ENNHRI members group photo in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, taken during ENNHRI's 10th anniversary
23 Nov 2023

ENNHRI turns 10: reflecting on the last decade’s achievements and turning to the future

On 10 October 2023, ENNHRI marked its 10-year anniversary with a special conference in Brussels. Gathering ENNHRI members from over 40 countries and partners and peers from across Europe, this milestone event was marked by exchange, dialogue and connection. The conference looked back on the common journey and achievements of ENNHRI and NHRIs. At the same time, it looked ahead to how NHRIs and Europe’s wider human rights community can engage on emerging issues and tackle future challenges together.

Opening the afternoon

Sirpa Rautio, ENNHRI’s Chair, opened the conference by reflecting on the network’s journey during its first decade. She spoke of ENNHRI’s accomplishments while emphasising that we must strengthen existing and build new partnerships to face emerging societal challenges. Partnerships proved to be a recurring theme throughout the conference. Her welcome remarks set the scene for two keynote speeches.

Leading European human rights figures take the stage

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke first. In her speech, she stressed the importance of defending civil society and human rights defenders facing attacks. Furthermore, she emphasised the need for greater courage and independence in protecting threatened civic spaces against backsliding on human rights and the rule of law in Europe. Reiterating her and her office’s support for NHRIs, she praised them for “staying professional while pushing for issues vital for the well-being of our societies.”

Ingrid Bellander-Todino, Head of the Fundamental Rights Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice and Consumer Affairs, then addressed the audience. In her speech on behalf of Vera Jourova, European Commission Vice-President, she highlighted the invaluable and unique insight NHRIs bring to the development of fundamental rights policies in the European Union and for the rule of law. Consequently, there is a need for the support, empowerment and protection of NHRIs in their mandate to promote and protect human rights.

These interventions were followed by the afternoon’s two panel discussions, which both featured NHRI leaders and their regional counterparts.

Bolstering strong institutions, civic space and human rights as Europe faces war and securitisation

The first panel looked at how civic space and human rights and the institutions that protect them can be strengthened in the context of war and securitisation in Europe. The key points raised by panel and the audience included:

  • As we are confronted with increasing securitisation, we cannot forget ‘the human’.
  • We must avoid security imperatives being misused to criminalise particular groups of people and limit individuals’ freedoms (for instance migrants).
  • The ongoing fight in Ukraine is a fight for the most basic human rights. International partners’ support is crucial for the Ukrainian NHRI to be able to support those in distress.
  • Remember – we need each other; civil society needs strong and independent NHRIs and NHRIs need civil society alike – deepening cooperation is vital while the challenges become more complex.
  • We must not be afraid to ask tough questions. For instance: how do we hold ourselves accountable and address systemic issues?

Addressing emerging human rights challenges in the context of digitalisation, artificial intelligence and climate change

The second panel focused on tackling emerging challenges such as artificial intelligence (AI) and climate change alongside the need for partnerships to find solutions to these. Some key ideas put forward by panellists and the audience were:

  • The fourth industrial revolution is upon us and there is limited knowledge on the human rights implications of AI’s (mis)use.
  • The main challenges we currently face include labour displacement induced by automation; the increasing digital gap and a lack of access to digitalisation for certain groups such as older people and migrants, and disinformation. This contributes to fear in societies and threats to democracy and rule of law.
  • We need a human rights-based approach concerning policies related to AI with national supervision, and NHRIs can play a role in this.
  • We must consider the important question ‘where do AI and climate action meet?’ – some illustrations were provided of how AI can advance but also impede activists.
  • Environmental defenders should be included as key stakeholders in dialogue on how to address climate change and transitional justice, while stronger protection of their human rights is needed.
  • Creating a new collaboration arena between civil society and NHRIs is relevant to build capacities together on tackling emerging human rights issues. 
  • There is an urgent need to work more with younger generations to address emerging issues.

Concluding by turning to the future

After these rich discussions Debbie Kohner, ENNHRI’s Secretary-General, closed the conference. In her final remarks, she posed the question: “how can we celebrate in the face of all the emerging and developing challenges?”. She then argued that “we must celebrate, as in these times ENNHRI – a strong network for NHRIs – is needed more than ever.” She concluded by inviting all partners to join in ENNHRI’s mission to promote and protect human rights, making clear that cooperation and partnership is key. We can only achieve this together.

Relive the event and experience ENNHRI’s anniversary story

There are various other ways to relive ENNHRI’s anniversary conference and its discussions:

Finally, visit the dedicated webpage that tells ENNHRI’s 10th anniversary story and describes the common journey of ENNHRI and NHRIs.