructive.

A myth has emerged over the decades since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and not only in the UK – that rights are only for some people. Specifically for ‘minorities’, which for some has become a synonym for ‘undeserving’ or ‘outsider’. But human rights are not for a minority or even minorities. They are for everyone.

What does this mean in practice? There is the right to justice and a fair trial enshrined in the Magna Carta, which inspired both the Universal Declaration and the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. And there is of course the right to equality, which protects those who find themselves discriminated against or even attacked because they are gay, disabled, black, Muslim or Jewish.

These fundamental rights are at the core of European identity, an identity that has been built up only after many centuries marred by bigotry and bloodshed. Nevertheless, they are still only part of a much bigger picture. Human rights are not an optional extra. They create security, generate jobs and guarantee basic social justice, the major concerns of our time.

Because as well as the rights to life and to dignity enshrined in the Charter are – to name but a few – freedom of thought, of expression, and the freedom to conduct a business.

Freedom to conduct a business? Yes. Because for business and trade to flourish, we need to recognise that refugees are not only in need of protection and that immigrants are not only competing for jobs, but that they are in addition employers, consumers and tax payers. We are missing a largely untapped contribution to economic growth and establishment of global business links.

There are many discussions about how much (or how little, depending on one’s viewpoint) governments are spending on measures to integrate migrants arriving in Europe. But what about talking to business about their needs? Companies in sectors from nursing to software development complain they are lacking specific skill sets. Wouldn’t this be the perfect area for public-private partnerships to match skills to needs? At the same time, companies spend money teaching their staff foreign languages and sending them on training courses to learn intercultural competence. Why ignore a group of people who speak other languages and are versed in the mores of other cultures?

We may not be taking full advantage of the available workforce now. But we could be making a far bigger mistake. Racism is not only a human rights abuse; it is also a fatal error for anyone seeking to boost the economy. The money customers bring with them has neither a colour, a religion, nor a Polish accent. The customers who move to another country for fear of their safety do.

A victim support officer we interviewed recently in the UK told us: “Low-level racism is happening all the time. You can be on the metro, you can be on a train, it’s just there…” But looking around Europe today at the attacks on asylum seeker accommodation, at the hatred spewed out on social media platforms, and now at the increase in hate crime around the UK by people claiming to be acting in the spirit of Brexit, I wonder whether we have now moved from low-level to high-level racism.

A prerequisite for societies to grow is the principle of mutual respect, openness and trust. This was summed up by the philosopher Karl Popper when he said “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.” There is nothing wrong with difference. And there is nothing wrong with difference of opinion. But many seem to have unlearnt the ability for dialogue – and there lies the danger.

In late June, and just three days before the UK referendum, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights convened a conference with 700 participants from across Europe to discuss migration, inclusion and digital privacy. Rarely have I seen such a rich array of views, all of which were debated with courtesy. And never before have I seen such energy and determination to find sustainable solutions to the challenges we’re facing.

To be successful though, we need now more than ever to reflect on and remain true to human rights. Those rights that have been such a uniting force in Europe. Those rights that enable migrant entrepreneurs to enrich the society they live in, both culturally and economically. Those rights that volunteers from Kos to Uppsala uphold with every blanket they donate to a refugee. Those rights without which the path to isolation and hatred is inevitable.

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