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From hostility to reconnection: how to make human rights relevant for all

Utrecht 20/09/2019
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Peter Baehr Lecture, Utrecht University 

A big problem with human rights is that people often take them for granted. If you are wondering how I know this, it is because I was one of those persons. I was born in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and until 1992 I barely understood the importance of human rights. Then the war started.

I learned what human rights really meant when my life changed, when I lost family members and friends, and when I became a refugee. And I also learned how important it is that people do not only fight for their rights, but also for those of others.

I am therefore truly honoured for today’s opportunity to speak at the lecture named after Professor Peter Baehr, someone who has spent a great amount of his life raising awareness about human rights and empowering people to claim their own rights and to defend the rights of others. His vision, commitment and dedication held true to the motto of this University: May the Sun of Righteousness Enlighten Us.

As I walked through the campus this morning, I thought that there is indeed a strong need for a sun of human rights to shine in Europe again. And I thought that you have a role to play to let it shine brighter and longer.


With the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, governments around the globe committed to making peace, democracy and justice a reality for all. Since then, much progress has been achieved. Many more people have become free from oppression, free from poverty, free to live the lives they want.

Yet, this is only part of the story. Another part provides quite a different picture.

Human rights principles are increasingly challenged, undermined or discounted. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed during wars in Europe’s recent history. From Yugoslavia and Chechnya in the 1990s to Georgia and Ukraine more recently, it seems that European governments have still not learnt the right lessons from history. People have been killed, injured, displaced. Thousands of human beings who flee conflict, repression, hunger and extreme poverty, and climate change die or face hardship in trying to reach a European continent that has become increasingly hostile to them.

Many people risk their lives to defend the truth and seek justice; others suffer discrimination because of their disability, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or other grounds.

In several countries, the independence of the judiciary is under pressure at the hands of unscrupulous governments and parliaments.[1]

Even more worrying, though, is that large strata of society in many countries look at this situation with indifference, if not hostility. This widespread feeling has many causes, but one seems particularly common all over Europe: the failure to reach out to all and show how human rights matter for everyone. We all - individuals, governments, national institutions, international organisations, schools, academia, the media – have taken human rights for granted all too often, failing for too long to acknowledge and react to challenges, dissatisfaction and criticism.

To keep the promise of equality for all we must ensure that people understand and support human rights -- for themselves, of course, but also for others. Regrettably, the past few years have seen the emergence of attitudes which are deeply hostile to human rights and of actions that simply ignore them.

In many countries governments and parliaments are departing from the agreed standards and are entrenching dangerous ideas. They are going down a nationalistic route, playing with identities and using age-old myths of the supremacy of some over others.

This is a very dangerous path. To reverse it, we need to better understand the causes that have led us to this point and be more proactive in addressing them.

One of these causes, I believe, is that many people in Europe share a deep feeling of frustration, uncertainty and insecurity. This feeling is often generated and amplified by growing inequalities, injustices and the prevailing of corporate interests over the social and economic rights of large parts of the population.[2]

These are legitimate concerns that governments must consider. But instead of upholding human rights more resolutely and using them as a compass to show the way out of this uncertainty, several governments and parliaments are wrongly interpreting the widespread frustration as a request for less human rights and more “strong-man” rules. Other governments and mainstream parties are battling with increasing unpopularity and try to boost support by adopting the agenda of clearly xenophobic, misogynist and extremist groups.

From a human rights perspective, this is a wrong answer which bears pernicious effects. This has become clear to me during my country visits and especially during my discussions with migrants, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and persons with disabilities.


I consider the treatment of migrants as a litmus test of a country’s commitment to human rights. The handling of migration has been a long-standing problem in many European countries. Despite laws and standards, the inadequate implementation and lack of investment in reception and integration measures have transformed a manageable issue into political chaos. And the response to this chaos has often been more restrictive policies and laws.

Despite the decreasing numbers of migrants arriving in Europe, strong anti-migrant rhetoric is on the increase in many European countries, including in regions where very few or no migrants have settled.

