Today was our last real full day in Belgium. It seems strange to be packing up and wishing farewells to the hosts and friends that we have lived with and gotten to know over the summer. Just six weeks in Brussels and already most of us know the ins-and-outs of the city than we do Atlanta, but even as we prepare to move on to Holland, our studies into Human Rights with Professor Fabry are only just beginning, and so we spent our final day in Brussels being briefed at three of the most exciting and interesting site visits that we’ve taken yet: the DG of Competition, the Council of Europe, and Human Rights Watch.
To start off the windy day we headed to the Directorate-General of Competition for the European Union, which is responsible for directly enforcing the European Union competition rules in order to “make EU markets work better, by ensuring that all companies compete equally and fairly on their merits.” To make things even better, we had the distinct privilege of being briefed by Alexander Italianer, the current head of DG Competition, who was even just appointed as the future Secretary-General of the Commission. In his exhaustive briefing of the policies, duties, and actions of the DG Mr. Italianer delved into such topics as the importance of protecting true competition in order to foster healthy rivalry between companies for profits and market shares in order to propagate lower prices, increased consumer choice, better quality options and increased innovation. In finishing, he enlightened us to the inner workings and methodologies of the DG, discussing the process of opening and running an investigation into companies and governments that may violate fair competition – through restrictive behavior, price fixing, and cartels among many other means – as well as their role in creating antitrust policy and merger control.
Next, the group departed for the much anticipated Council of Europe. Made up of forty-seven member states and five observers, the Council is one of the most important and influential human rights based organizations in the world, not to mention that it rounded out the last of the eternally confusing three European councils. At the Council we had the interesting and insightful privilege of being briefed on and discussing the Council’s role in human rights by a member of staff from Russia. To begin, we watched a short video presentation on the issues and challenges tackled by the Council, ranging from topics like the death penalty, torture, and human trafficking to more dialectic subjects such as cyber crime, implementation of social charters, and the protection of national minorities. The following Q&A session covered a range of in depth issues, with questions on Ukraine (given the speakers unique experience and nationality) in particular being a popular line inquiry leading to a discussion on Russia’s legitimate concerns towards the treatment of
Russian-speaking minorities in the region in addition to the usual debate over the actions which they took in reaction. About an hour and several discussions on Eastern European HR violations, Hungary’s future, and the disastrous immigration situation later, we left for a long free lunch to digest the high level briefing.
Our energy recovered, we set out for our final (and personally, most exciting) destination: the Human Rights Watch offices in Brussels. This time we were led by an American staff member with an impressive track record in HR who is, in fact, preparing to begin work on the major issue of palliative medicine availability in less developed nations. The briefing was simultaneously more informal and informative than most, rather taking the form of an in-depth Q&A/discussion session that lasted from the first minute until the moment the speaker had to leave. To give us an overview of the organization before the questions began we once again began our visit with a video, this time a self-published segment on the deadly civil war in Syria and the massive humanitarian crises that has accompanied it as well as – of course – the role Human Rights Watch has played in bringing some of its worst tragedies to light. Through the lens of the Syrian example we go to see exactly how the Human Rights Watch operates and what means they have at their disposal to achieve their goal of bringing offenses to light and utilizing media and public opinion in order to bring perpetrators to justice.All in all, it was a fantastic way to wrap up our time in Brussels, and to top everything off it was also Apollo’a birthday!
I enjoyed the Council of Europe as well, their intro video gave a well-organized outline to the organization (which was nice for us as beginners in the HR field of study) and I was happy to hear the Russian perspective on human rights and the nation’s involvement in the European community, especially since we were unable to visit the Russian embassy.
I agree, the Human Rights Watch was one of the most impactful presentations we’ve had thus far; the HRW’s ground-up approach to gathering information from as close to the source of conflict as possible really contributed to the legitimacy of their work. I really appreciated their respect for continual witness protection and their commitment to providing the most informative and empirically-supported story of these tragedies as they unfold.
The visit to the Human Rights Watch was my favorite part of the day too. I have always been curious about the actual impact NGO’s have within the international theater, and our speaker definitely gave us a very well-rounded explanation as to why advocacy groups like the HRW are so crucial (primarily through investigations and subsequent broadcasting of human rights violations, which traditional state actors rarely have any incentive to take part in). We were lucky to have such an intelligent, talented, and humorous speaker as well!