International and regional actors recognise the crucial role that National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) play in safeguarding human rights and enabling democratic space. We contribute to this by engaging with relevant actors and raising awareness of how important NHRIs are for promoting and protecting human rights. In fostering this cooperation, we maximise the impact of NHRIs’ work for human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe.

We contribute to the recognition of NHRIs by: 

  • Meeting with representatives of relevant international and regional institutions 
  • Participating in and contributing to stakeholder meetings 
  • Providing inputs to draft policy and legislative initiatives

The overview below details some of the ways that NHRIs are recognised at the international and regional levels. It also provides more information on the role we play in this area. 

Council of Europe

Following the Council of Europe’s historic Fourth Summit of heads of state and government, Member States adopted the Reykjavik Declaration on the future of the Council of Europe. In the Declaration, heads of states and governments have recognised NHRIs as an integral part of the future of the Council of Europe. Moreover, the Declaration has recognised NHRIs’ key role in monitoring compliance with the Convention and judgments from the Court, as well as in protecting the environment and human rights.  

This landmark Recommendation (CM/Rec(2021)1), passed in March 2021, recognises NHRIs as pillars of the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Europe. It recommends each Council of Europe Member State to establish, maintain and strengthen an independent NHRI in compliance with the Paris Principles, as well as to ensure an enabling environment for and cooperate with NHRIs.    

To achieve this, Member States are encouraged to implement the following principles in law and practice:  

  • Providing a firm legal basis for NHRIs, preferably at constitutional level 
  • Ensuring NHRIs have adequate access to information and policy makers and are involved in all stages of legislation and policy making with human rights implications  
  • Implementing NHRI recommendations and making it a legal obligation to provide a timely and reasoned reply   
  • Fostering awareness and cooperation of all relevant public authorities in relation to the mandate, independence and role of NHRIs  
  • Protecting NHRIs against threats and intimidation and respecting confidential information collected by NHRIs. 

The Recommendation highlights the already existing and even greater potential impact of NHRIs for the promotion and protection of human rights in Europe, in particular for effective implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). This includes through third-party interventions before the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) and communications on supervising the execution of judgments from the Court.  

Accordingly, the Recommendation also encourages Council of Europe Member States to explore developing a stronger role for and the meaningful participation of NHRIs and ENNHRI in the Council of Europe.  

This landmark Recommendation (CM/Rec(2021)1), passed in March 2021, recognises NHRIs as pillars of the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Europe. It recommends each Council of Europe Member State to establish, maintain and strengthen an independent NHRI in compliance with the Paris Principles, as well as to ensure an enabling environment for and cooperate with NHRIs.    

Both the Helsinki Decision and the Turin Decision underline the importance of strengthening the role and meaningful participation of civil society organisations and NHRIs to increase the openness and transparency towards civil society in Council of Europe Member States. They also highlight the need for further strengthening of the Council of Europe mechanisms for protecting human rights defenders. 

The Recommendation sets out standards to strengthen protection and promotion of civil society space in Europe and recognises the role of NHRIs in promoting and protecting an enabling environment for human rights defenders. At the same time, it also acknowledges the threats that NHRIs can face as human rights defenders.  

It recommends the establishment of NHRIs in compliance with the UN Paris Principles, and where they already exist, strengthening them for human rights protection and promotion. This includes strengthening their role to protect and promote an effective environment for civil society. 

 

The document recommends cooperation and seeking assistance, when needed, from ENNHRI and regional and international bodies. 

This is the first document at the ministerial level of the Council of Europe which explicitly recognises Paris Principles-compliant NHRIs as human rights defenders. Furthermore, as a recommendation is the strongest non-binding document that can be adopted by the Committee of Ministers, this marked a milestone in the recognition of the role of NHRIs in defending civil society space. 

The Comment highlights the important role of strong, effective and independent NHRIs for democracy and the rule of law. The Commissioner views NHRIs as natural counterparts at the national level and as valuable partners in monitoring and promoting human rights during their mandate. 

The Comment states that NHRIs under threat, which are considered to be human rights defenders, are a concern of the Commissioner’s mandate and that it is essential that they can access effective protection mechanisms. It emphasises the importance of providing NHRIs with an adequate budget, independence and space for effective operation. The Commissioner recommends that Member States of the Council of Europe strengthen the role of NHRIs in the region. 

European Union

ENNHRI and NHRIs have a longstanding relationship with the European Parliament, enjoying particularly strong ties with its Committee on Human Rights (DROI) and the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). 

The Parliament recognises the added value of NHRIs in different areas of its work, such as its opinions, reports and resolutions. For example, the LIBE Committee’s 2021 report on the shrinking space for civil society in Europe sees the European Parliament call on Member States to provide sufficient resources for their NHRIs. In addition, a 2020 Parliament Resolution recognises NHRIs’ key role in monitoring human rights in the forced return of migrants.