Many governments, including within the EU, are not only failing to provide basic facilities to those in need, but are actively opposing the reception and integration of migrants and asylum-seekers with short-sighted and inhumane laws and policies, like restrictive laws on family reunification, confiscation of valuables, and decreased social benefits that make it hard to survive. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean has become increasingly unsafe. Since 2014 thousands of human beings have died after fleeing war, persecution or poverty.

Despite this, state search and rescue operations have been reduced; the European Union and individual European states continue to outsource border controls to third-countries with notoriously bad human rights records; and the NGOs which filled the vacuum left by states’ disengagement in providing humanitarian assistance are being harassed with administrative and judicial proceedings.[4]


When I was elected Commissioner for Human Rights, many people - journalists, ambassadors, friends - congratulated me for being the first woman at the helm of this institution. While this result is certainly positive - as are the appointments of other women in prominent posts, like the Council of Europe Secretary General, the President of the European Commission, or the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights - I think that the simple fact that we still have to congratulate women for reaching these posts shows how much work remains to be done in the field of gender equality. It should cause no surprise to see women holding such positions. Yet it still looks like a special achievement.

Despite progress on women’s rights over the past decades, much work remains to ensure equality. Not only does discrimination remain pervasive, but the conquests of the past - like the progress achieved regarding women’s sexual and reproductive rights - are being threatened.

In many European countries, women are still treated as second-class citizens. The gender pay gap illustrates this situation well. Next November, women in Europe will start working without pay, again. A woman normally needs 12 months to earn what a man gets in 10 months. Although the situation varies from country to country, women suffer everywhere on our continent from unequal treatment and opportunities in the workplace.

Women also face endless cases of sexist hate speech, especially on the Internet. Misogynistic hateful speech also goes together with physical violence against women, a serious human rights violation that remains a pervasive problem in many European countries.

Even when states decide to do something, there is strong resistance. A case in point is the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the so-called Istanbul Convention. To date, it has been ratified by 34 member states. This is certainly a success, but not without shadows. Growing efforts from political leaders and ultra-conservative movements sow confusion and spread false narratives about the Istanbul Convention to obstruct its ratification or implementation. Under the pretense of defending “traditional values”, these groups use the Istanbul Convention as well as other initiatives to attack gender equality and reinforce harmful stereotypes about the roles women and men should have in society.


Human rights defenders and journalists are other groups of people that I meet regularly, both during country visits and at specific events.

I have observed a worrying retrogression in their safety and increasing restrictions on their ability to work in a growing number of European countries. They face a variety of forms of reprisals, including judicial harassment, prosecution, illegal deprivation of liberty, abusive checks and surveillance, smear campaigns, threats and intimidation. Some have been physically attacked, subjected to ill-treatment, abducted and even killed.

This toxic atmosphere poisons democracy. Attacks against journalists and human rights defenders always go beyond the individual case and concern us all. If they cannot work freely and safely it becomes more difficult to shed light on human rights violations, corruption or misuse of power. Citizens receive less information and their access to justice is hindered, while undemocratic forces thrive.

To add insult to injury, investigations into crimes against journalists and human rights defenders drag on for years. The actual perpetrators are sometimes brought to justice, but those who mastermind such crimes are rarely identified or punished.

Failure to bring these people to justice inflicts additional pain on the victims and their families and fosters a sense of impunity that paves the way for further attacks against other human rights defenders and journalists.


Another promise that must be kept is equality for persons with disabilities. To visualise what I mean, I would like you to imagine that when you go back home today, someone comes and forces you to move to an impersonal, large social care institution, isolated from your family and friends. You have no chance to react, because someone else decides in your place. From today on, you have lost the right to take basic everyday life decisions related to employment, health, education, property, finances, family.

Can you imagine how you would feel? Well, this is what persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities have been enduring in many European countries.

This approach - called guardianship - and has been the prevailing way of dealing with persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities in many countries.

This centuries-old patronising treatment was meant to protect persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities, but often produced the opposite effect. Many people still defend this system, believing it is a protective one. Others think that society and the families are not ready to face the numerous cultural and practical adjustments the law would require.

