Johanna Niemi

The speeches today give evidence that there are great expectations, even demands towards FRA, the Agency for Fundamental Rights of the European Union. This is welcome. In the eyes of the European citizens, the legitimacy of the EU is largely dependent on how the Union is protecting human and fundamental rights.

The question I was asked to address in my speech is Why rights-based policy is insufficient? I think that most of us who are engaged in human rights work are well familiar with the limitations of individualist approach and of the individual complaint procedures in particular. These procedures take a long time and, if the complaint goes to an international court or committee, several years have passed when the final decision is given. Even if the decision is in favour of the claimant, there is no guarantee that the claimant gets compensation for a violation and even less of restitution. Moreover, even if some decisions by courts lead to changes in laws and policies, such wider changes are in no way certain.

Regarding the rights of the Roma, of which I had the honour to write together with José Manuel Fresno in the book, these experiences are evident. The European Roma Rights Centre, together with other actors, has done a superb job in bringing cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Processes have taken several years and even if they have had policy implications, discrimination continues.  With a long history, the discrimination of the Roma is embedded so deeply in the structures of the European societies that it is not abolished with individual cases.  Discrimination occurs both public and private sector, for example in access to housing. FRA together with other actors has made the discrimination visible in extensive surveys, which show that Roma children and youth increasingly participate in education. After secondary education, the young people meet discrimination in access to employment. It is easy to understand that this leads to deep frustration and risk of exclusion. We must become better in recognizing structural discrimination and in analysing structures that lead to discriminating outcomes. FRA’s work has greatly contributed to putting the Roma rights on the agenda of the European and international bodies.

Image by Rama Krishna Karumanchi, Pixabay

I want to draw attention to two other groups that have been central in FRA’s work but have not received a dedicated chapter in the book, namely children and disabled persons, whose voices are seldom heard in human and fundamental rights discourses. Especially in international human rights bodies, children and disabled persons are seldom complainants. Usually when child rights are processed, the children are represented by or as an appendix of their parents. 

FRA’s large interview studies among children and disabled persons are ground breaking both methodologically and with their results. These studies show that both children and disabled persons can express their views and concerns when they asked in a friendly manner. Besides, as responsible members of the societies, they wanted to participate in research to make processes better for someone who is in the same situation as they have been.

As opposed to courts that only can say retroactively what went wrong and grant compensation, FRA has the privilege that it can advise on how to change things. It can also collect evidence of best practices and spread it wider. Therefore, it is not surprising that we have great expectations towards FRA. FRA has already done such work but it should be brave and do more of it.

Johanna Niemi is a professor of procedural law at the University of Turku

A speech at the launch of the book (22.1.2020) Rosemary Byrne & Han Entzinger (eds), Human Rights Law and Evidence-based Policy. The Impact of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency. Routledge 2019.