The Malta Independent 20 February 2019, Wednesday

Identifying weaknesses and trying to improve local standards

Malta Independent Monday, 22 April 2013, 08:05 Last update: about 6 years ago

The director of the Aditus Foundation, Neil Falzon, says that NGOs do not apply pressure in the public sphere merely for the sake of it, insisting that they have an important role as an alternative public voice.

“When NGOs speak out, it is done on the basis of internationally recognised standards. We analyse jurisprudence and case-law, look at what they are saying and apply them to the local context.

“When NGOs take a stand and issue statements, they are not just personal opinions. We are so overrun by what politicians have to say that there is precious little space for the non-political voice. There needs to be space to provide that balance to the public.”

Dr Falzon explains how Malta was lacking an NGO looking at human rights from the advocacy perspective.

 “The aim of Aditus is to look at laws and policies, identifying weaknesses and trying to improve local standards. We offer very few direct services, as our main focus is on advocacy,” Dr Falzon said.

This does not sound like your ‘traditional’ NGO, as outwardly Aditus appears to elevate itself above the everyday nitty-gritty business associated with non-governmental organisations.

“We do actually meet refugees, LGBTs and other beneficiaries. We use these meetings to gain insight and information, looking into laws and policies and how they affect the end-user. Once such gaps have been identified, the Foundation speaks to the authorities, the media and other protagonists.”

Aditus takes a three pronged approach to fulfilling this role, with their mantra being to ‘monitor, act and report.’

Dr Falzon offers a practical example of such tangible action taken by Aditus.

“We have filed a number of complaints to the EU commission which highlight shortcomings in the transposition of EU directives. The returns directive is a case in point. EU law provides for a monitoring mechanism to ensure that third country nationals have been returned safely to their country of origin. Such a mechanism is lacking in Maltese law, and thanks to Aditus’ report the European Commission had drawn it to the attention of the previous administration.”

‘Human rights’ is a broad ranging term, and the lack of specialisation of the Foundation may lead to a fragmented approach. Dr Falzon does not agree with this analysis.

“You can either choose to be a specialised NGO dealing with one particular issue, or you can be an NGO that looks at the general situation in the country. At the Foundation we have an annual internal discussion, in which we indentify priority areas where we feel that we are best placed to offer a contribution. The priority areas for this year are migration/asylum, LGBTI rights and the rights of the child,” Dr Falzon says.

Given than 2013 has ushered in a change in administration, I ask Dr Falzon whether he has managed to engage with the new government and keep a sense of continuity going in Aditus’ work.

“We have already sent our suggestions to the newly formed Justice Reform Commission, asking them to cast a wider net in not only reviewing the judicial system, but also the office of the Ombudsman, National Commission for Persons with a Disability and other such entities,” he replies.

Dr Falzon said that the Commission has been receptive to Aditus’ suggestions, and the Foundation will be given space during the public discussions that will take place.

“We have held a dialogue with Minister Helena Dalli, and it was an extremely positive meeting. She is very happy to engage with the Foundation and to tackle the issues we are working on.  We are looking forward to getting hands on with her ministry to work on the laws, policies and practices that affect human rights in Malta.”

Other ministers have not as yet been as forthcoming. Dr Falzon said that an invitation to dialogue with Minister Manuel Mallia has thus far gone unanswered. Immigration falls under Dr Mallia’s remit.

Managing so many different channels of communication with the government appears to be both time consuming and clunky, a point with which Dr Falzon agrees.

“A lot of ministries are still defining their portfolios. Matters were equally as fragmented under the previous administration, mind you. One of our major recommendations which we call for all the time is for Malta to have a national forum in which NGOs can discuss such matters.

“If I want to represent human rights in Malta, currently I have to identify all the relevant ministries and engage with them on an individual basis. But the reality is that many human rights issues are cross cutting. For example, freedom of expression involves many of the ministries.”

Dr Falzon insists that there is the need for a central focal point.

“A national forum would allow for issues to trickle down to government. A national human rights institution would serve as a recommending agency to the authorities. Human rights are not something that should be segregated to just one ministry.”

