Towards a closer cooperation between NHRIs, ENNHRI, the Council of Europe and its Member States: inspiration from the High-Level Event on the 2021 Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation on NHRIs
On 26 April, ENNHRI and the German Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe held a High-Level Event bringing together representatives of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), Council of Europe, Member States’ governments and civil society to exchange on strategic action in follow-up of the adoption of the Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers on effective, pluralist and independent NHRIs. The meeting gathered over 240 participants, and represented a unique opportunity to identify strategic priorities, cooperation and support in the follow-up of the Recommendation.
Opening the event, Prof Caroline Fennell, ENNHRI Chair and Commissioner at the Irish NHRI (Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission), stressed the importance of the adoption of an updated Council of Europe Recommendation for ENNHRI and European NHRIs and how this achievement is the result of a joint effort for realising the full potential of multilevel cooperation in the region.
As highlighted by Krista Oinonen, Chair of the CDDH INST Drafting Group, the Recommendation sets the strongest standards in Europe on NHRIs and recognises their role as human rights defenders and in contributing to a safe and enabling space for civil society as a whole. She proposed that, for implementation of the Recommendation, NHRIs should have more consistent participation across CoE Bodies, building upon the positive experience at CDDH, and a dedicated online portal to access information on CoE developments.
Strengthening NHRIs & ENNHRI engagement with the Council of Europe
The added value of the Recommendation in facilitating a stronger role and meaningful participation of NHRIs in the Council of Europe mechanisms was acknowledged by participants.
In her keynote speech, Bärbel Kofler, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Assistance, underlined that, thanks to their impartiality, expertise and independence, NHRIs are crucial partners in ensuring effective implementation of Council of Europe instruments, including the effective implementation of Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, key priority of the German Presidency of the Committee of Ministers.
A new interactive resource to support and guide NHRIs in their work on the execution of ECtHR judgments was presented during the event, developed with support of the Council of Europe Department for the Execution of Judgments of the ECtHR, and in cooperation with the European Implementation Network.
Christophe Poirel, Director of Human Rights at the Council of Europe Directorate General for Human Rights and Rule of Law, reminded that NHRIs are key partners of the CoE, by contributing to the development, dissemination, and implementation of legal standards and by participating in monitoring mechanisms with submissions. They are also beneficiaries of the activities of the CoE through joint programmes in some Member States. In doing so, he expressed the CoE commitment to further expand joint programmes with NHRIs, and to facilitate a stronger role and improved participation for NHRIs in these processes, including through the creation of online access points to help the exchange of information between NHRIs and the Council of Europe.
Karin Lukas, President of the European Social Committee, encouraged an increased NHRI participation in the reporting and complaint procedures before the Committee by submitting information on violations of economic and social rights. The European Social Committee will shortly publish a guide for NHRIs on how to participate in the reporting system and the complaint procedures.
The Venice Commission also benefits from mutual exchanges with NHRIs, as highlighted by Veronika Bílková, Member of the Bureau of the Venice Commission. When drafting opinions, the Venice Commission regularly reaches out to NHRIs for developments at national level. In turn, NHRIs with a constitutional mandate can ask the Venice Commission to develop a legal opinion on their legal framework. Expansion of engagement between NHRIs and the Venice Commission will be further considered in light of the CoE Recommendation.
Other examples of NHRI engagement with the Council of Europe system were discussed during the meeting. These include Rule 9 submissions to the Committee of Ministers and third party interventions before the ECtHR. As recalled by Róbert Spanó, President of the European Court of Human Rights in his video message, NHRIs are fundamental in providing a picture of the law and practice at the national level, as well as data and statistics on the ground, and confirmed that their role could become even more relevant in the coming years, in line with the Court’s new case-processing strategy. Thanks to their unique position and their expertise at the national level, President Spano also envisioned more room for NHRIs to contribute to the execution of Court judgments by working with national parliaments and domestic governmental bodies.
The added value of the Recommendation: strategic opportunities at the national level
Lord Richard Balfe, member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and former rapporteur of the PACE Resolution on Ombudsman Institutions Resolution 2301 (2019) remarked on the importance of the Recommendation for strengthening and supporting NHRIs facing threats to their independent and effective functioning. He suggested the establishment of a Permanent Rapporteur to examine areas where the Paris and Venice Principles are not being followed by Member States and to instill relevant follow-up by the CoE.
Professor Antoine Buyse, member of the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs), noted the interconnectedness between independent and pluralist NHRIs and a vibrant civil society. Cooperation between human rights defenders and the ability to rely on mutual support are key to ensuring the effective protection of human rights in Europe. He reflected upon the positive impacts of INGOs’ participatory status at the CoE, and encouraged a similar status for NHRIs.
Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights, underlined that established trust and cooperation is what makes NHRIs essential partners for the realistaion of human rights in Europe. The Commissioner called on Members States to implement and respect the key standards fleshed out in the Recommendation: to ensure A-status accredited NHRIs in each CoE Member State; to respect the independence of NHRIs and effectively address any reprisals or threats to NHRIs; to ensure sufficient resources to carry out their mandates effectively, including also in the context of COVID 19 recovery; and to ensure that state authorities respond in a timely and effective manner to NHRI recommendations. The Commissioner recommended that Member States develop national roadmaps for implementation in consultation with NHRIs and civil society, and organise yearly discussions on its implementation in parliament.
Participants agreed that the Recommendation is a milestone that will make a difference to the work of NHRIs and the Council of Europe. As also stressed in the Recommendation, it is therefore vital for governments of member States to start the work on its implementation now, in dialogue and cooperation with their NHRIs and ENNHRI, as well as with the Council of Europe.