These obstacles exist and must be considered. But some countries that switched to supported decision-making overcome them and proved that it is possible to help persons with intellectual disabilities to live more independently.


As we hold this event, somewhere in Europe, many are being harassed, discriminated or isolated for their beliefs, the colour of their skin, for the person they love, for their physical or mental condition.

Over the past 70 years, most countries in the world have built institutions to prevent this from happening. We thought we had succeeded in neutralising hate, racism and extremism, but we were wrong. These dangerous forces are regaining ground, often fueled by politicians who deny, trivialise or even justify them.

I see a continuity between past and contemporary racist and extremist acts. Chasing Roma out of their homes, marginalising persons with disabilities, beating LGBTI people, and ethnic profiling are all reminiscent of dark periods of Europe’s history.[8]

In several European countries, I see increasingly intolerant attitudes and attempts to scapegoat various social and minority groups. This is often accompanied by divisive language designed to stigmatise the “Other”. In such countries, the hostility to human rights as universal and indivisible is providing a corrosive narrative. One that questions the validity of the values and principles that led to the current system of human rights protection. One that wants to put oversimplified ideas of nations and identities at the steering wheel of a country.

In this context Muslims are - once again - among the preferred targets not only of extremist groups, but also of mainstream politicians. For decades, in many European countries, people have looked at Muslims with wary eyes. However, since the string of terrorist acts which began with the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11, all Muslims have been tarred with the same brush and have had to learn to live in increasingly hostile societies.

In many European countries, Muslim women are frequently assaulted for wearing face veils or headscarves; mosques are being attacked; discriminatory practices make it harder for Muslims to get a job, a house or citizenship. Law enforcement officers still engage in the illegal practice of stopping and searching Muslims based on their appearance only. Since most new immigrants are from countries of Muslim faith, they are met with the same distrust and suspicion that European Muslims have endured for decades.

Jews and Roma are also among the favorite scapegoats of those who still separate humankind into “races,” and deny our intrinsic equality.

Jewish cemeteries are regularly desecrated in several countries. Antisemitic offences and violent attacks on Jews and Jewish symbols are on the rise, in particular in countries were far-right parties are increasingly popular. Nazi symbols are regularly exhibited in public, especially in stadiums.

Hate incidents against Roma also remain very common. Hostile demonstrations and collective attacks against Roma have on several occasions forced them to move away for their own security. These acts are not always followed by an appropriate judicial response. State authorities are also often carrying out illegal actions against Roma, such as engaging in forced evictions without providing adequate alternative housing or segregating Roma students in education based on their ethnic background. Anti-Roma hate speech by certain politicians strengthens and legitimises the climate of rejection and simmering violence in which many Roma live in Europe today. This, however, is not a new phenomenon; it is deeply rooted in centuries of exclusion and violence against Roma, which culminated with the Roma Holocaust during the Second World War.[9]


What I have focused on until now are long-standing problems that we thought we had under control but which are now coming back. There is also a new phenomenon that requires closer attention, from both the authorities and those who protect human rights: artificial intelligence.

The impact artificial intelligence has on human rights, democracy and the rule of law is one of the most crucial factors that will define the period in which we live – and probably the whole century. Unfettered technological development may uproot the human rights protection system we have been painstakingly building over the past 70 years.

For this reason, one of the first public positions I took as Commissioner for Human Rights was precisely on the need to safeguard human rights in the era of AI.[10]

Indeed, AI can negatively affect a wide range of our human rights, from privacy and equality to freedom of expression and assembly. When data-based decision making reflects societal prejudices, it reproduces – or even reinforces – the biases of that society. It can also spread mis- and disinformation and deepen misogynist, racist and other stereotypes in subtle ways.

This problem arises mainly from the fact that decisions are taken based on these systems with little or no transparency, accountability or safeguards in how they are designed, how they work and how they may change over time.