The same problem applies to government agencies in formulating a coherent migration policy.

“We still do not have any kind of national policy with regard to the integration of refugees. We want to try to bring the issue to the table, as there is the need for a holistic approach. This applies to all migrants, be they Americans, Indians, Serbs or Africans.

“By way of example, Appogg is trying to deal with migrants as a new client group. They are trying to come up with a policy that works well for them. If Appogg is doing one thing and the Housing Authority another, there might be potential clashes in the policies.”

The Aditus foundation is taking a different approach to migration integration.

“We have been accused of teaching Maltese to deal with migrants, but not vice- versa. Therefore we have embarked on a project that involves training migrants on how to better integrate. It is all about encouraging and empowering migrants in Maltese society. Like this we are not just talking to Maltese, but we are helping migrants to be more proactive.”

Dr Falzon firmly believes that human rights have to be given more importance at an academic level.

“Human rights need to be given more prominence in university courses. I lecture human rights at the faculty of law. As I have already said, it is a cross sectional subject that is relevant to many courses, such as social welfare, European studies and international relations.

“In an ideal world it would start much earlier than university. Children need to be taught the fundamental principles of human rights, as these are the building blocks of a healthy society. So much more needs to be done at a basic level, with principles such as respecting your neighbour.”

Given that ‘respecting thy neighbour’ has decidedly biblical overtones to it, I ask Dr Falzon what role the church has to play in all this.

“The church has a huge role to play. What they are doing is promoting a value based society, therefore they too have an advocacy role. Ultimately the church has its own agenda and mandate based on a spiritual approach to issues.

“Were they to be public in speaking up on human rights issues, they have the potential to reach thousands of people. Unfortunately they do not speak up enough on matters like immigration and children’s rights. It would help if they spoke more in practical terms instead of just spiritual terms.”

Given that constitutional reform is around the corner, I question Dr Falzon on whether he thinks that there is any place for religion in the Constitution.

“We have no principled objection to religion being mentioned in the constitution, as long as it does not affect the rights of persons who do not subscribe to that religion. The inclusion of Roman Catholicism should not be a state mandate for discrimination.”

Research carried out by Aditus has indicated that one of the major stumbling blocks faced by migrant children in the education system is that of religion.

“During religion classes, non-Roman Catholics are asked to leave the room. This emphasises the differences and exclusion that religion can create. Children are being singled out and excluded from class. The whole focus of the education system is on Roman Catholicism. It is totally ignorant of all other religions.

“One famous quote by a teacher is that ‘Christmas is celebrated all around the world.’ In Malta we are yet to acknowledge new social realities. We are not a homogeneous society, contrary to what many Maltese people prefer to think. The Maltese islands play host to a wide variety of people, all with different beliefs and skin colours.”

According to Dr Falzon, it is not religion per se that causes problems, but rather “certain people’s perceptions of their own beliefs are sometimes problematic.”

“In certain LGBT issues such as marriage equality and the right to define your own gender, religion cannot be removed from the discussion. The church has its mission and I am not going to blame them for promoting their value. All I am doing is appealing to the State to not promote religious agency.”

Aditus is not beyond cooperating with the church. One project currently being incubated is a microfinancing scheme undertaken jointly with the St Andrew’s Scots church.

“This microfinancing scheme is targeting refugees and Maltese persons with low income levels. The scheme will provide small loans to help these persons acquire a skill or set up a business. We are very excited to get this project off the ground. At the moment we are applying for the relevant licence from the MFSA.”

On matters of finance, I ask Dr Falzon about Aditus’ own financial structure.

“Without volunteers it would be impossible to get by. The everyday running of our office is already a financial burden. We need volunteers to cope with all the articles, research and meetings undertaken by the Foundation. Thankfully, in terms of human resources I cannot complain. People express their interest in volunteering with Aditus all the time, so much so that we sometimes have to turn people away.”

Smiling bashfully, Dr Falzon admits that Aditus is always open to donations. “I invite anyone interested in helping the foundation to visit our website, aditus.org.mt.”

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