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Youth Consultation: “Youth and Human Rights in Europe” - Opening remarks by Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for Europe

BRUSSELS (20 March 2018)

Good morning, and welcome to Brussels!

Let me start by thanking the European Youth Forum which has done a magnificent job in organizing this consultation, and my colleague Imma Guerras Delgado from our headquarters in Geneva for alerting us to this important initiative. I am thrilled to see that you have come from so many countries in Europe1 to participate in this consultation.

The role of the UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe is to protect and promote human rights in the countries of the European Union. When hearing the words “human rights” people in Europe tend to think about wars or dictatorships in faraway countries. But,

  • Did you know that austerity measures have severely impacted the economic and social rights of both pensioners and youth in parts of Europe?
  • Did you know that the number of homeless has increased dramatically in all but one country of the EU, particularly youth homelessness? Did you know that adequate housing is a human right? There are sustainable solutions for homelessness that go beyond shelters and soup kitchens, but regrettably insufficient political will has been mustered to really solve this profound deprivation of human dignity.
  • Did you know that 30 % of afro-descendants or persons with a Muslim name say that it remains very difficult for them to access the job market even when they have the required qualifications?
  • Did you know that, according to international law, all children should be enabled to join mainstream education, and there should be no ghetto schools or separate education system for persons with disabilities?
  • Speaking about persons with disabilities, did you know that much of public transportation in Europe remains inaccessible for them? Also, UN mechanisms have criticized several European countries for investing in institutions rather than in family and community based care which is more humane and cheaper.
  • Did you know that bullying in school remains a common reality for sexual minorities in certain countries, often leaving scars for life?
  • Did you know that 27 % of the Roma in Europe report hunger in their household? The stigmatization of the Roma population remains deeply engrained in European societies and is characterized by their segregation in all spheres of life. At the same time, the fact that a handful of countries are making progress shows that improving the situation of Roma is not impossible and that good practices do exist.
  • Did you know that many older persons in Europe suffer isolation and abuse?
  • Did you know that on average women earn 20% less than men in the EU and that if the European Investment Bank’s lending practices were more gender sensitive, millions of women could be economically empowered across Europe?

In reality, human rights are a set of moral values that all countries have agreed upon and turned into laws that bind them. In this sense, human rights are not a Western concept. They are a common aspiration for all cultures and religions. That is why we say they are “universal.”

Seven decades have passed since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. Meanwhile, the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration have been further developed in nine international human rights treaties, as well as regional instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

This year is a very special year for all of us who believe that principles of equality justice and freedom must be the cornerstones of our societies. This year, we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration.

Yet, today we find that some take human rights for granted – “done with that, let’s move on to the next thing” – even though we are far from achieving the goals and aspirations embodied in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Others question the relevance of human rights. It is deeply troubling that the public and political debate in European countries is becoming increasingly hostile against the idea of shared values. Some political leaders are actively exploiting people’s fears to turn them against the fundamental values of equal rights and human dignity. Sadly, in some countries of Europe, a xenophobic and racist discourse has found its way into the mainstream.

As a result, we see that the number of hate crimes against ethnic and religious minorities, persons with disabilities and migrants are on the rise in Europe. There is a backlash against women’s and girls’ rights. In some places, media freedom is restricted; civic society space is shrinking; and human rights defenders are increasingly under threat. Yet, whenever humanity's values are abandoned, we all are at greater risk of losing our freedoms and rights.

In spite of this, I am optimistic. I am optimistic because, on the one hand, human rights have never progressed along a linear curve. Ever since the term human rights was coined, there have been progress and setbacks. The other reason I am optimistic is because you are here today.

Dear friends, we must reinstate human rights as the moral compass that guides us all. As young people, you should never underestimate the power that you have. This is about your lives, and the future you want. We need you, young people, to help turn around the negative narrative about human rights.

Young people are, by nature, less fearful, at least, so we hope. Which is why your participation in public life is so important. We need to hear your voice. Your dedication and commitment to human rights is vital for the survival of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You do not need to be a lawyer or a politician to advocate for human rights. You do not need to work for the UN, like me, or for an international human rights organization.

Think about human rights as a philosophy of life. As Eleanor Roosevelt said “human rights start in small places, close to home.” We must go back to the basics. Think about what you can do, in your home, your community, your university, your workplace, your city, your country.

Today, in Brussels, we want to hear your views. And we have high expectations - we count on you to join us in building a world in which all people are included, enjoy respect and can live in dignity. Thank you.

1 United Kingdom; Malta; Belgium; Moldova; Serbia; Georgia; Albania; Italy; France; Finland; Ukraine ; Netherlands; Ireland; Belarus ; Denmark; Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; Greece, Russia, Switzerland