Skip to content Skip to footer

In an interview with Vocal Europe, Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for Europe — UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), expresses her take on some of the critical challenges to the situation of human rights in Europe and within its immediate neighborhood.

Vocal Europe: Having been active in the domain of human rights for almost 20 years now, what is your take on greatest challenges ahead in protecting human rights in Europe?

Birgit Van Hout: Ever since the term “human rights” was coined, there has been both progress and setbacks. Having worked in different parts of the world, I would start on a positive note by saying that the European and national legal frameworks and human rights architecture are quite advanced. The engagement of European countries with the UN human rights mechanisms, which constitute an international system of accountability for human rights violations, is also honest and constructive.

A key challenge at this point is how to translate all these legal provisions and recommendations into tangible improvements in people’s daily lives — where human rights must be eventually realised. Another question is whether Europeans will remain faithful and committed to human rights when the going gets tough, the traditional nation-State model comes under increasing pressure, and complex phenomena of a global nature, like international mobility, climate change or terrorism, produce a sense of loss of control.

We often think of human rights in terms of civil and political rights, but human rights also include economic, social and cultural rights. Europe faces increasing inequality, both among and within countries. How can we make sure that the socio-economic environment in which we are born does not limit our potential or the human rights outcomes to which we are all entitled? Think about the right to work, the right to just and favourable remuneration, or the right to adequate housing. The fact that States construed the European project as a mere economic and monetary union has not helped.

Many people living in a by-and-large prosperous Europe are struggling, particularly young people, single mothers, and pensioners, but also working poor who have not seen their standard of living improve much over the past two decades. The dissatisfaction that a segment of the population voices by voting for political parties that were once considered marginal or extreme appears to be least partly driven by grievances over disparities and austerity. I hope that the implementation, hopefully in a rights-based manner, of the recently adopted Social Pillar and UN Sustainable Development Agenda will address at least some of their concerns.

Our office here in Brussels focuses on those most left behind: persons with disabilities, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, and homeless persons. At EU level, we advocate for comprehensive non-discrimination legislation, more robust standards for equality bodies, gender integration in the work of the European Investment Bank, and a rights-based approach to the post 2020 EU budget. We also advise States on how to operationalise international human rights, for example de-segregation in education or de-institutionalisation – two areas in which much progress remains to be made. And, we support local organisations and independent bodies who hold their governments to account, including by facilitating access to UN mechanisms to report on human rights violations.

Vocal Europe: Recently we have seen a degradation of diplomatic norms, with the US President declaring multiple countries as “sh*tholes” and the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declaring Muslim refugees as “invaders”. How have these issues, as well as the political abnormalities within multiple EU member states, affected the ability of the OHCHR, and the European Union to protect human rights, specifically those of women and children who are at risk, within EU member states?

Birgit Van Hout: Certainly, we find the climate for human rights work more difficult than before. Some governments have used legal measures to curtail public freedoms and weaken the rule of law; some blatantly refuse dialogue. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has repeatedly expressed concern over shrinking democratic space and the situation of human rights defenders in parts of Europe. UN experts have further criticised EU countries over their reluctance to relocate refugees, thereby putting the countries of Southern Europe in a very difficult position. Unfortunately, some feel that time has come to be more ‘pragmatic’ about human rights.

For many years, I worked on human rights outside Europe. When I came back after 20 years, what struck me most was the increased acceptance of hate speech and the demonization of political correctness. Migration is an area that lends itself particularly well to emotional responses instead of rational discussion. I can understand the fear that some Europeans have of a loss of identity. But identities have never been static. They are not a straight-jacket and they evolve over time. One can take pride in one’s culture, language and history without excluding persons of a different background.

We increasingly hear that human rights are for elitists, idealists, or liberals. In some places, human rights advocates are even discredited as ‘un-patriotic’ or ‘traitors.’ But human rights are not about politics; they are not about being left, right or center. European countries were never coerced to sign human rights treaties. They did so voluntarily and because their citizens wanted them. Once we start to compromise on human rights or to apply a double standard between our own rights and those of others, this could be the start of a very slippery slope.

In spite of the current climate, I remain optimistic. I see, in most countries of the European Union, independent judiciaries pushing back against measures and decisions that violate human rights; I see how new technologies make human rights advocacy possible on a scale previously unimaginable, like the #metoo campaign; and I see a strong, professional and resilient civil society across Europe.

Vocal Europe: Almost three years ago, as a result of the migrant shipwrecks occurring in Italy, the European Commission agreed with Foreign and Interior ministers on a “Ten-point action plan on Migration” on 20 April 2015. How much success do you believe this plan has had, as well as other plans proposed since, on the protection of migrants, and the prevention of issues such as human-trafficking and mistreatment of refugees?

Birgit Van Hout: We see a lot of mostly security-centered measures to prevent migrants from reaching Europe or to send them back. We see much less of a medium- or long-term vision on how to address the push factors that drive people to leave their countries. Human rights violations in countries of origin are important drivers of migration. People flee violence, oppression, desertification, or extreme poverty. But poverty does not exist in a vacuum: it is the result of political choices and the absence of good governance. Poverty flourishes in an environment of repeated, protracted and collective violations of civil and political rights. It manifests itself through the deprivation of the right to food, to water, to free quality education, or to health. Saying that persons who do not qualify for asylum under the 1951 refugee convention are simply economic migrants who do not flee human rights violations is therefore an over-simplification.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which we are celebrating the 70th anniversary this year, says that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” While we recognise that migration management is complex and charged with political sensitivities, certain policies, such as immigration detention, pushbacks, and forced returns, raise a lot of questions internationally. Migrants and refugees must be treated with dignity and respect, in accordance with international standards, and not deported to a country where they are at risk of torture or ill-treatment.

In addition, global challenges like migration require global solutions. This makes the active participation of EU countries in the UN Global Compact on Migration so important, as well as the constructive engagement of the EU with the African Union over the long haul. We here in Brussels advocate for a human rights-based approach to EU development and EU external action, like in Libya, for example.
We welcome the recent appeal of EU Migration Commissioner Avramopoulos for a ‘change in thinking’ on migration. Sadly, the negative comments from readers on his opinion piece by far outnumbered the positive ones. That, I believe, is symptomatic of the hostile environment we are up against.

Vocal Europe: Does OHCHR monitor human rights violations in Turkey, particularly after the attempted coup of July 2016? Does it also follow the situation of political opponents of the current administration who have sought asylum in Europe? What do relevant UN bodies do to provide effective protection for these people?

Birgit Van Hout: Just last week (on 17 January), 11 independent experts of the UN Human Rights Council called on the Turkish government not to extend the state of emergency. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shares the worries of these independent experts about severe crackdowns on civil society, including journalists, the media, human rights defenders, jurists, academics, and civil servants, as well as the use of powers in ways that are inconsistent with Turkey’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Our Office has repeatedly requested access to Turkey to monitor human rights violations. Since we have not been granted this access, we carry out remote monitoring. In March 2017, we published a report detailing allegations of massive destruction, killings and other serious human rights violations in South-East Turkey during Government operations in more than 30 towns and neighbourhoods that displaced between 355,000 and half a million people, mostly of Kurdish origin. It is also unacceptable that democratically elected members of the Parliament are imprisoned.

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Mr. Nils Melzer, visited. He has received testimonies showing a widespread use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in the days following the coup attempt. He has also received numerous testimonies of inmates suspected to be members or sympathizers of the PKK that he found very troubling. These findings, taken together with the OHCHR Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey, indicate a worrisome trend. The UN Special Rapporteur has called on Turkey to investigate, prosecute and punish such torture. Ensuring accountability is vital, both from a prevention angle and a victims’ rights perspective. There can be no justification for impunity for human rights violations.

Soon, we will publish a report on the human rights consequences of the state of emergency, which has put the rights to freedom of expression and assembly under immense pressure. In this context, we also document cases of Turkish citizens who allege that their human rights have been violated. One of them is Kurdish activist Cevdet Ayaz. The UN Committee Against Torture requested Serbian authorities to stall his deportation back to Turkey pending the full examination of his asylum request. Regrettably, he was extradited regardless.

Vocal Europe: With a new generation of global citizens being raised in the age of information, armed with and formed via smartphones, social media and the internet, how successful do you believe the engagement of the OHCHR and the EU with these citizens has been on the topics of human rights, as well as current humanitarian crises?

Birgit Van Hout: The current and previous High Commissioners for Human Rights have spoken out very courageously about human rights violations that would otherwise have remained taboo, ranging from LGBTI rights over the mapping of violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to calling the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya ‘ethnic cleansing.’

A challenge the UN and the EU share is that they are often blamed for the failure of their member States. On peace and security, the UN can only act if there is agreement among the members of the Security Council. When there is no such agreement, the UN cannot impose its will. It is important to keep this in mind as we witness human rights crises in Syria, Palestine, South Sudan and Yemen, to name but a few. Nevertheless, the UN remains the only legitimate platform for dialogue and for trying to find solutions to global challenges.

Human rights education remains the best vaccine to prevent human rights violations. And, clearly, in this field we can do much better. As the UN Human Rights Office, we still have a lot of work to do to leave our legal lingo behind and to communicate with people in a manner that is easy to understand, fast, multilingual, accessible for persons with disabilities, and that resonates with young people in this digital age. Here in Brussels, we are trying to engage more people for human rights through our Facebook page (europeohchr) and via Twitter (@OHCHR_Europe). As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we will encourage a range of constituencies to stand up for human rights (#StandUp4HumanRights) under the moto ‘Reflect, Promote, Engage.’

The UN can and must do more to encourage respect for human rights, but eventually, as Eleanor Roosevelt (who co-drafted the Universal Declaration for Human Rights) famously said, “human rights start in small places, close to home.” The push for human rights must come from within, from the people themselves. This is where I would like to throw the ball back to Governments and schools in Europe: are we doing enough to educate children about human rights? I don’t think we are. How can young people – our future leaders – stand up for other people’s human rights if they haven’t been taught about them? Worse, how can they claim their own rights if they don’t know them? We need a broad alliance to keep human rights moving forward and we need young and old, public and private sector to get on board.