National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) established in line with the Paris Principles and their staff are recognised as human rights defenders. Due to their broad human rights mandate, NHRIs work to promote a culture of rights and ensure that no one is left behind, including those lacking a voice or facing pressure. They contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.

When democratic space is shrinking, NHRIs can help place human rights at the heart of the public debate. NHRIs also act as ‘bridge-builders’ between international human rights standards and national realities by engaging with rights-holders and cooperating with government authorities, civil society and international organisations.

It is important that NHRIs themselves, or the institutions they advise, allow for the widest possible definition and identification of defenders, including the possibility of self-identification at a later stage.

NHRIs, as other human rights defenders, can come under threat or face challenges or pressure from the government.

The Polish NHRI as a human rights defender

Early 2021, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the country’s human rights Ombudsman be removed from his post. The opposition accused the Tribunal of being government-controlled, and wanting to silence the government most strident critics. The Ombudsman’s office under Bodnar had been one of a few remaining checks on the executive, and his removal followed his blocking of the take over of a news-agency by a state-owned oil company – a move that would have further reduced media pluralism.

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Who are human rights defenders?

What do human rights defenders do?

NHRIs as human rights defenders

What is civil society space and what relevance does it have to NHRIs?

Key challenges in Europe:
— Rule of law
— Migration
— Marginalised groups
— Impact of COVID

International & regional legal and policy frameworks

National laws and guidelines

Protection mechanisms:
— International & regional level
— National level

Good practices database

What is civil society space and what relevance does it have to NHRIs?

Civil society is a space where people associate voluntarily to advance common interests.

There are a set of legal policies, institutional and practical conditions necessary for non-governmental actors to access information, speak, associate, organise and participate in public life.

In the last ten years, defenders (human rights organisations, pro-democracy actors and wider civil society movements) in many countries have been increasingly facing restrictions when trying to carry out their work.

Space can start to shrink when authorities and other actors (religious groups, business…) see civil society as a threat, and employ tactics to discredit and weaken them. This weakens the collective respect and implementation of human rights.

Governments are erecting legal and administrative barriers, making it more difficult for civil society organisations who receive foreign support and funding to operate. In many countries, defenders (including the public) are restricted when they attempt to hold public gatherings, express their views or set up new organisations, and individuals are often subjected to intimidation and harassment.

Through the mandate vested into them by the Paris Principles, NHRIs are uniquely placed to monitor this situation, make reports and recommendations, comment on legislative or administrative provisions, and observe and address violations.

As human rights defenders themselves, National Human Rights Institutions also have a duty to protect other human rights defenders.
Watch the video to find out how they do it!

Challenge yourself!

What are the main restrictions facing civil society in your country? Has your NHRI produced reports on the matter and issued recommendations?



From 2020, an increase of verbal attacks in the social media by movements or persons opposing human rights, often the rights of migrants and refugees, LGBTI rights, women’s rights and rights of minorities and indigenous people (Sami) has been registered. These comments come mainly from non-State actors, but often seem well organised. Some populist politicians are also making derogatory statements in the social media, but this has also happened in the plenary session of Parliament. Investigations have been started by the State Prosecutor against members of the Parliament. Learn more »

In 2020, the Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits Humains (French NHRI) expressed its concern about significant restrictions of the freedom of assembly and demonstration, which are inherent to democratic debate. Particularly worrisome is the use of the normative framework of the state of emergency declared after the terrorist attacks in 2015, to prevent demonstrations of ecologists or trade unionists, as well as the 2019 law to reinforce public order during demonstrations. The CNCDH alerted the Legislator and the Constitutional Council, about the extension of administrative police powers (preventive prohibition to demonstrate) and the creation of a new offence of concealment of the face during a demonstration. Eventually, the first one was declared unconstitutional. Learn more »