UN Albania Resident Coordinator Brian J. Williams' speech at the 10-th Anniversary of Albania's Commissioner for Protection against Discrimination
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights
Dear Members of Parliament,
Dear Representatives of the Communities of Faith,
Dear Representatives of independent constitutional institutions of Albania,
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”
I wanted to start by quoting one of the first sentences of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It underscores that although today we will be talking about laws and institutions, the measure of our success will come from people, from individuals who either are able – or are not able – to live free from fear, to live with access to social services, who benefit from education and job opportunities, and who do not suffer any additional obstacles to those things because of their gender or their color or their history or their poverty or anything else.
The human rights that the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner defends are deeply embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, SDG 1 – the elimination of poverty – and in particular target 1.3 calls for establishment of “social protection floors” to ensure that everyone has access to health care and minimum income throughout the life cycle. This does not apply to only some people; it applies to everyone.
Or SDG 10, which focuses on inequality, and contains within it the concept of social inclusion. Social inclusion means we must look at our own societies in the mirror, and find those who are excluded. It is the job of the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner and his institution to champion this self-reflection, and promote corrective measures. In all our societies there are people at risk of being left behind; it is our job to identify and help those individuals – whether they are disabled people and their families, members of the Roma community or young people of the lesbian and gay and trans community.
Another critical SDG is 16 – focusing on peace, rule of law, and accountable institutions. In fact, the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner and the other independent human rights institutions in Albania are fundamental building blocks for a functioning, full democracy. I need to underline the word “independent”. It is only through genuine independence that the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner can hold up the mirror and defend those whose rights are being denied.
Here, I would like to congratulate the Government and parliament for steps taken to strengthen this independence. This parliament has instituted important measures, such as the three-monthly monitoring mechanism for all independent institutions, that helps track whether or not Government has implemented recommendations. And it includes the regular meeting between the Speaker of parliament and the State Minister for Relations with Parliament and all the independent institutions.
At the same time, greater security for independence could be afforded to the institutions. Budgets, in particular are a critical element. Of course the amount is important – and I believe this year it has gone down – but so is the fundamental predictability and security of the budget.
For the United Nations, in its promotion of human rights and Agenda2030, the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner is a critical partner. UN agencies active in Albania support technical capacities and institutional growth.
For example, UNDP works to amplify the outreach of the Commissioner. In one case supported by UNDP, a woman in a divorce procedure had utility services turned off in her home – leaving she and her children without water or electricity - because the contract for those services was only in the name of the husband, and the husband turned off the services. The Commissioner considered this a discrimination case, therefore, followed relevant procedures to change the contract details for contract holders providing equal representation for both spouses. This has impacts far beyond this case.
Such changes, inspired by the Commissioner but which have broader impact on law and practice, will help Albania achieve the targets against SDG 5, focused on gender equality.
UN Women is similarly focused on expanded the outreach of the Commissioner, for example by undertaking information campaigns. Many women – especially those from disadvantaged or marginalized groups – are unfortunately still unaware of their rights to legal aid and face barriers in accessing fair justice. The UN remains concerned about the low number of gender-discrimination complaints brought to Court and the Commissioner’s attention.
More change – more men, more mayors, more Ministers, more members of parliament – must take public action to support women to seek legal support if, as a nation, Albania is to achieve its SDG 5 targets. Domestic and other forms of violence against women, such as sexual harassment, stalking or rape, remain human rights concerns, as also highlighted in the latest Universal Periodical Review (UPR) of Albania during 2019 , where violence against women was one of the areas that received the highest number of recommendations from other States.
The Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Violence against Women, CEDAW, has made similar points concerning the need to continuously improve legislation. One area that needs to change is the shifting of the burden of proof. Albania has yet to revise its anti-discrimination legislation so that the burden of proof does not fall on women in cases of alleged sex-based or gender-based discrimination.
UNICEF, too, works to expand the Commissioner’s reach and capacities. UNICEF has supported the physical expansion of the Commissioner’s office to three new localities, an expansion which the Government, I am pleased to say, has subsequently supported. This has had real impact. The number of cases brought by or on behalf of children, particularly cases of children with disabilities or learning disorders, as well as Roma boys and girls, have increased in the past few years. It will help Albania make progress against its SDG 10 target, concerning inequalities and social inclusion.
Children of course need special measures to ensure that their rights are met. We hope that the new amendments to the Law on Protection from Discrimination, recently prepared by the Commissioner, in consultation with public authorities, international organizations, including the UN and the civil society, will be reviewed favourably by the Parliament of Albania, with a view to offer even less burdensome and non-delayed procedures for obtaining remedies for discrimination of children.
The right to live free from discrimination applies to everyone, including non-citizens of Albania who find themselves within its borders. As per the recommendation of the Committee on Migrant Workers, outreach efforts need to be enhanced by the Government to ensure migrants have the necessary information about their rights, including on work, visa or asylum-seeking procedures. The UNHCR and IOM are working with the Commissioner on these topics.
In many cases, discrimination is at its worst when there are overlapping vulnerabilities to rights-denying behaviors by individuals or institutions. Disabled persons who are also kids, for example, or women victims of violence who are also Roma. Such cases need extra attention and effort.
In closing, I would like to congratulate the Commissioner for the weeklong celebration of the 10 year anniversary of his Office of the Commissioner. Actually, I would like to congratulate the previous Commissioner as well – also in the room today. Ultimately it is the sustainability of the institution that matters most for the building of democracy. Any particular Commissioner has the privilege to be custodian of its important tasks for a certain period of time. Building a robust and resilient democracy is a long road, and 10 years marks an important milestone in this struggle.