It is the most vulnerable to discrimination who suffer the most. There is increasing evidence that women, older people, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTI and economically disadvantaged persons particularly suffer from discrimination at the hands of biased algorithms. In addition, there is a lack of information on how these systems operate, which makes it difficult to correct the design and establish accountability.

There is therefore a need to regulate the way AI is designed and used, in order to avoid it reinforcing patterns of marginalisation, discrimination and intrusions in private life.[11]


All these elements put together show that despite our efforts there remains a huge gap between principles and reality. Does it mean that we should abandon the battlefield?

Of course not. We have reached a point where our voices are needed more than ever. In the face of apathy, backsliding or outright hostility towards human rights, it would be a huge mistake to care only for our own rights. It is time to stand up and demand effective implementation and recommitment to the values and principles of human rights for all.

And the good news is that this is possible. Indeed, I do not think that human rights have failed. They have simply not been implemented in a systematic and effective manner.

I see four main reasons for hope.

First, there are still states that hold true to their commitment to human rights. They ratify Conventions, adopt human rights action plans, establish and protect national human rights structures, and implement the recommendations made by national and international human rights bodies.

Second, I have established constructive dialogue with most national authorities. During my country visits, I could access places of human rights relevance, I received the information that I requested, and I was able to meet key decision makers. Is that enough? No, but it is crucial to move forward.

Another source of optimism that I would like to emphasise is that in all the countries I visit, I meet NGOs, journalists, human rights defenders, national human rights institutions or Ombudspersons, and activists who keep the torch of human rights burning, despite the grave dangers they face.[12] And they tell me stories of commitment to others, of determination to keep on moving forward. If they keep up their courage and remain optimistic, if they still believe in human rights, why shouldn’t we?

The fourth reason is youth. On several occasions over the past year, my office and I have met young people. Some felt excluded from the system of human rights protection. Others expressed dissatisfaction with the way we reached out to them – or rather, did not. But all those we have met ask for more, not less, human rights. And the youth is mobilising around crucial issues, like climate change, showing that they care and they are willing to engage.[13]

These are compelling reasons that give me hope. So, the obvious question is: how can we fight back against regressive forces?

There is no easy fix. Human rights are about taking the right decisions every day, in many aspects of life. We will need patience, commitment, courage and dialogue. We must use human rights as a compass to protect freedom from oppression, dialogue from fanaticism and pluralism from totalitarianism. If we dare to be outspoken about human rights principles, values and standards, we can come out of this tempest stronger.


During my work, I often raise many or all of these points with ministers and members of parliament. They are usually my main interlocutors.

But today, I am not addressing governments or lawmakers. Today I am addressing you as students, scholars, intellectuals, but above all as concerned citizens. Maybe in the future you will be taking up political roles. If so, I hope you will remember this conversation and use it in your work. But now, in such a polarised and politicised context, we must find new energies and new ideas to carry out human rights work.

But first of all we have to take a long hard look at ourselves and acknowledge that the human rights community has its own responsibility if many people have become disinterested in human rights. 

This should be our starting point, I think. It feels good to meet and talk among us. Like today. But I think it would be a big mistake not to talk with and listen to those who think differently, who feel excluded, who - in a cacophony of voices and overdoses of information – feel oppressed by uncertainty.

If we want society to function more according to human rights standards, then we must all do an extra bit and come out of our comfort zones. There is a need for more lawyers, scholars, intellectuals, concerned citizens to enter the arena of public debate and engage with society at large to overcome misrepresentations and debunk prejudices. There is a need for improved communication to address the current dissatisfaction, insecurity and relativism and show the relevance of human rights for all.

So, let’s engage with friends, colleagues, family members, neighbours, local and national authorities and show that human rights are not an abstract concept, but very personal issues. If we look away anytime human rights are denied, we might stay safe ourselves, but leave others in danger. And tomorrow that Other could be us.

It is also crucial that we become more inclusive in the way we defend human rights. The human rights community – and I include international organisations – delivers a public service in the interest of society, but they are not the owner of that service. The owners are the individual people we work for. But sometimes I think that we forget about this crucial element, thus giving the impression that human rights activists are an elitist movement.

