Interview with Morten Kjaerum, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights

How would you explain the work of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) to somebody who does not know much about it?

In short, the Agency is here to make FRs accessible for everyone in Europe, to get FRs integrated into new legislation of EU institutions as well as of EU Member States. So that would in short be what the Agency is part of. There is also the Council of Europe, the UN and a number of other actors so concretely we deal with FR implementation when it comes to the implementation of EU legislation.

How does the FRA differ from its predecessor EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia) and what do fundamental rights exactly mean in its name?

First of all the big difference between the EUMC and the FRA is that the mandate of the Agency is much wider then the EUMC’s. The EUMC had a mandate that only covered racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism and islamophobia, whereas the new Agency in principle covers all fundamental rights - so that also means the right to privacy, broader protection from discrimination and also gender discrimination, sexual orientation, disability, as well as a number of others like freedom of expression. In principle we cover all the FRs while EUMC only covered Racism and Xenophobia. The FRA bases its work on the fundamental rights as they are stated in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

What do you hope the Agency can achieve in the near future and what are actually the biggest HRs challenges?

First of all, one of our big tasks is to advise the EU institutions on how to make fundamental rights a reality for everyone. There has been a gap in the European HRs architecture previously. And of course, we hope that we can contribute to mainstream HRs into the process of legislation, as well as into the other discussions and policy developments that take place in a variety of the EU institutions and the Commission and the Parliament and the Council. So that is, of course, one of our big challenges. The other one is to strengthen the HRs awareness in Member States, so that HRs are put higher on the agenda in Member States in both creating legislation as well as in implementing the legislation. The biggest challenges are probably liked with the old mandate of the EUMC, namely racism and discrimination in general, linked with equal treatment of people. In addition to racism, there are many more issues, for example related to people with disabilities. They are facing barriers which are not acceptable, and which could and must be changed. The same is true for homophobia; homosexual people are being discriminated for example in education and on the labor market, where they often experience harassment at the workplace, and also problems in getting access to work or to promotion. So discrimination is a very big area. Another big area is, of course, the right to privacy. These days very rapidly gigantic databases are being built up, information bases on sensitive personal information on each of us. And you could say that at the moment, as most European States are nice democracies, a lot of people relax and say; ok, that’s fine. But in areas like this, we need to think just a little bit ahead and recognize that this may not be for granted, and it is not certain that all European countries will remain nice good democracies just in the medium term. And what sort of information is being built up here? We need a European-wide debate on how to protect the privacy much better then we have done so far.

Is the Agency accessible to the public? Does the Agency for example offer any traineeship positions for those who are interested in HRs or in the work of the Agency itself?

Yes, we are accessible. We consider ourselves as an open and extrovert institution. We welcome gladly guests to come and visit us. We also offer traineeships for different professionals who can come for five months and stay with us, as well as people coming on shorter study trips if there are any specific tasks mainly for a month. We are also currently building an “InfoPoint” which will be a big entrance hall at our building, where everyone can come and will get information about the Agency and about our work. So we have a variety of ways to interact with general public.

How would you explain HRs and why they should be respected to those who violate them?

First of all this is a question of the dignity of each and everyone as a person and as a human being. There is a fundamental duty for those who hold the power to respect other people when they exercise their power. In any democratic state in 2009 this is an integrated part of democratic thinking. Apart from that, if we want to have a dynamic society, if we want to have a society where people are creative and productive and contribute to political and technological development, we need them to be free to speak, we need people to be able to assemble, we need people to have a good education. That is why we have FRs, for instance an access to education for all children, also for children which are not here legally because of the legal status of their parents for example. So in order to create so to say a dynamic society, HRs
are absolutely necessary.

You mentioned education, do you think that human rights education is properly covered at schools and universities? And if not, what shall be done?

I think we have come a very long way in HRs education, and in particular at university level. Where there is still some way to go is the primary and secondary school level, where human rights education is often still very rudimentary. Hardly any States have actually focused on a solid approach to HRs education throughout the education system. So having started from the top, meaning the university level, now we need to filter down to the entire curriculum. So there is definitely a lot that could and must be done.

We are now facing a serious economic crisis, so what is the impact of this crisis on human rights? Aren’t you afraid that somebody can object, in times of economic difficulties it is important to feed people first, and provide them with a proper job first, and human rights can come afterwards? So HRs would have to leave space on national agendas for let’s say more urgent priorities?

It is exactly in times of crises when HRs are most needed, because we know from experience that an economic crises is first of all hitting the most vulnerable people in society: migrant workers, the disabled, women and others who are first laid off, and sometimes with the consequence of being pushed onto the black labor market. And again we have to ensure that there is a social safety net that protects economic and social rights, and also for example the right to education so that the most marginalized children are not being squeezed out of the education system in order to save money or for other reasons. And of course the most dramatic risk in the crises period is scapegoating. We know from history that in times of crises, people start blaming particular groups for the current problems, whether it is anti-Semitism which could be on the rise, or migrants in our society, or the Roma etc. We unfortunately already see such tendencies and I think there is a tremendous obligation on all, both politicians and others, to be extremely careful in a period like this not to fertilize or support any such views, but quite on the contrary to take a very firm stand against any form of scapegoating and racism.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has just turned 60 years. Do you think it is time for its retirement?

No, it is not. I think we will also celebrate the 120 years’ birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the one hand, unfortunately a lot of these problems persist, but on the other hand, I think people will also ask for higher standards on HRs protection and new areas will occur. So I think the HRs area is a dynamic field and we will need to constantly keep an eye on the protection of HRs. We have seen now in the last eight years after September 11 how easy it was to suddenly slight backwards in HRs protection. And now with the economic crisis there may be another incident which may threaten the protection of HRs, and again we need to be firm and insist and remind ourselves about why was it that the world decided on the UDHR. What was the lesson learned that they wanted to convey to the next generations? And that is what we have to always remind ourselves.

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Tento článek byl vložen on Neděle, Červen 28th, 2009 at 21.50 a je v rubrice 2. Magazine VENTIL, 3. Interviews. Sledujte komentáře pomocí RSS 2.0. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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