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Further strengthening rule of law and human rights frameworks in Europe

The past year marked an intensification of efforts by regional actors to better advance and protect rule of law, human rights and democracy across the region. These efforts come at a critical time when countries are faced with ongoing human rights, democracy and rule of law challenges exacerbated by the persisting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Against this background, ENNHRI and its member NHRIs call on these regional actors to further foster and take advantage of new strategic opportunities to strengthen support of and cooperation with and among NHRIs, with a view to translating policy efforts into concrete positive developments on the ground. In this respect, ENNHRI’s 2020 leadership webinars and Annual Conference offered an opportunity to NHRIs to take stock of the experience and impacts of NHRIs’ engagement in European rule of law mechanisms to date. Four key focus areas were identified where enhanced collaboration with and support for NHRIs by regional actors appears particularly crucial to advance the promotion and protection of rule of law, democracy and human rights in all countries across Europe. 

A renewed push for the establishment and strengthening of Paris Principles compliant NHRIs in each state

Strong regional and national frameworks for human rights, democracy and rule of law need independent and effective NHRIs in each country. Indeed, this is reflected in the explicit recognition by the European Commission of NHRIs as an indicator of rule of law, as part of the system of national checks and balances, within its EU internal annual rule of law review cycle. Support to independent NHRIs in line with the UN Paris Principles is also stressed as a priority within the overarching objective of promoting a global system for human rights and democracy as part of the EU external human rights policy for the next 5 years. In acknowledging the role of NHRIs as pillars of the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Europe, the recently adopted Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers Recommendation on developing and strengthening NHRIs explicitly recommends each Council of Europe Member State to establish, maintain and strengthen an independent NHRI in compliance with the Paris Principles and to ensure an enabling environment for, and cooperate with NHRIs.  

ENNHRI members across the region are committed to continue contributing, in line with their role and mandates, to healthy checks and balances and enabling space for HRDs. To enable them to do so, ENNHRI’s first core objective is to support NHRI establishment and compliance with the Paris Principles, including before, during and after the accreditation process. 

NHRIs’ and ENNHRI’s efforts must however be better supported by regional actors. In line with the recognition of NHRIs as an essential part of checks and balances, and therefore of the democratic and rule of law infrastructure of each country, the establishment of an NHRI in compliance with the Paris Principles in each European country, as well as support to their independent and effective functioning, should be regarded as a priority at regional and national level. 

This priority should be adequately reflected in existing policy documents and processes. Reference goes, in particular, to the regular assessments conducted by the European Commission on the respect for rule of law, human rights and democracy in EU Member States and in third countries as part of its external action, as well as relevant monitoring mechanisms existing at Council of Europe, OSCE and UN levels.

To that effect, concrete action should be taken, including the definition of clear indicators, in line with the UN Paris Principles, to assess and ensure the independent and effective functioning of NHRIs in each country, based on existing standards. Enhanced support to ENNHRI’s work to guide and accompany NHRIs’ establishment and accreditation across the region is equally crucial.

  • Consistently integrate the establishment and compliance of NHRIs with the UN Paris Principles, as well as the enabling environment for NHRIs, as an indicator to assess each country’s progress in areas related to rule of law, human rights and democracy
  • Always include the establishment and strengthening of Paris Principles compliant NHRIs, including the importance of the accreditation process and the implementation of SCA recommendations, in relevant bilateral and multilateral dialogues, especially where no NHRI exists or the NHRIs does not fully comply with the Paris Principles
  • Secure structural financial support for ENNHRI’s core function of supporting establishment and strengthening of NHRIs in compliance with the Paris Principles, including through technical support for state authorities on NHRI draft laws and amendments.

Enhanced promotion and support for NHRIs’ role in advancing human rights, rule of law and democracy on the ground, including through concrete support for NHRIs under threat

As reflected in the outcomes of ENNHRI 2020 Annual Conference, NHRIs and regional actors agree on the value add of NHRIs’ joint rule of law reporting and on the need of strengthening their cooperation in this area – both individually, and collectively though ENNHRI. There is increasing commitment by regional actors to strengthen cooperation with NHRIs as part of their efforts to advance and protect rule of law, human rights and democracy in Europe. This is visible in the recently adopted Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers Recommendation on developing and strengthening NHRIs, which recommends Member States, among others, to explore ways of developing a stronger role for and meaningful participation of NHRIs and ENNHRI in the Council of Europe for the enhanced promotion and protection of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. 

At EU level, the role and contribution of NHRIs has been particularly valued within the annual rule of law review cycle and the new Strategy to strengthen the application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as regards EU Member States. The 2020-2024 Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy lays the basis for a strengthened cooperation between EU actors and NHRIs within EU external action, including within the enlargement process and the Eastern Partnership framework, and commits the EU to support regional NHRI networks to facilitate peer exchange. 

NHRIs are committed to continue and deepen common approaches to rule of law reporting, including by regularly engaging in joint reporting through ENNHRI. ENNHRI, as a network connecting all NHRIs across the EU and the Council of Europe region, will seek to continue coordinating the regular reporting exercises and further promote NHRIs’ involvement in relevant policy processes. To that effect, depending on available capacity, it will explore opportunities to foster other regional cooperation initiatives, further support NHRIs’ capacity building, and provide them with tailored guidance on how to engage with regional actors. ENNHRI will also seek to expand its guidance for EU actors on NHRIs, building on the guide and trainings developed to date for EU Delegations and Brussels-based EU officials. 

As for other HRDs, visible NHRIs’ engagement on rule of law issues, including through joint reporting, may expose NHRIs to threats. ENNHRI is investing increasing resources in providing support and protection to NHRIs under threat, in line with its Guidelines on ENNHRI support to NHRIs under threat. Indeed, as also illustrated in this report, worrying developments in certain countries over the past years have shown that NHRIs across Europe are vulnerable to serious threats to their independence and effectiveness. These may include reduction in formal independence, reduction in mandate, budget cuts or the removal of office holders, as well as harassment or attacks due to their work. In such situations, ENNHRI provides timely and tailored support in close cooperation with the concerned NHRI, coordinating with key stakeholders and ENNHRI members as appropriate.

Against this background, NHRIs’ engagement in joint rule of law reporting calls for increased recognition and support from the regional actors – from more structured involvement in relevant policy processes, to support and protection when NHRIs come under threat and strengthened financial support to the network coordinated by ENNHRI.

  • Enhance the sustainable inclusion of NHRIs and ENNHRI in relevant policy and monitoring processes, to further enable them to meaningfully contribute to progress monitoring and reporting, by means of establishing a transparent, structured and formalised upstream cooperation with NHRIs and ENNHRI, building on ENNHRI’s role as a/the central point of contact for NHRIs
  • Build capacity and provide training, with the involvement of ENNHRI, for relevant officials on NHRIs and on how to strengthen cooperation with them, building on ENNHRI’s guide and trainings developed to date for EU officials
  • Devote attention to the situation of NHRIs within the coordinated and comprehensive approach to the protection of and support to HRDs under threat, including through the use of political dialogue and public statements and support by high-level officials
  • Provide financial support to ENNHRI to further promote a strategic and sustainable engagement of NHRIs in relevant policy and monitoring processes, including through the regular coordination of quality and timely rule of law reporting, capacity- and institution building, mediation, dialogue and reconciliation measures between NHRIs, solidarity and support to NHRIs under threat as well as guidance and training for relevant officials.

Increased attention to the role of NHRIs in bridging regional actors’ efforts to make progress on human rights, rule of law and democracy with national realities 

NHRIs have a key role to play to raise awareness, mobilise support and maximise impacts of regional actors’ efforts to advance and protect rule of law, human rights and democracy, building on their monitoring role, their cooperation with state and non-state actors and as interlocutors between the state and the general public, and individual rights-holders. 

NHRIs are committed to explore how to best use their promotion and protection roles to engage with national actors on findings and recommendations by regional actors, including inter-governmental and other supranational institutions and specialised monitoring bodies. This may include reporting on follow-up by state authorities, the use of regular channels of dialogue and cooperation, including targeted recommendations, the developments of ‘national networks’ of support actors as well as, when provided for by their mandate, strategic litigation.     

On its part, ENNHRI intends to continue gathering information through the regular joint rule of law reporting exercise on the impact of regional efforts at national level and on NHRIs’ follow-up initiatives in that respect. ENNHRI will also continue to foster mutual learning and exchanges between NHRIs as a means to support their efforts, also in situations where NHRIs experiences difficulties in terms of their cooperation with authorities or witness the authorities’ failure to timely and effectively implement their recommendations – as some NHRIs flagged in this report.

All this implies targeted engagement and investment of resources on the part of NHRIs as well as of ENNHRI, which regional actors should actively facilitate and support. 

  • Integrate the timely and effective implementation of NHRIs’ recommendations as an indicator to measure progress towards key benchmarks and objectives set by regional actors in relation to rule of law, human rights and democracy
  • Give visibility to NHRIs’ recommendations and the level of their implementation in progress monitoring and reporting
  • Facilitate and support NHRIs’ efforts to engage with national actors, by mobilizing country offices and delegations, ensuring more transparency on national follow-up by regional actors and involve NHRIs as appropriate, through consultation and/or participation to bilateral and multilateral dialogues
  • Offer dedicated financial support to ENNHRI and NHRIs for initiatives aimed at raising awareness and increasing impacts of regional efforts to advance human rights, democracy and rule of law at national level, including through peer learning and information exchange.

Strengthened coherence and cooperation among regional actors

Enhancing coherence of policy initiatives by different regional actors on rule of law, democracy and human rights and strengthening their cooperation in this area is key to achieve positive impacts on the ground.

On the one hand, strengthening policy coherence and alignment of different initiatives, including as regards the recognition of and cooperation with NHRIs is particularly relevant for the legitimacy and efficacy of regional actors’ efforts, considering the multi-layered and partly overlapping nature of the regional framework for the protection of rule of law, human rights and democracy in Europe. Enhanced coherence of regional actors’ approach towards and engagement with NHRIs would also benefit global endeavours such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), having regard in particular to Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). 

On the other hand, increased synergies among regional actors can potentiate the impact of their efforts in key areas of common concern – one being that of the protection of HRDs, also in the context of increased attacks and challenges experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. This in turn would have a positive impact on the mutual engagement between regional actors and NHRIs, which are key actors of multilateral systems. 

  • Strengthening policy coherence and alignment between initiatives by different regional actors, including as regards the recognition of and cooperation with NHRIs, in the framework of efforts to advance rule of law, democracy and human rights
  • Intensify cooperation among regional actors to address common concerns, including NHRIs and HRDs as well as the impact of COVID-19 on rule of law and human rights protection.

ENNHRI will continue to support and facilitate collective reflections by its member NHRIs on opportunities and modalities for a coherent and sustainable strategic engagement in this area, building on the regional multi-layered framework for rule of law and human rights protection. 

This is also reflected in the comprehensive and cross-sectorial nature of ENNHRI’s work. Indeed, the information collected from across the network for rule of law reporting will inform ENNHRI’s ongoing work on the implementation of the action plan on human rights defenders. It will also be considered within ENNHRI’s thematic priorities, including its current work on NHRI monitoring of the human rights of migrants at borders, which rests on the importance of human rights-based cooperation on both sides at the borders to ensure human rights compliance and accountability for violations. Finally, the information collected on the impacts of COVID-19 will inform ENNHRI’s ongoing initiatives to support NHRIs in this area.