In 2019, the People’s Advocate of Albania monitored 31 public demonstrations organised by various entities, including opposition political parties, civil society, students, and citizens. Some of these resulted in physical confrontations. Through working groups, the NHRI monitored the situation on the ground and immediately verified cases of alleged illegal actions committed by state authorities.
In October 2020, the Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia organised an online meeting titled “Human Rights Defenders and the Challenges Faced by Them.” At the event, the NHRI presented an internal “Guide to Working on Issues relating to Human Rights Defenders.” The guide explains the concept of human rights defenders and outlines how the Georgian NHRI protects and promotes their rights (in reference to international practices and standards). The Guide is available in Georgian and English.
The Human Ombudsman of Slovenia addressed a detailed inquiry to the Ministry of the Interior regarding the procedures the police followed when establishing some protesters’ identities during protests in Ljubljana on 19 June 2020. The justifications provided by the police for the identification of 69 individuals were in view of the Ombudsman so general that they could, most likely, be attributed to all the protesters, who numbered around 7,000. The Ombudsman, therefore, recommended that police always conduct identification procedures according to applicable laws and regulations.
The Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria is monitoring the execution of the final European Court of Human Rights judgments in the case of Bozhkov v. Bulgaria. The case relates to the violation of the right to the freedom of expression of journalists (art. 10 ECHR) due to the fact that he reported about alleged corrupt practices. Related to the above, the Ombudsman issued a statement and invited state authorities to address a gap in whistleblower protection and ensure the timely and effective transposition of the EU Whistleblower Directive.
The Greek National Commission for Human Rights (GNCHR) closely monitors the execution of European Court of Human Rights judgments, including those related to human rights defenders. In August 2018, the GNCHR submitted to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers its Recommendations under Rule 9(2) with regard to the immediate full compliance of the Greek government with the landmark Court judgment Chowdury and Others v. Greece (known as the “Manolada case”). Two years later, in June 2020, it made an additional Communication on the assessment of the level of compliance of the Greek State with the GNCHR’s recommendations on the Chowdury judgment.
In another emblematic case for the protection of human rights, the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) – an initiative of the Commission and UNHCR in Greece – activated the same procedure under Rule 9(2), in December 2020, by submitting a communication for the supervision of the execution of judgments and the terms of friendly settlements, relating to the case of Sakir v. Greece.
The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia has drawn attention to the challenges and threats faced by human rights defenders and civil society in both Europe and Georgia. The Public Defender dedicated a chapter to this topic in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 annual reports it submitted to parliament. The reports underlined an increasing trend of verbal abuse, physical assaults, intimidation, and defamation, including by high-ranking political officials. Specifically, the reports pointed to challenges faced by women and LGBTI+ defenders and voiced concerns about cyber threats against and the bullying of human rights defenders. The reports analysed the rights of peaceful assembly, association and expression, as well as media freedom. The NHRI called on law enforcement agencies to undertake effective, timely investigations into any cases of human rights defenders at risk. It also provided recommendations to the government on the promotion and protection of human rights defenders.
After receiving two complaints about the activities of civil society organisations being suspended following a request from a security body, the Ombudsperson Institution of Kosovo* published a report in 2018. It includes specific recommendations on compliance with the right to freedom of association. The report concluded that any suspension of activities based solely on suspicion – and without proper investigation – interferes with the right to freedom of association. The Ombudsman argued that this precedent poses a serious risk of other cases of state interference being justified on the same basis.
In 2019, the Human Rights Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina received numerous complaints from individuals concerning alleged violations of the right to peaceful assembly. These were prompted by the alleged excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies at public gatherings. In 2020, the Ombudsman published a Special Report on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly. This looked at the overall situation concerning freedom of assembly and listed challenges that law enforcement agencies and organisers of public gatherings face during said gatherings. The report analysed relevant domestic and international regulations and collected information through questionnaires filled out by civil society organisations and ministries. The NHRI shared the recommendations with state authorities, organisers of public gatherings and civil society organisations in order to improve the relevant legislation.
