Merger of Europe’s human rights and equality bodies is on the agenda: good news or bad for migrants’ rights?

By: Sarah Spencer, Senior Fellow

The paucity of debate among migration researchers or civil society on the future of Europe’s National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) is surprising, given the attention otherwise given to migrants’ rights. This may be the time to reconsider that omission as reform of these bodies, including merger with national equality bodies, is on the cards.

Migrants may not always have topped the agenda of these institutions, but they make a contribution across a broad canvas of migration issues – from the exploitation of vulnerable workers and the role of rights in migrant integration to medical care for stateless people.

NHRI’s in Europe
NHRIs have mushroomed across the globe in the past twenty years, with 69 now accredited with ‘A’ status by the UN signifying their compliance with the baseline ‘Paris Principles’ for the establishment of NHRIs agreed in 1993. Here in Europe there are 17 accredited NHRIs including Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Scottish and Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissions. But there are also more than thirty national equality bodies focusing on the anti-discrimination dimension of the human rights agenda, which make their own important contribution on migrants’ rights.

In contrast to the integrated human rights commissions in Australia and Canada, only five of Europe’s institutions, including those in Denmark, Poland and Slovakia, currently combine both functions. A search for greater impact, and for cost savings, has led to further talks of merger – as recently completed in The Netherlands and now underway in Ireland where the Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission will merge later this year. Merger in Belgium has stalled over the added complication of a single institution in a federal state, while talks in Greece and Slovenia have begun.

Pros and cons of the merger of human rights and equality bodies
Debate across Europe on the pros and cons of merger led the Irish Government to put this on the agenda of its EU Presidency conference, A Europe of Equal Citizens: Equality, Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law, in Dublin last week. My role was to summarise key findings from recent research, including my work with Professor Colin Harvey at Queen’s University Belfast on the factors that affect the performance of these bodies. A forthcoming report by Colm O’Cinneide and Neil Crowther at University College London will add further evidence to the debate.

Arguments for the merger
In essence, the evidence points to some strong arguments for merger, and not a few against. Equality and non discrimination are core human rights, central to the international and European human rights standards and to their development in the aftermath of the Second World War. So any work to promote public awareness of those standards and their historic importance must highlight the centrality of addressing discrimination. At the same time we can’t address racism, gender violence or indeed disability hate crime or homophobia without a cultural shift towards respect for human dignity, regardless of identity. So immediately we have an overlap in these mandates, human rights and equality, which we cannot ignore.

More immediately for the day to day work of these bodies, experience of discrimination is often linked to other infringements – to degrading treatment or denial of the right to family life, for instance, so discrimination cannot effectively be addressed in isolation. The strongest argument for a single institution is the capacity to deal, in each case, with the complex reality of the situation on the ground, having within its tool kit the full range of levers necessary to secure justice and prevent the abuse happening again. An institution with a broad human rights mandate, protecting the rights of all, may also have greater capacity to secure public support for its work; and to build solidarity in civil society among those who, through the institution’s integrated focus, begin to see the synergies between the issues they themselves are tackling and those of the group next door.

Arguments against the merger
But there are also practical and political arguments against merger. The domestic legal frameworks on human rights and equality are often, in practice, very different – differing legal powers, remedies for victims, target audiences, means of promoting good practice, monitoring performance and enforcing compliance.  As a result, staff can have very different expertise, working cultures, and priorities. Moreover, we can’t underestimate the disruption of the merger process itself. As one of our interviewees told us, ‘Mergers are horrible affairs!’

There is also the danger that, in trying to deal with its new, broad mandate, the body may lose sight of the detail and with it the depth of staff expertise that characterised its earlier work.  Last but not least, our newly integrated body faces an outside world that is anything but joined up: separate government departments; separate communities of expertise among lawyers and practitioners; and civil society groups that still focus on race, or refugees, or disability, or ‘human rights’, and understandably lobby for priority for their issue – mitigating against the coherent, strategic approach the integrated body needs to take. There can be fears, we were told, ‘of agendas being diverted, fear that equality might be one minor value in wider human rights’; and some groups may not even feel entirely sympathetic to other parts of the equality agenda: those working on race, homophobia, gender and religious discrimination, for instance, do not always agree.

The future of the merger and migrant debate
Those barriers can be overcome – by reform of the legal framework, transparency and consultation to take civil society stakeholders on the journey to a new, integrated approach and ensuring that staff have the right expertise. Leadership of these institutions, providing strategic direction and sound management, has been found to be a crucial factor beyond any question of remit, powers, structure and resourcing. There is a lot to play for in this debate.  At a time when the rights of migrants are particularly vulnerable to challenge by governments and the public at large, migration scholars and advocates in Europe may find it worthwhile to engage in the future of these statutory bodies, given the significant role they can play.

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