[“Be positive but drive for change, make your voice heard, take others on board and scream louder!”]
Encouragement, enthusiasm, collaboration and the ability to trust in our actions to contribute to positive change seemed to have been the underlying message and basis of almost all the discussions and presentations of the legal symposium.
The morning breakout session I attended, dealt with human rights and populism and how to protect, promote and communicate fundamental rights in times of change. The session was very much marked by the need within the population to drive for change and go back to worry about its own fundamental rights rather than sit and watch them deteriorate. The panel agreed that this is urgently needed because fundamental rights impact the lives of citizens in whatever they do in their daily lives, much more than one would realize. Within the EU, some core values should underpin the fundamental rights each member state ought to respect, including among others, the rule of law, freedom, democracy, human dignity, equality and respect for human rights. Ms. Ulrike Lunacek (Member of the European Parliament from Austria), however pointed out that some EU member states have scaled their efforts back to further improve fundamental rights within their countries once they have achieved Union membership and the required standards under the Copenhagen criteria. This development is worrisome, given the restricted means that the EU institutions have at their disposal when they determine a serious risk of infringement of EU values by a member state. The procedure currently available essentially only leads to a possible restriction in voting rights by Member States in the European Council. As a result, Ms. Lunacek has reacted and tried to initiate a new system envisaging more far-reaching consequences for member states when they are at risk of infringing the Union’s values.
Mrs. Dunja Mijatović (human rights expert and former OSCE representative on freedom of the media) then further addressed the young generation in particular and the need for us to raise our voices and speak up as she agrees that a degradation of Union values once membership has been reached is not at all acceptable. She stressed how dangerous some so-called “democracies” have become because of the populist way they interpret fundamental rights. They strip the media from the freedom of expression, silence uncomfortable voices and sweep critical comments under the carpet. She stressed, that exactly because this has been happening in many countries with the rise of populism, voices among the population need to be even louder, fiercer, direct and persistent because only then will governments not be able to silence everyone and eventually give in to the will and drive of its citizens.
A very clear point subsequently made by Iverna McGowan (Head and Advocacy Director, Amnesty International Brussels) was that there is an increasing gap between the human rights at the international level, which are seemingly clear to all and yet the increasing national issues touching upon these values that are disregarded. In addition to the playing down of national human rights issues, there is a shrinking space of civil society that is often very much like the media tried to be silenced or even totally banned. Finally, she also agreed that fundamental rights need to be defended more loudly again, but she stressed that this should be done with clear language. Since complex lawyer terms like ‘the rule of law’, ‘legality’, etc. do not resonate with the population. It is the personal story of a person who has been restricted in his or her rights that touch the population more deeply, effecting a sense of sympathy along with a stronger desire to change and act. I have to admit that I left this morning breakout session with mixed feelings, both gloomy for the severe impacts the near past has had on fundamental rights in our very proximity, despite many EU citizens thinking that we live in a sort of human rights heaven bubble. On the other hand, the recognition that this situation cannot continue coupled with hope that the train leading to improvements and strengthening of fundamental rights again has not left yet, let me feel at more ease.
In the evening of the same day, I had the unique opportunity to chair a fireside talk with the Director of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), Mr. Michael O’Flaherty. During our talks, the underlying hope for change and importance for citizens, young citizens in particular, to stand our ground and make our desire for change heard continued very much like in the morning. He also pointed at the shrinking pace of civil society and the efforts that the FRA makes to include it in its work. In addition, he mentioned the importance of surveys that the agency conducts and how these convey a better picture of the overall human rights situation and perception of human rights within the member states of the EU. Personally, I look very much forward to seeing what the outcome of the survey on the human rights perception by EU citizens will be. I very strongly believe that such a survey is important as it allows to give an insight into how satisfied citizens are with the rights they may or may not have. Furthermore, this survey will be very interesting to read especially because not only each country but each person may have a very different understanding of what a fundamental right is for him or herself, in relation to others and according to the context one finds himself. Finally, having attended several human rights courses during my studies and learning about all the human rights systems that operate simultaneously, I started becoming rater critical of the system and given that there are still some gaps, regarding it as partly inefficient and ineffective as well. I therefore posed Mr. O’Flaherty the question if the international human rights system is not slowly getting lost and overwhelmed by the number of human rights bodies, institutions and courts generating an almost unsurmountable amount of output in terms of reports, opinions and analyses, which may even overlap and hence be of little use or even render the system ineffective. His very positive answer to my rather critical and maybe even negative question, perfectly rounded off all the previous calls made that day and is probably what will stick with me the most and made me overthink and change my stance on the human rights system completely. He stated that there are indeed numerous human rights bodies at the national and international level, but they are still not enough. All these agencies and institutions work for the improvement of our daily lives and of the world’s future and it is their joint impact that counts and effects change. Yet there are many human rights issues that remain unresolved and are more likely to arise, making it crucial for us to found even more agencies, organizations, NGOs, etc. He trusts in us and hopes that we continue and increasingly take the initative to speak out, complain, show with what and why we disagree, because the louder, the ampler, the stronger and the more persistent our voices, the more likely they will be considered and bring about change and improvement accordingly. On this very positive note and conclusion to a discussion that could not have been more enriching and empowering, we all left for a busy reception to clear and rest our minds.
However, once I went to bed and looked at some of the pictures I had taken, I could not help but think how much of an impact those last couple of days had had on me and how many different feelings this captured, which I posted here. At the outset of the legal symposium, I climbed the Gratlspitz, the mountain in Alpbach’s backyard. Standing there on the peak, watching the pink sunbeams slowly awaken me and the nature surrounding me, showed me the hope Alpbach rises in us, the hope for us in a bright future to which we can contribute. On the other hand, the sensation of freedom on top of the Gratlspitz, seeing beyond Alpbach into endless horizons, speaks for the trust many speakers have in us. The trust to explore the freedom we are given to bring in our ideas and speak of them loudly so that they are heard far beyond this Tyrolean village. Admittedly, initially, all the trust and positivity were rather hard for me to accept and take seriously. This however changed. I am not sure if it was thanks to Mr. O’Flaherty’s and the morning panel’s words or the memorable moments on Gratlspitz captured by the photograph. Or maybe it is just the very feeling and atmosphere that this picturesque village Alpbach and its surroundings generate and make us all reflect so much on who we are, how and what we think, were we stand but most importantly where we go from here and how much we can make our voices heard and have an impact. We surely will be taking an additional suitcase with us which is packed with knowledge, broadened horizons, enthusiasm, drive, encouragement, confidence, trust, empowerment, and for me personally much positivity and hope.