In its submission to ENNHRI’s 2022 Rule of Law report, the Greek National Commission for Human Rights (GNCHR) expressed concern about an increasingly hostile environment for human rights defenders. This particularly affected organisations and activists working with refugees, migrants, and the LGBTI+ community. Consequently, the GNCHR approved in principle the adoption of a bill on “Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders”. This was brought before the Commission’s Plenary by the Greek Transgender Support Association (SYD), a member of the Commission. The bill aims to ensure that human rights defenders are free from attacks, reprisals and unreasonable restrictions. Moreover, all human rights defenders should be able to work in a safe and supportive environment. In this context, the GNCHR considered establishing its own focal point for human rights defenders.
In its report to the UN the Committee against Torture, the Federal Institute for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (FIRM-IFDH) criticised the use of the concepts of “radicalism” and “radicalisation” by Belgian authorities to preventively manage the threat of terrorism. It highlighted the increasing tendency to use vague and ill-defined concepts to justify a variety of actions. These include bans on working in certain sensitive areas, refusal to grant Belgian nationality, the closure of establishments by local authorities, refusing to issue a Belgian passport or travel document, revoking residence permits, and expelling foreigners from Belgian territory.
In Spain, the Organic Law on the Protection of Citizens’ Security was adopted in 2015. The law extends the sanctioning power of the country’s General State Administration and could facilitate inaccurate legal interpretations, leaving things at the discretion of the police. At the same time, it could hinder media freedoms and citizens’ ability to mobilise.
The Ombudsman of Spain has repeatedly asked for its modification. It has made recommendations relating to external body searches on public roads, offences in the context of meetings and demonstrations, and the use of images or data by the police. Recent annual reports of the Ombudsman have advocated the reform of some aspects of this Law, seeking the right balance between security and freedom.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission recommended the State to consult with children and disabled people on the General Scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill: this was to ensure a child and disability rights perspective to the legislation. The Commission has repeatedly highlighted concerns around the involvement of disabled people in decision-making processes. This was particularly notable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Legislation and policies with significant implications for disabled people were adopted, even though they were not meaningfully engaged. The Commission has stressed the importance of closely consulting and involving disabled people and Disabled Persons Organisations in legislative and policy decision-making processes in line with Article 4.3 of the UNCRPD and General Comment 7 on the participation of persons with disabilities. To ensure meaningful participation, the Commission has called on the State to actively support the further development and involvement of Disabled Persons Organisations. It can do so by providing sustainable core funding, capacity building, and training.
Civil society organisations are not always consulted on draft laws that may impact their activities and work. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights of Hungary has called on ministries to ensure that civil society organisations can meaningfully participate in and be consulted during the drafting of draft laws and bills relevant to their work and beyond.
The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) adopted two opinions critical of the draft law “confirming the respect for principles of the Republic”. The Commission considered that while the law’s objective to better combat criminal radicalism is legitimate, it can never justify implementing disproportionate measures that could undermine the fundamental freedoms at the heart of republican and democratic tradition. Unfortunately, the law was adopted on 24 August 2021 without any modifications based on the Commission’s opinions.
In its opinion on Climate Emergency and Human Rights from May 2021, the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights dedicated a paragraph to human rights defenders involved in the fight against climate change and the protection of the environment. It stressed the importance of providing a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders to operate freely and without any restrictions. Based on the first report issued by the Observatoire des libertés associatives, the NHRI noted that human rights defenders in France – especially those working to protect the environment – find their activities are hindered. Obstacles to human rights defenders and civil society in France can take many forms. For example, they can be resource-related, judicial, administrative, police-related, or physical. In this regard, the Commission addressed the public authorities with two recommendations.
