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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Key challenges in Europe:
— Rule of law
— Marginalised groups
— Impact of COVID
International & regional legal and policy frameworks
National laws and guidelines
— International & regional level
— National level
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!
- ENNHRI, National Human Rights Institutions and Human Rights Defenders: Enabling human rights and democratic space in Europe, 2018.
- European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, Protecting civic space in the EU: Country reports, September 2021.
- European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, Civic space – experiences of organisations in 2019, July 2020.