The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights: Priorities and Challenges

Date:25 June 2008
Morten Kjærum, Director, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights
Pēteris Zilgalvis, Head of Unit, DG Education and Culture, European Commission
Chair: Elspeth Guild, Senior Research Fellow, CEPS
CEPS hosted Morten Kjærum's first speech in front of non institutional EU actors. In the course of a lunchtime seminar falling within the scope of CHALLENGE The Changing Landscape of European Liberty and Security) a research project funded by the Sixth Framework Programme of DG Research of the European Commission, a large and diverse audience had the opportunity of listening to Mr. Kjærum's views on the future priorities and challenges of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). His speech was followed by a presentation by Pēteris Zilgalvis (Head of Unit of governance and ethics, DG Research in the European Commission), who addressed an overview of the research supported by the Sixth and Seventh Framework Programme in the areas of fundamental rights and ethics.
Morten Kjærum initiated his speech by underlining the handling of human rights in Europe was to be regarded with pride. In fact, a number of elements illustrate the fact that in the EU, citizens have human rights protection. Although there are still many issues to be dealt with, such as in particular the current rise of racism and anti-Semitism, human rights have been taken into account during the last 20 years. As the 2007 FRA Activities Report states, a number of current matters still raise concerns, such as for example the treatment of the Roma population or the augmentation of the recording of sensitive data. In his view, this last issue pertains to a field in which policy is moving in the wrong direction, while a broader discussion on the impact of such measures on the right to privacy should be the priority.
Today, he said, human rights have been domesticated and receive attention at national level. This is shown by the numerous references in the court rulings and the existence of national HR institutions. Such a fact legitimizes the existence of a European FRA covering human rights and discards the fear of overlapping with the Council of Europe's or the United Nations' mandates. In fact, while these two bodies deal with the creation of norms and the monitoring of states incorporation of these standards, the FRA will be assessing the potential political resistance to these. He then underlined the analytical capacity of the FRA. The Agency plays , through deeper analysis, an advisory capacity. This in turn will allow the creation of a synergy with the other key actors and agendas.
Mr. Kjærum then announced the launching in 2009 of a survey on victims of racism which, if received positively, will provide the model for future annual victim surveys, with a different theme each time. The 2010 survey could possibly be on violence against women in order to underpin the future Council of Europe Convention on the subject.
He concluded by underlining one of the most central feature of the agency in that it relies upon a minimum of 5 national human rights interlocutors with the view of creating a human rights platform to interact at national level. One of its particularities is that this network will from now on always have access to central analytical reports prior to their launching in order to participate constructively in the national discussions on the theme. Although the FRA's activities for now encounter a number of constraints as to their sphere of activity, such as issues falling within the so-called third pillar, he considered the FRA's recognized competences as a cup half full, because it is capable of creating an ideal platform for discussion for the furthering of the domestication of human rights.
This speech was followed by a presentation by Pēteris Zilgalvis (Head of Unit at the DG Research in the European Commission). Mr. Zilgalvis addressed the issue of fundamental rights research and ethics in the EU framework programme by providing an informative overview of this domain of European research.
He began by underlining the necessity for such research, as it addresses issues that are currently at the core of EU policy. Although this line of funding is relatively challenged because it addresses sensitive issues, he stressed its importance. He underlined the crucial role of such programs in that they bring academics and NGOs from all over Europe together. He is of the view that the thereby established networks create a positive and necessary synergy among the European civil society. This allows for better knowledge of the neighboring contexts and organizations. In fact, it overruns the strictly European Union's framework as today there are 38 countries involved and this is soon to be expanded with the future joining of Russia.
Human rights research started under the 6th Framework program and a number of projects, as for example the CHALLENGE one, are currently undergoing. Although this type of funding was reduced under the 7th Framework program, its importance in particular in the light of external relations is still acknowledged. Another field in which research on human rights is crucial is the location of science in society and the handling of ethical aspects in research. For this reason, research on ethics has been particularly emphasized in FP7s first call under the area “engagement to clarify political, societal, ethical issues.” Indeed, insight is necessary in order to assess the impact on dignity and privacy of security measures development. The current mobile feature of data requires that data safeguards be taken into account in dialogue with third countries.
To conclude, he pointed out that knowledge transfer should not only take place on themes such as security but on human rights as well.