Following its July 2019 Communication, the Commission established its Rule of Law Review Cycle. Since 2020, ENNHRI and NHRIs have contributed to the Commission’s reports through joint annual reports on the state of the rule of law in Europe. This has resulted in the European Commission recognising NHRIs as part of the institutional checks and balances in a state and a Paris Principles-compliant NHRI as an indicator for healthy rule of law. Vice versa, a threat to an NHRI is recognised by the European Commission as a threat to the rule of law in a state.  

In 2022, the Commission developed country-specific recommendations for the first time. These included country-specific recommendations encouraging EU Member States to establish and strengthen NHRIs in line with the UN Paris Principles.  

2020 EU Commission Charter Strategy

In 2020, the Commission presented a new Strategy to strengthen the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU. This sets out the direction of Charter implementation for the next 10 years. In the strategy, NHRIs are recognised as crucial actors for promoting and protecting fundamental rights and ensuring compliance with the Charter. Notably, the Commission recognises the role of NHRIs in “monitoring the application, implementation and promotion of the Charter on the ground, providing information and support to victims of fundamental rights violations and cooperating with the national institutions to improve the use and awareness of the Charter.” It also emphasises the need for the establishment of strong NHRIs in Member States without one. Where one has already been established, Member States should ensure that NHRIs are given the tools and means to comply with the Paris Principles and refer to the Charter in their mandate.

EU Commission reports on the application of the EU Charter

Since the Charter Strategy’s adoption, the Commission has released annual thematic reports on the application of the Charter. Each year, ENNHRI and NHRIs provide information to the Commission for these on the role of NHRIs; this is acknowledged in the Commission’s reports. The 2021 report focused on artificial intelligence and the 2022 report on civic space in the EU; the latter recognises the particular role of NHRIs.

Council of the EU Conclusions on the Charter

Strategic engagement with the EU was further reflected in the 2019 Council Conclusions on the Charter. In these, the Council recognises that independent NHRIs play a crucial role in the protection and promotion of fundamental rights and in awareness raising, while helping to ensure that national policies comply with the Charter. The Council highlights NHRIs’ importance for Charter implementation on account of their broad and horizontal fundamental rights mandate and how closely they work with citizens.

In the Council Conclusions, the Council also recognised NHRIs’ role in monitoring the fundamental rights compliance of EU-funded projects, welcoming the introduction of an enabling condition to ensure respect of the Charter in the Union budget for 2021-2027. The EU common provision regulations foresee a role for human rights bodies such as NHRIs in monitoring whether the use of EU funds by EU Member States is compliant with fundamental rights set out in the EU Charter and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Since, 2019, NHRIs have been consistently recognised in the Charter Conclusions adopted by the Council. Notably, the 2023 Conclusions – which focus on the role of civic space in protecting and promoting fundamental rights – invite EU Member States to set up and promote an enabling environment for human right defenders, such as NHRIs. Member States are also invited to set up or facilitate the establishment of NHRIs in compliance with the UN Paris Principles.

The report was launched in September 2020 and drafted in cooperation with European NHRIs. It calls for the effectiveness and impact of NHRIs in the EU, UK, Serbia and North Macedonia to be enhanced and gives an overview of their achievements, developments and challenges since 2010.  

The study also indicates promising practices and the potential for greater engagement with the EU. It states that “the EU could draw more consistently on NHRIs as crucial actors for the implementation of fundamental rights, including by ensuring independent and effective fundamental rights monitoring in the EU Member States. Such reliance on NHRIs should be supported through close and regular relationships with specific NHRIs and ENNHRI in particular.” 

Following an ENNHRI submission to the European External Action Service (EEAS) on the 2020-2024 European Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, the EU recognises NHRIs as key partners of the EU in its commitment to “promote a global system for human rights and democracy.Moreover, it recommends how the EEAS can engage in stronger, tailored cooperation with NHRIs, especially in the context of human rights dialogues. This builds on the broader direction provided by the Action Plan.  

NHRIs in compliance with the UN Paris Principles are an indicator of SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions. Their important and accredited role is recognised in the SDG framework and Agenda 2030, reflecting the human rights-based approach to sustainable development. 

ENNHRI has highlighted the contribution of NHRIs to SDG 16 at regional SDG consultations at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) – both in March 2019 in Geneva and at the consultation on SDG 16+ in May 2019 in Sarajevo. 

NHRIs implementing and monitoring SDG 16 through their broad human rights mandate was one of the central elements of discussion at the High-Level Political Forum 2019, which took place in New York. 

Both the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly adopt a resolution on National Human Rights Institutions each alternate year. The UN Human Rights Council Resolutions consistently highlight the crucial role of NHRIs in upholding human rights, encouraging all UN Member States to establish and strengthen NHRIs in full compliance with the Paris Principles. The resolutions highlight that NHRIs should not face reprisals for undertaking work under their mandate, and should investigate such cases when they happen. Further, the resolutions  recognise the role of NHRIs in the UN mechanisms and processes. In 2021, the UN adopted a resolution, led by Germany, that for the first time made a specific reference to the participation of NHRIs in meetings of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).