In June 2021, the Federal Institute for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (FIRM-IFDH) commented on three proposed laws aimed at prohibiting the creation and allowing the dissolution of certain groups and organisations formed to incite hatred, violence or discrimination. These proposals were also meant to allow the sanctioning of those who set up, assist, or are members of such organisations. While FIRM-IFDH welcomed the legislator’s continued commitment to combat such organisations, it noted that the current legal framework was sufficient in this regard. It further stressed that alternative sanctions to dissolution were more proportionate and less likely to impact the right of association. FIRM-IFDH also emphasised that any dissolution of an association or a group should be decided by the judiciary, not by the executive.
The activities of human rights defenders and civil society in the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova have been restricted by rules and laws that limit their right to information and ability to express opposition to Transnistrian authorities. Human rights defenders’ freedom of expression was violated in 2020 when defenders were arrested and intimidated. In response, the People’s Advocate of Moldova issued recommendations to Moldovan authorities, mediators and observers. These aimed to make sure these parties applied international law and guaranteed the protection of human rights when designing measures to address the situation.
In 2021, the Constitutional Court of Albania examined the constitutionality of a Criminal Code article relevant to freedom of assembly and referring to “obtaining permission from the competent body according to special provisions”. When conducting the examination, the People’s Advocate of Albania submitted observations stating that all legislation referring to rights to freedom of assembly must be clear and drafted in accordance with international human rights standards. Additionally, they highlighted that freedom of assembly cannot be subject to any formal approval by police. It is sufficient that authorities are notified in sufficient time. Lastly, the People’s Advocate underlined that it was disproportionate to have fines or imprisonment (of up to one year) as possible punishments for organisers of/participants in peaceful rallies. The Constitutional Court accepted these points.
In January 2019, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission published a policy statement on the “Electoral Acts and Civil Society Space in Ireland”. The statement outlined concerns related to the Electoral Act 1997 and its definition of ‘political purposes’ and ‘third party’. The Commission underlined that these are overly broad and can affect the functioning of a range of Irish civil society organisations. They can also restrict their advocacy functions while potentially even constraining their ability to work and seek funding. In 2020, the Commission noted that the General Scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill does not address these issues. Therefore, in February 2021 the Commission presented a submission to the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the above mentioned Bill. It stressed that such regulatory measures should avoid placing undue restrictions on wider civil society activity and suggested that a reform of the Electoral Acts is needed.
In 2018, the government of Luxembourg drafted amendments to the law Nº 6961 aimed at strengthening the protection of classified information. This was to be done by incorporating a security clearance system, mainly implemented by the National Safety Authority. In 2019, the Consultative Human Rights Commission of Luxembourg published an opinion on how the draft negatively impacted the right to freedom of expression and access to information, as well as to the protection of personal data. The NHRI expressed concerns that the law does not provide an exception for journalists or whistleblowers who report information about threats or harm to the public interest. The opinion provided recommendations to the government to ensure a human rights compliant revision of the draft legislation, one in which whistleblowers, informants and journalists are sufficiently protected. Additionally, the opinion advised on setting out clear modalities for the collection/use of personal data and avoiding excessive interference with privacy. The opinion took European regulations, European Court of Human Rights case law, and Council of Europe standards into account.
In 2018, the State Revenue Committee of Armenia prepared a draft on making amendments to the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations which may interfere with the right to freedom of association. The amendments include that all NGOs are obliged to publicise the content of their annual report, including information about their financial activities, projects, number of employees and personal data of their employees among other requirements.
In recent years, the role of new electronic media, YouTube channels and bloggers has significantly expanded, covering meetings and events that remain outside the attention of traditional media. Although bloggers perform the same function as journalists, their work is not always perceived as journalistic activity. This deprives them of the protection set forth in the Law ‘On Mass Media’. This gap in legislation negatively affects journalists’ right to freedom of expression and citizens’ right to access information. In this regard, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation has been working on the detention of and imposition of administrative sanctions on journalists and bloggers covering unauthorised public events. The High Commissioner recommended to amend the legislation by defining the legal status of bloggers. It also recommended that law enforcement agencies refrain from detaining journalists and bloggers present at the venue of an unauthorised public event in order to cover it.
