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Striving towards a human-rights-based recovery and reconstruction

Article by Michael O’Flaherty Director, EU Fundamental Rights Agency

Inevitably – and despite the ongoing aggression against Ukraine – there is now much discussion around what reconstruction of the country should look like, including in recent weeks, a major study of the RAND Corporation, co-authored by the recently deceased and respected US diplomat James Dobbins.

There is obviously much merit in all this thinking, yet what I have seen shares a big gap – attention to the role of human rights. For sure, there is acknowledgement of how economic and other reconstruction strategies are in large part about improving human well-being; there is a welcome focus on the recovery of abducted children and other prisoners; there is strong attention to criminal accountability. But there is next to nothing about the specific role in the reconstruction of Ukraine of human rights laws, standards, institutions and processes.

I find this odd since I know that paying explicit attention to human rights can set a state on a path towards a better future. I have seen this repeatedly over a career that took me to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland and other conflict and post-conflict countries across the world.

International human rights law is a comprehensive road map concerning how to show respect for everyone in our societies. It addresses every aspect of our lives. It guides difficult choices, for instance about the delivery of scarce resources while adhering to minimum standards. It puts the most vulnerable in our societies at the front of the line. It demands respect for the diverse mosaic of our societies. And it is backed up by an array of international monitoring and expert bodies to support its implementation.

What’s more, it is law. It is binding on Ukraine as well as on all states that will support Ukraine’s reconstruction.

Putting human rights at the heart of planning for reconstruction would require three things:

First, to bring human rights expertise into the room. The governments and organisations that are imagining what the Ukrainian future might look like need to work with the human rights expert colleagues that most of them have.

Second, they need to bring all human rights to bear – for sure, it will be about respecting civil and political rights, but the rights that guarantee social, economic and cultural well-being are no less important.

Third, a human rights approach requires that pathways to the future be worked out in full, deep and respectful consultation with the Ukrainian government and other national institutions, including the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights. It is no less important to engage with Ukraine’s rich and diverse civil society.

There are two regional institutions with a key role to play.

The first is the European Union. It is already clear that it will make an enormous contribution to reconstruction, reportedly to the value of at least EUR 50 billion. As a matter of law, it is bound to respect human rights in how it disburses the money: it should look now at what that would require in practice. Moreover, Ukraine is on the pathway to membership in the Union, with a high degree of compliance with human rights required of it before accession will take place – much of that compliance will ultimately be tested in the very institutions, like the justice system, that will benefit from reconstruction.

As the EU and Ukraine look to put human rights at the heart of their efforts, they can be supported by the agency that I direct, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency – the Union’s human rights advisory body. However, this would require that Ukraine seek observer status with the agency – something that I hope happens soon.

The other critical regional player is the Council of Europe. The Council is the guardian of human rights on the European continent and the outcome of its recent Reykjavik Summit shows that it recognises its special responsibilities to Ukraine. Its initiatives will include establishment of a Register of Damage and the implementation of a “resilience, recovery and reconstruction” action plan. To get these right from a human rights point of view, and to keep a close eye on everyone else’s reconstruction work, the monitoring and guidance role of the Council of Europe will be essential.

Human rights law is no panacea. Just addressing it in reconstruction plans is no guarantee of a stable peaceful future. But experience has long shown that its integration puts humans at the heart of the attention and delivers better outcomes that are fairer and more trustworthy. Ukraine, for all the suffering inflicted on it, deserves no less.


The author Michael O’Flaherty is writing in a personal capacity.


This article was published in Bled Strategic Times 2023. Bled Strategic Times is the official gazette of the Bled Strategic Forum. Check the full 2023 edition here.

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