We talk about, for and sometimes with people who have suffered human rights violations. But we rarely let them speak for themselves. They should take part in decision-making processes. We should learn to listen more and leave them space to shape the narratives, policies and laws that concern them.

Of course, we must require that decision-makers adopt laws and policies which hold true not only to the letter of human rights standards, but also to the spirit that led to their codification into law. And I do encourage you to remain or become politically active, engaging with members of parliament and local authorities any time there is a human rights concern or proposal you have.

We also need to engage more with people who hold views with which we deeply disagree. We must understand what motivates them, identify possible common grounds and eventually provide a different narrative to them. A narrative that embraces human rights and shows the way forward, where no-one must be left behind.

This is easier said than done, I know. Myths, disinformation and lies are in fact good sprinters while human rights are at best good marathon runners. That’s why we must learn to make human rights a sprint too. We must engage more in human rights education, not only in formal settings, but in everyday life, through public and private debates, social media, the press.

We will hardly agree with those who want to undo the human rights progress achieved so far. And there will always be some people who will not be convinced by our arguments. But most people are undecided and need clarity about where we are going. We can provide that clarity not only by telling but also by showing that human rights are not only legal standards. They are a philosophy of life, a roadmap to where we want to take our societies for more freedom, equality and social justice. They are and must remain universal and indivisible, and as such we must refrain from the tendency to fragment them into categories.

Let’s re-learn to talk to both the minds and the hearts of people. We have been very good at the first task. We must get better at the second.

You are the next generation of Peter Baehrs. Meetings like today’s lecture are a great occasion to maintain his legacy. But they are not enough. We should take up his torch and go out to let the sun of human rights shine all over Europe, for everyone, every day.

[1] See my Human Rights Comment ‘The independence of judges and the judiciary under threat’, 3 September 2019, available from https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/the-independence-of-judges-and-the-judiciary-under-threat

[2] See my Human Rights Comment ‘Keeping the promise: ending poverty and inequality, 24 July 2018, available from https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/keeping-the-promise-ending-poverty-and-inequality

[3] For all my work on the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, see https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/thematic-work/migration

[4] In June 2019, I addressed many of these issues in my Recommendation Lives saved. Rights protected. Bridging the protection gap for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean available from https://rm.coe.int/lives-saved-rights-protected-bridging-the-protection-gap-for-refugees-/168094eb87

[5] For all my work on women’s rights and gender equality, see https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/thematic-work/women-s-rights-and-gender-equality

[6] For all of my work on human rights defenders see https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/human-rights-defenders

[7] For all my work on the rights of persons with disabilities see https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/thematic-work/persons-with-disabilities

[8] On the latter issue, see my Human Rights Comment ‘Ethnic profiling: a persistent practice in Europe’, 9 May 2019, available from https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/ethnic-profiling-a-persisting-practice-in-europe

[9] Also see my Human Rights Comment ‘European states must demonstrate resolve for lasting and concrete change for Roma people’, 4 April 2019, available from https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/european-states-must-demonstrate-resolve-for-lasting-and-concrete-change-for-roma-people

[10] See my Human Rights Comment ‘Safeguarding human rights in the era of artificial intelligence’, 3 July 2018, available from https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/safeguarding-human-rights-in-the-era-of-artificial-intelligence

[11] For more details, see my Recommendation Unboxing artificial intelligence: 10 steps to protect human rights, May 2019, available from https://rm.coe.int/unboxing-artificial-intelligence-10-steps-to-protect-human-rights-reco/1680946e64

[12] On the role of national human rights institutions specifically, see my Human Rights Comment ‘Paris Principles at 25: strong National Human Rights Institutions needed more than ever’, 18 December 2018, available from https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/paris-principles-at-25-strong-national-human-rights-institutions-needed-more-than-ever

[13] On the human rights implications, also see my Human Rights Comment ‘Living in a clean environment: a neglected human rights concern for all of us’, 4 June 2019, available from https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/living-in-a-clean-environment-a-neglected-human-rights-concern-for-all-of-us