In 2016, the Croatian government adopted a decree that significantly reduced funds allocated from the national lottery to civil society organisations working on human rights and democratisation. The Ombudswoman of the Republic of Croatia engaged in public consultations and presented recommendations to the government. The NHRI also raised the issue in its 2016 Annual Report to the parliament. In 2017, the government adopted an amended version of the decree that increased the budget for civil society, although this was still under the level of 2015. In 2019, the NHRI continued work on the topic and issued recommendations to the government to adopt a new National Programme of Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, which would underline the importance of creating and maintaining an enabling environment for human rights and civil society.
In Hungary, civil society organisations (CSOs) sent a letter to the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights complaining about an audit initiated by the Government Control Office. The audit started to review the distribution of funds under the CSO Fund of the European Economic Area (EEA) / Norway Grants. The Commissioner called on the Prime Minister’s Office to discuss the signed agreement, clarify its provisions, and define the Control Office’s powers vis-à-vis this funding with the Norwegian government. In 2020, the Norwegian and Hungarian governments reached an agreement to make funding directly available to CSOs and establish a fund operator independent of the Hungarian authorities. In January 2021, the NHRI received the Ambassador of Norway to Hungary to reinforce their cooperation and enhance the execution of the agreement.
In 2021, the People’s Advocate of Moldova elaborated a concept regarding the necessity and importance to develop a draft law on human rights defenders. After that, the NHRI involved civil society and public authorities in discussion on the law, receiving mostly positive feedback. In parallel, the campaigning for children human rights defenders expanded and the NHRI proposed to include a chapter on children human rights defenders in the law, while mentioning the Ombudsman for Children as one of the protection mechanisms.
The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Batumi City Court regarding the internal and social media code of conduct of Adjara TV. The code restricted the freedom of expression of company employees. The NHRI analysed the cases of four employees and established that their dismissal or move to another position contravened Georgia’s Labour Code and Adjara TV’s internal labour regulations. The Public Defender recommended that the Adjara TV director restore the rights of the employees. As this was not done, the NHRI asked the Prosecutor General to launch an investigation. The Public Defender also contacted both the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media in relation to the case.
NHRIs can individually and collectively intervene before the European Court of Human Rights. ENNHRI, through its Legal Working Group, provides support for strategic litigation and prepares third-party interventions on key human rights concerns. In the case Big Brother Watch & Others vs The United Kingdom, which related to the right to respect for private life and data protection, ENNHRI submitted written observations through two third-party interventions in 2013 and 2019. These provided recommendations based on an analysis of the international and European legal framework, as well as practices by Member States. The Court delivered its judgements on the 13 September 2018 and 25 May 2021. On both occasions, ENNHRI’s submission was included within its conclusions.
In its opinion on Climate Emergency and Human Rights adopted on May 27, 2021, the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) dedicated a paragraph on Human rights defenders involved in the fight against climate change and the protection of environment. It stressed the importance of providing a safe and enabling environment for HRDs to operate freely and without any restriction. Based on the first report issued by the Observatoire des libertés associatives, the CNCDH noted that human rights defenders (and especially those concerned with the protection of the environment) find their activities hampered in France. The obstacles to activists and associations in France can take many forms. They can be, resource-related, judicial, administrative, police-related or physical. Two recommendations have been addressed to public authorities in this regard.
During a human rights film festival in December 2021, the Ombudswoman of Croatia organised a public consultation with civil society organisations. This was done to gain insight into challenges faced by human rights defenders and to identify key challenges in human rights protection. For its 2021 Annual Report to the Parliament, the NHRI sent out a public call inviting civil society to send data and insights, while specific questions were asked about key challenges to their work. The input from these consultations are reflected in the Ombudswoman’s Annual Report for 2021 and fed into Croatia’s Universal Periodic Review process.
