The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the EU (the Lisbon Treaty)
– A conference on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the implications of the Lisbon Agreement
This conference was organised by the Institute of Human Rights of the University of Iceland, the Faculty of Law of Reykjavík University and the Icelandic Human Rights Centre, in collaboration with the European Commission/TAIEX.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As part of the restructuring of our government ministries at the beginning of this year, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights was merged with the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Local Government, to form a single entity: the Ministry of the Interior. This move has brought many benefits. Nevertheless, there is one thing that I feel was unfortunate, and that is, that the words ‘Human Rights' have disappeared from the title of the ministry. In my view, human rights can never be given too much prominence, and they are the aspect of my responsibilities as minister that I consider the most important.
Human rights are not just for a few: they are for everyone. They should apply equally to a female Chinese academic and to a female British fish-factory worker, to a poor peasant in West Africa and to a German millionaire, to children and to adults. Unfortunately, as we know, this is not the case in practice.
The unequal division of wealth and resources in the world means that children born on the same day grow up in very different conditions and with a very different range of opportunities open to them. Children of poor parents have a narrower scope than the children of the rich; children without parents are in a worse position still. Girls do not have the same opportunities as boys. This is the big picture, and it is this picture that we should have before us at all times.
The United Nations took a giant step in 1948 when its General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This set forth rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.“ This was a revolutionary declaration, made at a time when the world was still emerging from the ravages of the Second World War which, like all other wars, resulted in massive human-rights violations, both during the years of actual conflict and for a long time afterwards.
Two years after that, many European states took an even firmer step when they passed, in the forum of the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights. This put Europe, as a continent, in a leading position in the world in the field of human rights. Citizens of states that have ratified the Convention are able to turn to the European Court of Human Rights for a redress of their position, not least if they consider they have been treated unjustly by their own governments. History shows us all too many examples of how states commit violations against their own subjects, and the protection offered by the UN Declaration and the European Convention has proved valuable in opposing such abuses.
The subject of your conference today, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, is a further addition to international collaboration in the human rights field. It is based on both the UN Declaration and the European Convention, and is intended to be binding on the EU Member States. It will be interesting to see how the Charter is applied and whether it will, in fact, give people in the European Union a greater level of protection. Critics have pointed out possible problems that may arise when both the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice will be able to examine cases of human-rights violations against EU citizens, with judgements by each of them. It has also been pointed out that the relationship between these two courts may become very complex, not least if the European Union is granted its wish of becoming a constituent member, as an institution, of the European Court of Human Rights.
It will also be interesting to see how the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will be interpreted in the light of evolving citizenship rights and the relationship between these rights and human rights. This involves not only the idea of European Citizenship, which would ensure equal democratic rights across national borders instead of the limited rights currently enjoyed by EU citizens on the basis of their own national legislations. It is also a vital question how the European Union will receive citizens who stand outside its Schengen entry gate, and the cases of minority groups such as the Roma people who have been treated as second-class people or citizens without rights in certain European countries.
No doubt these matters will be examined here today by people who are better informed about them than I am, and I leave further discussion to them.
There is one point I should like to mention, which in my opinion should form part of the discussion of human rights. This is the shift of emphasis that we have seen recently – not least within the European Union – towards defining rights with reference to market interests and ownership entitlements, in my view often at the cost of the public interest and as such bordering on human rights. Thus, equality of influence and equality of rights have tended to be interpreted with a clear reference to the market. Nations have been prosecuted for subsidising measures to the benefit of their economies and societies if these are considered as being contrary to the laws of the market. We in Iceland have seen how the property rights of savings deposit holders have been assessed by the international community, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, as taking precedence over the rights of the disabled, those who own no property, the unemployed and those who are affected directly by cut-backs in funding to our social welfare system, when we are trying to meet the demands of “the haves” in society. The first priority of the state Treasury was, according to the guidelines of the IMF, to guarantee property rights; after that, attention could be given to what I define as human rights.
I should like to stress that when it comes to human rights, we should be guided by general values. International cooperation should embrace more people, rather than fewer, since the aim is that everyone should enjoy the same rights and be able to live their lives with dignity. As minister responsible for human rights, I welcome all forms of international cooperation dedicated towards this goal. In this way it should be possible to work towards the long-term aim of establishing some sort of international citizenship which will guarantee human rights for everyone, irrespective of their place of residence and their financial standing. Having said this, it is my pleasure to declare this conference open. I hope your discussions here today will prove fruitful, critical and perhaps even lively. Unfortunately, I shall not be able to be with you for the whole time, but I shall be informed of how the conference goes, and I wish you every success.