Bringing human rights actors together in ordered chaos

I have spent the last week in Vienna with the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) to discuss with their national stakeholders how to improve cooperation on local, national and European level. I was a part of the FRA team that prepared and hosted the meeting, and therefore I had the great opportunity to be behind the scenes.

The meeting was unique for two reasons. Firstly, it gathered FRA’s national stakeholders together for the first time. The participants were composed of representatives from FRA, its management board and scientific committee, governments, parliaments, equality and human rights bodies, as well as FRA’s Advisory Panel of civil society organisations. Secondly, the meeting was facilitated by a participatory methodology that required meticulous planning, and on the other hand left the outcome uncertain as it depended solely on the way the participants would engage.

Around 130 participants were seated around small tables, working together across stakeholder groups and EU Member States. Not only did it lead to multiple opportunities to get to know each other, it also made it impossible for the participants to disengage by checking mails on their devices, or wandering off in thought as the format required their full attention. While some arrived rather sceptical about the methodology, most left with a change of heart, feeling that the meeting offered refreshing new approach to otherwise conventional conferences. Maria Scordialos, the facilitator framed it nicely: what we did was to “create order for people to be in chaos.”

The aim was to improve both process and content. Firstly, to bridge between different stakeholder groups to enhance their collaboration and cooperation with each other and with FRA. Secondly, to enhance cooperation on specific fundamental rights challenges that the participants had the possibility to suggest themselves. The content was discussed across stakeholder groups and around country-specific tables.

While good practices were shared, and new ideas emerged, it was clear that some of the participants struggled to concrete their proposals into joint actions, this despite their likemindedness. The fact that all 28 Member States were represented also gave further insight into the challenge Head of States face in cooperating for a European Union. Some of the issues and ideas discussed were a common approach to protect fundamental rights in state of emergency, health rights, alternatives beyond the Dublin regulation, communicating FRA’s products, using social media to change attitudes and raise awareness, using the EU Victims Directive as a complement to other directives and tools for vulnerable groups, and raising awareness on a local level.

The planning of the meeting started long ahead of the event. I was invited when FRA gathered a few representatives from all the stakeholders groups for a workshop using the same participatory methodology, to distillate how such a meeting in large scale could be designed. Building on the workshop a smaller group was invited to be a part of the hosting team. It was clear from the start how valuable it was to include all stakeholders in the planning to carefully take into account how to take into account the different interest of all. Civil society are used to participatory methods and to speak freely at meetings, governments on the contrary are often more restricted in their role and capacity to interact and intervene. Both these aspects needed to be balanced. I believe the approach can be replicated for many projects, whether for an event or product.

On the day I enjoyed being a part of a team of more than 20 engaged people working intensely to make the event a success, including among others facilitators, moderators, transcribers and photographers. I look forward to learn in six months – a year from now whether this meeting has really inspired new or improved collaboration.