On 18 July, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing on Communicating fundamental rights and the rule of law. Participants discussed how better communicating the EU's founding values could help address the challenges they face. The conclusions will feed into a future EESC opinion on the same topic.
Opening the hearing, István Komoróczki, President of the EESC Study Group on the draft opinion, explained,
the EU's founding values have been increasingly challenged in recent years, making the consensus on which they are based more fragile than ever. We must confront the counter-narratives that seek to undermine fundamental rights and the rule of law.
The EESC's rapporteur for the opinion Cristian Pîrvulescu and co-rapporteur José Antonio Moreno Díaz, discussed their reasons for exploring this issue in an EESC own-initiative opinion.
We saw a gap between citizens and the debate on the rule of law and fundamental rights and we realised that we need to bridge that gap said Mr Pîrvulescu. Mr Moreno Díaz explained that the opinion was not a technical one, concerned with the technical aspects of communication, but rather a strategic one, reiterating the relationship between communication and the effective delivery of policies. Better communicating fundamental rights and the rule of law was therefore be understood in that sense:
If people do not fully understand fundamental rights and the rule of law, they will not be able to see when they are being attacked and to defend them. Our aim is to promote what the European Commission referred to as the development of a "joint culture of fundamental rights and the rule of law in Europe he explained.
Communicating values and the power of narratives
Several panellists with communication expertise made recommendations on how to better communicate fundamental rights and the rule of law to the wider public. Albert Guasch Rafael, Communications Coordinator at Democracy Reporting International (DRI), and Friso Roscam Abbing, Adviser on Communication from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), outlined ways of achieving more effective communication: developing a clear message, better listening, finding common ground, building mutual trust, and conveying a vision. They also presented practical tools, such as DRI's Rule of Law FAQs - Debunking common myths and FRA's 10 keys to effectively communicating human rights.
The role of narratives and effective storytelling was also an important point of discussion.
We should not speak of issues, which use divisive language, but of values, which bring us all together, said Roscam Abbing. The goal should not simply be to raise awareness, but to change people's attitudes towards human rights and to give a voice to those who experience human rights and their violations first hand. Thomas Coombes, founder of Hope-Based communications, explained that
Human rights terminology is used in a contradictory way. We often talk about protecting human rights or having them protect us. We describe them as objects, ignoring the actions of the people involved. Human rights are about community-based values, care, and justice.
Best practice in the field
The hearing also sought to collect best practices from civil society and other stakeholders. Simona Drenik Bavdek, Assistant Head of the Centre for Human Rights of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Slovenia, explained the role of independent national institutions in bringing human rights closer to the local public, in particular in the context of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the war in Ukraine. Martin Šolc, former President of the International Bar Association (IBA), shared his experience with a successful awareness-raising initiative entitled Look after the rule of law and it will look after you, including short videos helping to visualise in simple ways the real-life significance of the rule of law.
Koldo Casla, Director of the Human Rights Centre Clinic at the University of Essex, presented his experience of advocating for human rights legislation in the context of the Brexit negotiations. He noticed that most people actually agreed with the values behind human rights, and that conflict actually stemmed from the politicisation of the legal details of these concepts. He also highlighted the nexus between the EU and the protection of human rights:
Human rights can be supported without necessarily supporting the EU, but not the other way around. We must meet people where they are, not where we would like them to be; we must therefore also make space for Eurosceptics to support human rights, Casla explained.
Social and economic rights: the role of the social partners
Discussions on the role of the social partners in communicating fundamental rights also formed part of the hearing. On the business side, Todor Ivanov, Secretary General of Eurocoop, stressed the importance of accountability in advancing human rights:
Economic reform policies should be underpinned by the principle of responsibility. Profit should not be made at the expense of others' rights and freedoms. In addition, Isabelle Schoemann of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) reiterated the fact that workers were actors for human rights and that democracy in the workplace was central. She urged the EESC to stress the need to mainstream fundamental rights at all levels and to make it clear that there was no ranking between these rights.
The conclusions of the hearing will feed into an EESC own-initiative opinion on the subject, to be adopted at the EESC's plenary session in December.