The Danish Institute for Human Rights publication “Furthering the right to defend rights through the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development” underlines states’ human rights obligations and political commitments within the 2030 Agenda. It also sets out how these promote and facilitate an enabling environment for human rights defenders and their work.
The document stresses that human rights defenders should participate in planning and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals. It can also guide efforts towards comprehensive assessment of the enabling environment for human rights defenders, based on both human rights standards and SDG commitments. Various actors can make good use of the publication, including state institutions, local authorities, civil society, NHRIs, and human rights defenders.
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.
During mass anti-government protests in 2020, the Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria received several complaints from individuals and civil society concerning violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to legal aid. Protesters were detained by police in Sofia on 10 July and 2 September 2020 in reportedly overcrowded premises and with no access to lawyers. The media published images of violence and presumably excessive use of force against protesters and reporters by law enforcement. The Ombudsman issued a public statement emphasising the need to ensure that any use of physical force and auxiliary means by law enforcement is proportionate and in line with national law and international and regional standards.
In the follow-up to its submission to the 2017 session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission provided information on how austerity measures impact on the functioning of civil society organisations. The Commission highlighted that funding should be restored to pre-austerity levels while ensuring the sustainability of civil society resources. This is particularly relevant for civil society organisations and community groups promoting women’s rights. The Commission recommended that the state adopt measures to ensure that resources allocated to organisations working in the fields of human rights and equality, including women’s rights, are protected from future budget cuts and in economic recessions.
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.
The Slovak National Centre for Human Rights has mapped experiences of threats, intimidation, harassment and restrictions of rights faced by human rights defenders and civil society in the field of environment protection. The research aimed to find out whether cases of harassment occur, and, if they do, what their nature is and whether they are reported to public authorities. The information was collected via questionnaires which asked respondents to detail their experiences. The NHRI collected 11 cases considered by respondents as a threat, harassment, or intimidation. Harassment of and slander against individuals or their families were most common. Additionally, threats and the use of administrative procedures as a form of harassment (e.g. complaints, criminal reports) were prevalent. In most cases, human rights defenders sought to defend themselves by legal means and addressed existing public authorities. However, human rights defenders perceived the options available to defend their rights as very limited.
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.
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 do not always receive the draft laws that affect their activity for comments. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights of Hungary has called the ministries concerned to ensure the right of the civil society organisations to express their opinions in several of his comments on laws.
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.
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 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 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.
A human rights activist from an area outside of state control faced physical danger and criminal charges while being imprisoned due to her human rights work. The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia challenged her detention and harassment as illegal, calling for a fair investigation and issuing several public statements calling on authorities to ensure her safety. The NHRI also raised international and regional attention of the case and nominated the HRD for the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize and the UN Human Rights Prize.
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 Human Rights Annual Award is granted by the Danish Institute for Human Rights’ Council to an exceptional person or organisation that has promoted and protected human rights in Denmark, Greenland, or the Faroe Islands. Candidates are nominated through a public consultation and by the media, with the NHRI acting as the secretariat for the Council jury.
Following its participation in the NHRI Academy 2021, the Romanian Institute for Human Rights designed a training course for staff working with the country’s Senate and Chamber of Deputies. The training course aimed to raise awareness on issues relating to human rights defenders and NHRIs. Its objectives were to increase the effectiveness of the implementation and promotion of human rights at the national level; educate on the characteristics, mandate and modus operandi of key human rights institutions at the national level; develop an appropriate and adequate national regulatory framework for human rights defenders; and strengthen the national regulatory framework for NHRIs.
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.
To empower the advocacy and work of civil society, rights-holders, community-led groups and trade unions in Ireland, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission operates a grant scheme to support human rights and equality projects across Ireland. This scheme supports research programmes, training and resource activities, conferences, events, and cultural initiatives. Under its Human Rights and Equality Grants Scheme 2021, the Commission supported 28 projects which encompass a range of issues. They include social exclusion and socioeconomic discrimination; racism and discrimination experienced, in particular, by ethnic and minority communities; and empowering people with disabilities to advocate for their rights.
In October 2021, the Ombudsperson Institution of Kosovo* organised the first constitutive Forum for the dialogue between the Ombudsperson Institution of Kosovo and organisations of civil society. The Forum aimed to develop a cooperation platform for identifying human rights violations, challenges to civil society, and opportunities for joint activities to promote and protect human rights in Kosovo*.
The Ombudsperson proposed the following thematic areas for the forum:
Forum meetings are scheduled to take place on a quarterly basis, guaranteeing a dynamic and proactive approach. To implement and properly coordinate this work, the Ombudsperson assigned a focal point to be responsible for communication with civil society organisations.
The Greek National Commission for Human Rights (GNCHR) maintains a very close relation with NGOs and CSOs, while monitoring very closely the situation regarding civil society space and the protection of human rights defenders. Not only prominent NGOs and CSOs form part of the GNCHR Plenary, but the GNCHR also maintains within its premises the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN), which was established in 2011 by the GNCHR and the Greek Office of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Peer support among NHRIs can help address challenges faced in a context of limitations on democratic space. Together with regional partners, ENNHRI organises training and capacity building activities for NHRI staff. Topics covered include human rights defenders, NHRIs under threat, and communicating human rights. For example, the NHRI Academy 2021, jointly organised by ENNHRI and OSCE/ODIHR, focused on “Protecting human rights defenders and co-creating inclusive civil society space”. Moreover, ENNHRI’s 2018 Annual Conference gathered over 100 human rights stakeholders from across Europe to discuss how European NHRIs can better foster democratic space and support human rights defenders in the region.
In 2021, taking into account the importance of strengthening the cooperation with civil society organizations, a special Department on Cooperation with International Organizations and Civil Society Institutions was established at the Ombudsman Office. The main function of the Department is to create a bridge between the government bodies and CSOs. In this respect we on a regular basis hold meetings with the members of CSOs, learn about their problems, discuss the ways of cooperation and receive their proposals. Moreover, a new platform was set up with CSOs for enhancing this cooperation, several joint events have been organized so far.
The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights has addressed issues related to human rights defenders and civil society in many of its opinions and declarations. In its September 2021 statement on the situation facing Afghan people, the NHRI stressed that human rights defenders, as well as all Afghan people, at risk of persecution by the Taliban and who wish to seek asylum in France must be able to benefit from protection.
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.