It is my pleasure, and an honour, to participate in this event, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
Let me begin by commending the decade of work, undertaken by FRA, which have influenced the policies of our national and European Union institutions.
FRA’s endeavours provide a yardstick, from which we can measure, and hold ourselves and our authorities accountable. FRA contributes towards keeping universal human rights and freedoms central to all European legislation and policies.
This celebration is an opportunity, in itself, for the agency to appraise its successes, and also to explore the complex causes that are impeding full access to universal human rights and freedoms in contemporary Europe.
This celebration is also an opportunity for us, to reaffirm our commitment to collaborate, not only within our nations but also across our borders.
We must endeavour, further, to nurture and strengthen our European commitment to innovative strategies, for a rights-based approach, which can give us the tools, to effectively tackle the ongoing challenges of today’s world.
Universal human rights must be at the centre of all our efforts to improve the lives of our citizens, in earnest, to ensure truly equitable and inclusive societies.
I believe that the most powerful change happens when political will is followed by effective legislation; when it is upheld by diligently-implemented policies; and when it is sustained by an ongoing process of cultural transformation.
Let me take a practical example, from my country, Malta.
We have seen tremendous advances in LGBTIQ affirmative legislation and policies.
It is with a sense of pride that I say that, Maltese legislation, which protects the bodily integrity of intersex individuals, is, today, among the most progressive and comprehensive in the world.
Such examples of progress must, be paralleled by an equally strong cultural transformation, to impact people’s daily lives.
For this reason, I must emphasize that education is key, in all this.
Definitely, we must ensure that our education strategies are person-centred and truly inclusive.
Moreover, we must promote structured and participative processes of democratic dialogue, which respond to the concerns of all the individuals and communities in our Union.
Let me, therefore, take this opportunity to mention the work being done by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society in Malta, to promote relationship-building and opportunities for dialogue and consultation, with the diverse groups that form part of Maltese society.
My Foundation has placed the participation of diverse communities at the very heart of its activities.
These include a number of platforms such as, the refugee-led NGO platform, which empowers groups led by refugees and asylum-seekers, to gain social capital; to interact with national authorities; and to access their rights more effectively.
Moreover, honouring the voices of children is a priority on my Foundation’s Agenda. This is evident through our annual Child Wellbeing conference, and our ongoing community of learning and child-empowerment methodology, entitled ‘The President’s Secret Garden’.
These are all aimed towards creating a continuous process of dialogue, with children and young people. Indeed, my Foundation is guided by its own Children and Young Persons Councils, which inform its work at every level of development.
Let me take this opportunity to greet the members of the Children and Young Person’s Council within my Foundation, and also, all the Maltese children present, as well as all the children here today for this celebration. I am truly happy to see you, and to see you participate in this conference.
I must commend FRA for giving this space to children.
Last year’s Child Wellbeing conference, entitled ‘Access to Justice for Vulnerable Children’, included the narratives of children and their experiences of the justice system in various European countries.
This conference also featured an expert from FRA, who presented the preliminary findings for the Fundamental Rights Agency’s ‘Child-Friendly Justice’ report. I am pleased to note that following the conference in Malta, members of my Foundation participated in the launch of the final FRA Child-Friendly Justice Publication.
I believe that the concerns and recommendations of every group and community must be highlighted, at all steps of our national and international journeys, to actively promote a stronger culture of universal human rights.
We must make it clear that the voices of our citizens matter, irrespective of their age; that they are taken up seriously; and that their aspirations for the future are being acted upon.
Safe spaces for dialogue are especially necessary when we encounter people who are experiencing precarity, exclusion, and injustice.
For people living in situations of vulnerability, universal human rights are crucial. This is because, people living in such situations are often solely focused on their basic needs.
Even though Europe has been a pioneer of universal human rights, since their very inception, and although we have certainly come a long way, we must acknowledge that there is still the urgent need for a more rigorous implementation of a genuinely democratic and rights-based perspective, even within our nations.
I believe that we must be more courageous, and ask ourselves why there are increasing numbers of our citizens, who express disillusionment and dissatisfaction, with the status quo they experience within our societies.
One very important challenge that comes to my mind, and which is pushing people further away, from effective processes of democratic inclusion, and the full enjoyment of their rights, is the phenomenon of poverty.
I believe that poverty is impeding the realisation of our full aspirations for universal human rights and freedoms in Europe.
Let me remind you of the latest indicators from Eurostat, which state that almost 119 million people, or 23.7 percent of the populations within our member states, are living at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
This means that roughly one in four people in the EU have experienced some form of serious poverty; severe material deprivation; and/or very low work intensity.
Such exclusion and deprivation has far-reaching effects.
The social, cultural, and political implications of economic disenfranchisement cannot be ignored. For this reason, the deprivation of economic and material resources is not only a monetary phenomenon.
Poverty is a profoundly damaging violation of human dignity.
