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Podcast: Are fundamental rights losing ground?

The Hertie School launches its Centre for Fundamental Rights with a wide-ranging discussion with Başak Çalı, Cathryn Costello, Patricia Sellers and Susanne Baer.

Photos © Hertie School/Lars Hübner

On 20 February, more than 200 people gathered for a panel discussion of the current state of fundamental rights in the world, and to celebrate the launch of the Hertie School's Centre for Fundamental Rights. Panelists discussed whether fundamental rights are losing or gaining ground, or holding their own in today's climate of heightened contestation: Do they still provide a lingua franca for legitimate legal and political decision making? Are current rights and accountability structures fit for the 21st century and the challenges it has brought?

"The Center for Fundamental Rights at the Hertie School was established to address exactly these themes: the resilience and relevance of fundamental rights under changing political, economic, social and environmental conditions, and the future challenges to the protection of human and fundamental rights," Hertie School President Henrik Enderlein said in his opening remarks.

Participants in the discussion included Susanne Baer, Justice of Germany's Federal Constitutional Court and Professor of Public Law and Gender Studies at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin; Başak Çalı, Professor of International Law at the Hertie School and Director of the new Centre; Cathryn Costello, currently Professor of Refugee and Migration Law at the University of Oxford, and from fall 2020 Professor Fundamental Rights at the Hertie School and Co-Director of the Centre; and Patricia Sellers, Special Advisor for Gender for the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Sellers is a Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Arjun Appadurai, Professor of Anthropology and Globalisation at the Hertie School, moderated the discussion.

Centre director Çalı said she believes fundamental rights are losing ground in a number of different ways: "One is that the very idea that fundamental rights as a yardstick to assess legitimacy of government or governance is no longer ‘the theory’ or no longer ‘the idea’. This is a very fundamental loss of fundamental rights. There are political movements, economic movements, and economic powers, who think fundamental rights are not a way to assess legitimacy ... and it's not just happening in one or two countries, it's a more of an ideological, a deep ideological challenge."

What has her extremely worried, she said, are developments in liberal democracies where fundamental rights have traditionally been rooted. " We had built institutions and things were actually working. … I think that's a more serious problem than in places where we never actually had a regime that was able to operate through the lens of our fundamental rights.”

Susanne Baer said that while mobilizing around the politics of human rights is a way to support them, it is also vital that the law and legal nuance are not abandoned for being too esoteric: “There's also a legalistic reality of human and fundamental rights, which is sometimes denounced as a kind of bureaucratic, boring, grey zone of law school, which it is not. It's a highly important fundamental moving - in the sense of moving things - instrument, to be better.”

Emphasizing the importance of language and nuance, Patricia Sellers noted how easy it is to fall prey to using and thus validating the “the language of our opponents." For example, she said, "There is no such thing as 'gender ideology' in fundamental rights. There might be gender equity, there might be gender equality, there's no 'gender ideology'. Your opponent uses that because somewhere it's almost a type of projection of their own ideology.”

Cathryn Costello commented on the access, or lack thereof, of individuals to fundamental rights: "The questions around membership, citizenship, access to the polity, migration, asylum, the roots to become a member and to secure your right to reside in any given place, are one of the most fundamental fault lines where we divide up humanity into their access to the very basic question of how your life is going to emerge and whether you merely survive or thrive.”

A "public obligation to speak up"

Henrik Enderlein noted that the discussion was taking place in the context of a deadly right-wing attack motivated by racist sentiments, which had taken place just hours earlier in the German city of Hanau. German prosecutors said the attacker had posted a manifesto online containing far-right and deeply racist views.

"This event is taking place on a day, which throughout the last hours became a horrible reminder that the discussion of the protection of fundamental rights in Germany and beyond is more important and more necessary than ever," Enderlein said. "We are not only prepared to speak up, we have a moral, public obligation to speak up."

Enderlein went on to address the Hertie School community, and the many students who attended the event:

"There are many students here tonight. Some of you will have received messages from parents, friends, close ones asking you whether you feel worried today about what it means to live in Germany as someone who is perceived as racially different, religiously different, sexually different, or simply as non-German. Let me send out a very, very clear message to you. You're welcome here. Whoever you are, you live in an open society, you live in a tolerant society, you enrich all of us, and we will do whatever we can do to make the Hertie School a home for you, to make Berlin a home for you, and to make Germany a home for you."

Listen to a podcast of the full event: