European Union officials on Thursday launched the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights – the 27-nation bloc’s latest effort to stamp out intolerance as it struggles to absorb an unprecedented crush of immigrants. Officials said the new agency would expand the work of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia to forge an EU-wide human rights culture that respects people of different genders, cultures and faiths. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the new agency reflected the EU’s “deep belief in the central worth and dignity of each individual.” Underscoring how racism, anti-Semitism and crimes against foreigners remain entrenched in Europe, the monitoring center warned in December that Europe’s Muslims routinely suffered acts ranging from physical attacks to discrimination in the job and housing markets. “We must continue to attack these diseases,” said Franco Frattini, the EU’s justice and home affairs commissioner. “There are those who would exploit our differences. Therefore, respecting different cultures is vital, but respect for fundamental individual rights must prevail,” said Frattini, adding that the new agency would complement the work of the Council of Europe, the bloc’s top human rights body. “Europe has changed and is changing – the promotion of fundamental rights could be our identity for the future,” he said. Amnesty International called the new agency a good start, but criticized its “minimalist mandate that contrasts sharply with the serious scale and nature of human rights problems in the EU.” In a statement, Amnesty expressed disappointment that the agency was steering clear of some thorny issues, including police abuse, violence against women and the interplay between counterterrorism laws and basic rights and freedoms. “The Fundamental Rights Agency, despite its name, is a missed opportunity,” Amnesty said. The Agency for Fundamental Rights is expected to become fully operational later this year. Like the monitoring center, the new organization will track and collect data on violence and discrimination, advise EU headquarters and member states, and raise public awareness of the problem. Its interim director will be Beate Winkler, who has been in charge of the monitoring center since 1998. In an interview earlier this week with The Associated Press, Winkler expressed hopes that the new agency would produce “a culture where people have the feeling they are respected – where they don’t have the fear of being attacked because they are Muslim or a Jew.” “The two most important challenges for the 21st century are how are we dealing with the Earth, and how are we dealing with the humans living on the Earth,” she said. The human rights arm of the region’s largest security group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Thursday it welcomed the new agency. “The creation of the Fundamental Rights Agency will further strengthen the EU’s role in effectively protecting human rights,” said Christian Strohal of the 56-nation OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

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