Questioning of EU human rights infrastructure ‘frightening’

‘In Europe there are a lot of voices challenging very fundamentals of human rights’

The extent to which influential people in Europe have begun to question the human rights infrastructure put in place in the period since 1948 is “frightening”, a meeting in Dublin was told today.

The head of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Irish human rights lawyer Prof Michael O’Flaherty, said in recent years it was not just the “bad guys” who were rejecting the human rights infrastructure.

Increasingly people devoted to building good societies were no longer committed to human rights. “This is what I find most frightening,” he said.

In an address entitled Is Europe Facing a Human Rights Crisis? delivered to the Institute of International and European Affairs, Prof O'Flaherty said developments since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been an "astonishing success story".


The declaration that all human beings were born free and equal in dignity and rights had triggered remarkable developments in international law. While human rights violations never stopped, new international structures were put in place and the violators never challenged the system.

However, in more recent times there was increasing evidence that the foundations of human rights were under attack.

Last year, approximately one million people had come to Europe, more that half of them from states such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Up to 40 per cent of these people were children, “unknown thousands of whom were unaccompanied”.

He had seen children in refugee camps in cages, not unlike something you might see in Dublin Zoo. The children were in the cages for their own protection.

Women wearing nappies

Likewise, there were women in the camps who were wearing nappies to bed at night so they would not have to go out to the latrines, where they might suffer sexual assault. “This is Europe in 2016.”

“We have told Greece and Italy that they must sort it out on their own.”

He said the numbers fleeing to Europe, the richest corner of the world, were less than 1 per cent of the EU population.

There were, he said, other trends that were a cause for concern. There were rising levels of complacency about inequality, as well as hate crimes and hate speech. In some countries, politicians had crossed the line into hate speech.

There was also a worrying zero-sum aspect to the debate about national security, with a view that the more you concede to human rights, the less secure you are. This was particularly the case in relation to surveillance.

“Today in Europe there are a lot of influential voices in EU society that are challenging the very fundamentals of human rights.”

He suggested that the human rights community do more to argue that such rights are not only important to the marginalised, that they affect, for instance, older people in nursing home. Increased or restored respect for human rights was important when facing the challenges currently existing in Europe.

Prof O’Flaherty said there were likely to be fresh conflicts creating more migrants, as well as future migration caused by desertification. “This isn’t going away. We better get used to it.”

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent