Countries across Europe are witnessing shrinking civic space, persisting structural human rights challenges, and a deterioration of the rule of law. This includes restrictive laws on the right to freedom of expression and assembly, laws undermining judicial independence, and security measures disproportionally affecting individual freedoms. For these reasons, the rule of law is one of ENNHRI’s ongoing thematic priorities. We work on this vital area through joint work across our full membership and our Legal Working Group.
PROTECTING THE RULE OF LAW ACROSS EUROPE
NHRI are increasingly recognised as pillars for the respect of human rights, democracy and rule of law by various international and regional actors. This includes the EU, the Council of Europe, and the United Nations. Indeed, an independent and effective NHRI is considered indicative of a state’s respect for the rule of law and, more broadly, national checks and balance.
Furthermore, independent and effective NHRIs are reliable information sources on the rule of law situation at the national level. Given the close interconnection and mutually reinforcing relationship between the rule of law, democracy and human rights, NHRIs are well placed to report and participate in rule of law monitoring initiatives as an integral part of their mandate to promote and protect human rights. This is crucial given the persisting rule of law challenges and structural human rights issues that Europe faces.
Since 2020, ENNHRI has played its role in advancing the rule of law through annual regional reports. These outline the state of the rule of law in the European Union and wider Europe. Compiling country submissions from European NHRIs, they provide an overview of trends across the region. Based on these, they also issue recommendations to regional actors and national authorities for upholding the rule of law. The impact of this network-wide initiative is clear. For instance, it is reflected in the European Commission’s country-specific recommendations encouraging several EU Member States and Enlargement countries to establish and strengthen NHRIs in line with the UN Paris Principles.
As the rule of law is an ongoing thematic priority, we have also strengthened the capacity of members in this area. For example, the 2023 NHRI Academy in Skopje, Macedonia, focused on how NHRIs can use their mandates to address current and emerging challenges to the rule of law and democracy.
For the fourth consecutive year, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) around Europe have reported on rule of law challenges in their countries. At the same time, they highlight NHRI actions to safeguard the rule of law and address recommendations to state authorities and European policy makers. Their insights are compiled in ENNHRI’s 2023 report on the state of the rule of law in Europe.
IMPLEMENTATION OF THE EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
NHRIs are key stakeholders in ensuring the effective implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention) at the national level. They do so in a variety of ways. This includes advising governments; collaborating with civil society and the Council of Europe; intervening before the European Court of Human Rights (the Court); and supporting timely and effective implementation of the Court’s judgments. The role of NHRIs in monitoring compliance with the Convention and the Courts’ judgments was recognised by heads of state and government in the Council of Europe’s landmark Reykjavik Declaration, adopted in 2023.
ENNHRI’s interactive tool on implementing the Court’s judgements supports and guides NHRIs’ work in this area. It compiles relevant resources and tools, alongside lessons learned and NHRI good practices. The tool illustrates how NHRIs’ work forms part of a cycle: the outcomes of national efforts to promote the implementation of Court judgments can be used in international advocacy efforts. The outcomes of these can then strengthen subsequent national efforts.
|Download: Guidance for NHRIs to support implementation of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights
|Explore: Online tool for NHRIs on ECtHR judgment implementation
A further way NHRIs enhance implementation of the Convention is by submitting third-party interventions before the Court -– both individually and collectively through ENNHRI. This is done in cases of regional significance concerning structural human rights or rule of law issues.
Among others, ENNHRI’s interventions have concerned cases on climate change; access to abortion and the rule of law; national intelligence sharing and the right to privacy; and criminalisation of begging. To support and encourage NHRIs to undertake third-party interventions, ENNHRI issued a dedicated guide.
ENNHRI also supports the enhancement of the Convention system by contributing – in the role of observer – to various drafting groups of the Council of Europe Steering Committee for Human Rights. Such engagement has contributed to greater recognition of NHRIs’ role in implementing the Convention, for instance in Council of Europe guidelines on preventing and remedying violations of the Convention.
IMPLEMENTATION OF THE EU CHARTER OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS
NHRIs work to apply all international human rights standards at the national level through their broad mandate to promote and protect human rights. This makes them essential actors for applying the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Both the Council of the EU Conclusions on the 10th anniversary of the Charter and the 2020 EU Charter Strategy underline the necessity of ensuring an enabling environment for NHRIs, equality bodies and other rights defenders. They also stress how such institutions protect and promote fundamental rights and ensure compliance with the Charter.
Each year, ENNHRI makes a thematic submission to the annual European Commission report on the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU. This provides key insights into how NHRIs apply the Charter at national level. An ENNHRI publication collates further NHRI good practices in this area.
European NHRIs have participated in capacity building activities to strengthen the implementation of the Charter, both collectively through ENNHRI’s Legal Working Group and individually in-country. For instance, NHRIs from seven countries are involved in a project on monitoring fundamental rights and the fundamental rights aspects of the rule of law. Led by the EU Fundamental Right Agency and funded by EEA-Norway Grants, it aims to strengthen the role of NHRIs in promoting and protecting fundamental rights and the rule of law in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. This includes by broadening their institutional knowledge base; building their staff’s capacity to use the Charter in their work; and increasing their engagement with EU mechanisms supporting fundamental rights and the rule of law at the national level.
CIVIL SOCIETY SPACE AND HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
In line with the UN Paris Principles, NHRIs’ composition and work reflect different strands of civil society and are vital for their engagement on the diverse human rights issues affecting society. The GANHRI Marrakech Declaration highlights the unique role of NHRIs in expanding and safeguarding civic space and promoting and protecting human rights defenders, taking a gender-based approach.
Following the Declaration’s adoption, our 2018 Annual Conference addressed how European NHRIs can better support democratic space and human rights defenders. We also developed a Regional Action Plan for the Declaration. This outlines actions for European NHRIs – acting nationally and collectively – under the areas of prevention (ensuring an enabling democratic space, including rule of law and human rights) and reaction (continuous and rapid responses when democracy, human rights and the rule of law are threatened). The subsequent Implementation Report shows key activities conducted.
“Defending Human Rights Defenders” – an online resource launched in April 2022 – guides NHRIs wanting to find more effective ways to work with and protect the rights of human rights defenders. It brings together informative material on defenders and a comprehensive good practice database.
|Explore the resource: Defending Human Rights Defenders
NHRIs in compliance with the UN Paris Principles are themselves recognised as human rights defenders at the level of the UN and in Europe. The Council of Europe adopted the 2018 Committee of Ministers Recommendation
NHRIs in compliance with the UN Paris Principles are themselves recognised as human rights defenders at the level of the UN and in Europe. The Council of Europe adopted the 2018 Committee of Ministers Recommendation on the need to strengthen the protection and promotion of civil society space in Europe. This refers to the role of NHRIs as promoters and protectors of civil society space, while explicitly recognising – for the first time – NHRIs as human rights defenders.
Moreover, the Council of the EU recognised NHRIs as human rights defenders in its 2023 Conclusions on the role of civic space in protecting and promoting fundamental rights in the EU. In these, it invited Member States to establish NHRIs in line with UN Paris Principles and adopt an enabling legislative framework so they can fulfil their mandates independently and effectively.
We provide support for European NHRIs when their compliance with the UN Paris Principles comes under threat, such as through a reduction in formal independence, a reduction in mandate, budget cuts or the removal of office holders.
Video: NHRIs and Human Rights Defenders
Legal Working Group
We bring together many ENNHRI members through our Legal Working Group. This acts as hub of legal experts and a platform to exchange knowledge, good practices and challenges that NHRIs face when working on structural human rights and rule of law issues.
The Working Group advises on developments regarding the Convention system and the Charter, human rights in situation of crises, human rights impact assessment of anti-terrorism laws, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), and more.
It enhances the capacity of NHRIs at national level by exchanging good practices on the role of NHRIs concerning the national implementation of key regional human rights conventions, including implementing judgments from the Court.
Moreover, the Legal Working Group facilitates ENNHRI statements on structural human rights and rule of law issues, and third-party interventions in cases brought before the Court.
Co-Chairs: Leena Leikas – Finnish Human Rights Centre, Simona Drenik-Bavdek – the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Slovenia