Stop the rain on human rights

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Way of Human Rights with pillars engraved with articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Nuremberg, Germany. [Shutterstock/frantic00]

The current pandemic crisis serves as a magnifying glass of all existing inequalities in Europe – racism, gender and sexual discrimination, treatment of migrants: there is still a long way to go to ensure full and real equality in Europe, write Helena Dalli and Dunja Mijatović on the occasion of the Human Rights Day on 10 December.

Helena Dalli is the European Union Commissioner for Equality. Dunja Mijatović is the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This very principle of equality enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has inspired and transformed the lives of millions of Europeans – and continues to give hope to countless more.

Regrettably, for all the progress of the past seven decades, there is still a long way to go to ensure full and real equality in Europe.

Our societies breed divisive levels of inequality, fear and polarisation. Structural discrimination keeps millions of Europeans on the margins of our societies, especially in employment, health, education, housing, and the criminal justice system.

The current pandemic crisis serves as a magnifying glass of all existing inequalities in Europe and exacerbates them. Those who were poor before it became poorer; those who were disadvantaged faced even greater disadvantages.

Inequalities affecting women, LGBTIQ people and ethnic minorities illustrate this problem well.

Although the situation varies from country to country, discriminatory treatment of women is ubiquitous. This is evident in the workplace, where deep-rooted societal attitudes contribute to maintaining the gender gap.

Violence against women and the obstacles faced by women in access to their sexual and reproductive health and rights also derive from ingrained patterns of inequalities between women and men.

Progress on ensuring equality for LGBTIQ people has been remarkable in some countries. However, in others the trend is worrying.

Restrictions to freedom of assembly and association, obstacles to legal gender recognition and lack of adequate protection at public events are evident failures of state authorities to uphold their commitments and legal human rights obligations to ensure equality for LGBTIQ people.

The situation is not much better for people from ethnic minority and immigrant backgrounds. If you are of African descent you are more likely than white people to face discrimination in the job market, in education and housing, and to be stopped by the police without reasonable suspicion.

Hate incidents also continue to scar the lives of Jews, Muslims and Roma, who are among the preferred scapegoats of those who still stigmatise some groups of people on the grounds of their ethnic origin or religion.

The unkept promise of equality betrays a long political, philosophical and judicial tradition which places equality at the centre of European democracies. Both the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights have upheld the principle of equality and non-discrimination since the 1970s.

Yet, more and more governments and parliaments seem to pay little attention to their legal obligations, and to the destabilising consequences that keeping millions of Europeans as second-class citizens is having on our societies.

Hard won progress’ longevity is not a given. We must protect and reinforce it every day.

The many challenges that our societies will have to face require that Europe strengthens the place equality occupies in our societies, starting by giving a more central focus to the principle of equality and non-discrimination in relations to all human rights, be they civil, political, economic social or cultural.

We must do better for the rights of the single mother living in poverty and for the disabled child prevented from attending a mainstream school. We must protect the rights of women and girls who have been sexually harassed, of young graduates who face discrimination in the labour market because of how their name sounds.

We also must remain vigilant in the face of worrying attempts to roll back progress towards equality for women and LGBTIQ people.

There is no easy fix, but already taking the decision to address these long-standing problems together is a good start. We firmly believe that the founding principles and values of the Universal Declaration are as relevant today as they were when they emerged from bloodshed, tyranny and war. They require that governments become stronger defenders of human rights.

We are helping them do so by addressing effectively the pervasive discriminations against women in Europe. Ratifying and implementing the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence is key to advance gender equality. This Convention has been ratified by 34 European countries, and signed by the EU.

However, the EU is not yet in a position to ratify because unanimity between member states has not been reached. We will join forces to make clear that the Convention protects from violence and nothing else; contrary to the misconceptions, fallacious and uninformed claims that have circulated and sown doubts.

Likewise, we are committed to fight racism and bring about an anti-racist culture. To this end, we believe that one of the priorities is to help member states stamp out ethnic profiling and end impunity for police misconduct.

We will also strengthen our work to counter discrimination against LGBTIQ people. We will continue to raise the visibility of LGBTIQ people in our dialogue with member states, support activists and use all means at our disposal to defend the right of LGBTIQ people to equality.

For this to happen, however, our voices alone will not suffice. There is the need for a renewed commitment by national authorities to uphold the founding values and legal obligations set out by the European Union and the Council of Europe. And here we get to the heart of the problem.

At best, many politicians in our member states remain indifferent about discrimination. At worst, they instigate violence and hostility. Politicians must be champions of equality, not obstacles to it. International organisations and the human rights community too have their bit to do.

We must become more inclusive in the way we defend human rights. We deliver a public service in the interest of society, but we do not own that service. We talk about, for and sometimes with people who have suffered human rights violations.

But we rarely empower them to speak for themselves. They should take part in decision-making processes as much as possible. We should learn to listen more and they must have the space to tell their stories and shape the policies and laws that concern them.

When states adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights on 10 December 1948, they pledged themselves to achieve equality. Giving practical effect to that vision is still possible – but only if we choose to strengthen freedoms, promote participation and empower all people.

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