Poverty cuts off individuals, their families, and their entire communities, from the lifeline of universal human rights.
Poverty is a full-scale attack on universal human rights, eroding a person’s right to health, to food, to education, and to housing.
Poverty reduces a person’s effective access to justice, to equitable political participation, and to social mobility.
Moreover, poverty can jeopardise the very safety and stability of an individual, their family, and their community.
This state of affairs shows us that we cannot be complacent anymore, if we truly want to ensure that the full potential of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, are effectively enjoyed by all.
I believe that we must address the eradication of poverty within our European Union as a matter of utmost urgency, thereby securing more adequate access to fundamental rights for all our citizens.
In this context, I would like to go into some more detail, about the violation on human dignity, and therefore on human rights, being experienced by women as a result of poverty.
Women are more likely to be exposed to intersectional vulnerabilities of poverty and exclusion. This is due to discriminatory economic and social processes, which are unfortunately still embedded within our societies, and continue to deprive women of their wellbeing.
Feminisation of poverty, within our Union, is still a reality.
Feminisation of poverty is a direct consequence of various structural factors that we can, and must, take urgent action to address.
Structural factors include adverse cultural and social stereotyping; gender pay gaps; gender-based discrimination; and policies which make it difficult to achieve a healthy work-life balance, with direct consequences for female participation in the economic, social, and political life of our nations.
Women’s lower employment rates, across Member States, mean that economic empowerment for women is especially problematic in some countries.
Across their lives, women are a vulnerable group, due to their increased risk of poverty, and are therefore less secure in their fundamental human rights.
This is clearly stated in the European Commission’s ‘2017 Report on Equality between Women and Men in the EU’, and I quote;
“Although women are successful in gaining qualifications, their subsequent careers are often more interrupted, they have lower pay, and their careers are flatter. As a consequence, they earn less than men over their life cycle, and their pensions are lower.”.
Furthermore, a recent report issued by the European Institute for Gender Equality shows that higher risks of poverty or social exclusion, faced by women, increase in later life.
This report also states that disability also significantly increases threats of poverty and social exclusion, and women with disabilities face greater risks than men.
Gender differences are also reflected in European indicators on extreme poverty, with women, particularly those exposed to problems of unaffordable housing.
Moreover, women from migrant backgrounds are at an even more elevated risk for each of these concerns, as supported by data from a European-wide workshop on the Main Causes of Female Poverty, organised by the FEMM Committee.
Indeed, the discrimination faced by refugees and migrants, and the links between such discrimination and poverty, is a cause for serious concern within our European Union.
When refugees and migrants are denied access to fundamental economic and social rights, this is a violation of their fundamental human rights.
Such violations are rooted in a larger cultural context, which we must confront. These violations are part of structural and systemic processes of discrimination and prejudice, which we cannot afford to ignore.
We cannot allow the rhetoric of division, which is becoming louder across many of our countries, to go unchallenged, at the risk of weakening our commitment to universal human rights.
No country in our Union can, or should, feel isolated, when it comes to addressing the phenomenon of migration in a sensitive and dignified manner.
Discrimination, of any kind, is a fundamental threat to universal human rights.
We must make our commitment, to safeguard the wellbeing of all people, a cornerstone of all our endeavours.
For this reason, poverty and precarity cannot go on being overlooked, nor can the intersectional risks faced by women and vulnerable migrants in particular.
Poverty and precarity are key factors which degrade human dignity, and prevent full access to fundamental human rights.
Let us promote the eradication of poverty, thereby making real efforts to secure meaningful access to fundamental human rights, for all the individuals and communities within Europe, and beyond.
This will also bring us closer to achieving our global commitments, laid out by the United Nations’ Agenda 2030, and its Sustainable Development Goals, which was signed by all the leaders of our nations.
The first, and most essential, of the Sustainable Development Goals is achieving an end to all forms of poverty.
Agenda 2030 is a binding agreement, decided upon by all our governments, which must motivate us to address the underlying oppressions and injustices caused by poverty, precarity and other inequalities.
We need to continue to work together. We must enhance our synergies, across national governments, European authorities, and civil society organisations, to address the links between poverty, access to universal human rights, and the promotion of holistic wellbeing.
I believe that, in this way, we can create more effective and efficient responses to the many facets of poverty, thereby emphasising a truly rights-based approach.
Such an approach will keep us attentive to the daily assaults on human dignity, being experienced by vulnerable people who are living in poverty and precarity.
On concluding, let me quote the inspiring words of the former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who said;
“Wherever we lift one soul from a life of poverty, we are defending human rights. Whenever we fail in this mission, we are failing human rights.”
Let’s start the second decade of FRA by making this, the time, to end the scourge of poverty and other inequalities, within our European Union, as part of our commitment to secure the universal rights and freedoms of all.
Let us affirm the fundamental dignity of all human beings, in the best interests all individuals and communities, whoever they might be, and especially, the most vulnerable members of our societies.
Thank you for your attention.