The People’s Advocate of the Republic of Moldova closely monitors threats to the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, while publishing public statements to support human rights defenders and prevent polarisation within society. In one case, a politician verbally threatened media actors and civil society representatives criticising his political activities and position. In response, the NHRI issued a statement condemning his discourse. This was supported by OHCHR and major human rights organisations in the country. The NHRI also reacted promptly in 2018 when a mayor expressed threatening statements to journalists and in 2020 when government officials attacked the press. It issued statements calling on the national authorities and the General Prosecutor’s Office to investigate.
In June 2021, the Irish government announced a review of its Equality Acts. To support and encourage civil society groups and individuals to engage in the review process, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the civil society organisation, FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres), have launched a joint project called Equality ACTion.
The Protector of Citizens of the Republic of Serbia formulated a draft law amending the Law on Public Order and Peace. The draft was presented in September 2021 at a meeting of the Working Group of the Government of the Republic of Serbia for Security and Protection of Journalists. The proposed amendments included sanctions for violence, threats and insults against individuals and journalists on the internet and social networks. When presenting its annual report to parliament in 2020, the NHRI also underlined the importance of regulation in preventing and sanctioning violence committed and threats and insults made on social networks.
In 2020 and 2021, journalists investigating organised crime and paramilitarism in Northern Ireland received death threats. For example, journalist Patricia Devlin received online threats, including towards her young son and graffiti featuring the crosshair of a gun next to her name. In September 2021, her complaint that the Police Service had failed to investigate the complaints or provide protection was upheld. In April 2021, a Belfast Telegraph photographer was attacked whilst covering unrest in Belfast.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) recommended that limitations of journalists’ freedom of expression must be human rights compliant. Information allegedly linking state agents to non-human rights compliant conduct should not be withheld and HRDs should not face intimidation or reprisals for disclosing such information. The NIHRC insisted that the right to a fair trial and effective remedy for journalists are fulfilled. Additionally, it recommends that journalists have effective protection to report on issues of public importance.
At the end of 2020, a young person was murdered by a state police employee. This caused nationwide protests lasting several days that demanded the responsible person be brought to justice. The People’s Advocate of Albania launched an investigation into police conduct when arresting journalists during these protests. Media reports documented several media actors being taken to police premises. The NHRI recommended that the police analyse the cases in terms of what constitutes lawful conduct of police officers when escorting individuals. It also recommended that the police guarantee the media’s right to cover protests; train police officers to improve their conduct towards media actors; avoid violating the rights of escorted persons; and establish special rules concerning the treatment of media actors. The police have followed up on the recommendations with concrete measures and actions addressing them.
In 2020, the German Foreign Office launched the Elisabeth-Selbert-Initiative. This is a protection programme open to human rights defenders, including NHRI members and staff abroad, who face threats due to their work. The initiative consists of three main elements, including on-site assistance, grants for temporary relocation within home countries or regions, and grants for temporary relocation to Germany. The programme was put to use in 2021, the German Institute for Human Rights nominated a member for the selection committee. After the takeover by the Taliban, the German Institute for Human Rights, together with the Asia Pacific Forum of NHRIs, successfully advocated for staff from the Afghan NHRI to be included on the list of people evacuated by German authorities. As a result, some staff members and their families have relocated to Germany and received a residence permit. The Institute has been advocating to continue these evacuation efforts and to extend them to other human rights defenders. The NHRI published a study on Germany’s human rights obligations in this regard.
The Consultative Human Rights Commission of Luxembourg took part in an event organised by the government to gather input for the development of a project for human rights defenders. Named Shelter Cities, it aims to set up a procedure for the reception of individual human rights defenders in Luxembourg for a predetermined rest period. This would be done via the protectdefenders.eu website. Since the abovementioned initial meeting, there has not been any noticeable progress. However, the government reiterated its commitment to the project “shelter cities” in its candidacy pledge for the UN Human Rights Council 2022-2024.
A similar project, ShelterCity, is being implemented in the Netherlands and operates in cooperation with Justice and Peace Netherlands, Dutch cities, and local organisations.