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Human rights defenders and civil society space

Human rights defenders and
civil society space

Reporting by ENNHRI members reveals a deterioration of the enabling environment for human rights defenders (HRDs) and civil society space more generally in several EU countries.

HRDs and civil society organisations continue to be the target of attacks, smears and threats in many EU countries. These reportedly target in particular HRDs and civil society organisations working on sexual and reproductive rights, LGBTI+ rights, rights of migrants and asylum seekers and environmental protection, as reported by ENNHRI members in France, Greece, Poland and Slovakia.

In Greece, the NHRI explains how such attacks occur in a broader, concerning context of racist violence. In Poland, ENNHRI’s member also alerts about activists being targeted by police during demonstrations, and retaliations against prosecutors opposing controversial judicial reforms. Cases of legal harassment, including Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), also seem to be on the rise, as reflected in reports on Luxembourg and Slovenia.

Laws and practices negatively impacting on civil society space and/or on human rights defenders’ activities

Many ENNHRI members further raised concerns about laws restricting HRDs’ and civil society organisations’ activities. In this respect, a new emerging trend concerns provisions providing for the dissolution of associations which undermine basic values and principles. While requiring associations to align their objectives and activities with human rights standards and democratic principles is indeed a legitimate aim, legal provisions foreseeing the dissolution of associations based on vague formulations risk leading to disproportionate and arbitrary interferences with the right to freedom of association – as mentioned by ENNHRI members in Belgium as regards the bill on associations inciting hatred and discrimination and by ENNHRI’s member in France as regards the law on the respect of Republican values. Such objective can, by contrast, be supported through positive measures, as reflected in a bill under discussion in Germany aimed at fostering and strengthening the democratic engagement of civil society organisations.

At the same time, ENNHRI members alert that problems persist with laws criminalising HRDs’ activities, in particular in the area of migration, as reported in Croatia and Hungary – where the CJEU recently intervened to declare Hungarian provisions criminalising and obstructing the provision of assistance to asylum seekers as incompatible with EU law.

ENNHRI members also report how HRDs and civil society organisations active on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers are also increasingly the object of restrictive measures and practices, as reflected in the burdensome registration requirements introduced in Greece, where the NHRI also raises concern on the lack of transparency and consistency as regards their application; in Croatia and France, where authorities continue to limit access to information and physical access to migrants settlements; and in Poland, where the emergency regime and related rules applicable to the Belarus border zone have obstructed monitoring and humanitarian assistance by HRDs and civil society. Similarly, ENNHRI members continue to point to the impact of the advocacy and campaigning work of associations of existing laws in areas such as citizens’ security (in Spain), counterterrorism (in Belgium and France) and political advertising (in Ireland).

Limitations on access to funding and donations and an unfavourable financing framework for civil society organisations also remain an issue ENNHRI members continue to point to, for example in Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Portugal and Slovakia. This has an impact also on access to EU funding, as reported in particular by ENNHRI member in Croatia, while public financing remains inaccessible to organisations working on LGBTI+ and women rights in Slovakia. In Denmark, ENNHRI member reiterates its concerns over the introduction in 2021 of rules banning donations from persons or organisations attempting to undermine democracy and human rights, which in the Institution’s view pose a risk of arbitrariness and legal uncertainty.

ENNHRI members have also continued to raise concerns on laws restricting civic space and freedoms. ENNHRI members in Finland and Portugal make general reference to the impact on civic space of measures adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while in a number of countries including Hungary, Slovenia and Romania (as well as Poland, but in connection to the emergency regime declared in response to developments at the Belarus border), ENNHRI members reported about persisting interferences with the exercise of the freedom of peaceful assembly. This prompted interventions by constitutional courts in Hungary, where the Constitutional Court recently recommended to the government to ensure a regular review of restrictions, and in Slovenia, where the Court declared restrictions disproportionate. By contrast, measures were considered balanced by ENNHRI’s member in Estonia, allowing protests to take place peacefully. In Denmark, ENNHRI’s member reported that the security bill aimed to restrict gatherings and activities in the public space was eventually rejected by the parliament.

Access to and involvement of civil society actors in law and policy making

Reporting by ENNHRI members also reveals little efforts by State authorities to ensure access to and involvement in law and policy making for civil society organisations. ENNHRI members in Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Slovakia expose several gaps affecting consultation frameworks and practices. These include late consultations, the absence of consultations when expedited procedures are used, the lack of inclusiveness, as well as inadequate timeframes. ENNHRI members in Finland and Ireland especially regret the limited involvement of rightsholders and organisations representing affected groups or minority communities, such as children, persons with disabilities, victims of racism and discrimination and migrants and asylum seekers. This is coupled with limited access to public interest information, as reported for example in Luxembourg, as well as in Croatia as regards the field of migration. In Latvia, limited CSOs’ access and participation is mentioned as an issue in particular at the local level. As a result, ENNHRI members deplore an inefficient use of civil society groups’ knowledge and expertise.

At the same time, ENNHRI members reiterated and illustrated their active engagement in supporting and cooperating with HRDs and civil society organisations.

NHRI’s role in promoting and protecting civil society space and human rights defenders

This ranges from NHRIs’ efforts to monitor and alert about problematic issues and support HRDs and CSOs at national as well as international level, as illustrated in country reports on Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Estonia, Ireland, Slovenia and Spain; advocacy to ensure better protection of HRDs, as exemplified by efforts made by the NHRI in Greece to push for the adoption of a bill on the “Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders”, or the trainings for public authorities delivered by ENNHRI member in Romania; efforts to secure CSOs’ involvement and participation in law and policy making, as mentioned by ENNHRI member in Latvia; capacity building activities, as organised by ENNHRI members in France and Greece; and financial support, as offered by ENNHRI member in Ireland.

ENNHRI members also provided examples of successful cooperation with HRDs and civil society organisations, including in terms of coordinated advocacy (as reported by ENNHRI members in Finland, Estonia and Ireland, particularly in the area of equality); joint monitoring activities (such as in Estonia in the context of the Universal Periodic Review, in Greece as regards the monitoring of the execution of ECtHR judgments, the monitoring of racist violence and of incidents of informal forced returns of migrants, in Hungary as regards detention conditions, and in Slovenia as regards the rights of migrants and asylum seekers); as well as human rights awareness raising initiatives, as exemplified by the ‘Human Rights Alliance’ in Denmark.

Key recommendations

Respecting and protecting civic space and human rights defenders ENNHRI members’ reporting confirm that civic space and HRDs continue to be negatively affected by restrictive laws and practices across the EU.

No real progress was made on challenges identified in this area last year, including limited funding, gaps in access to and participation in decision-making and measures negatively impacting the exercise of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, while threats and attacks, including legal harassment, are reportedly on the rise in some Member States.

With a view to safeguard and restore an enabling environment for the free exercise of civic freedoms and the safe and unhindered work of civil society organisations and HRDs, ENNHRI and its members recommend to national authorities and EU and other regional and international actors to work together, in close cooperation with ENNHRI and NHRIs, to:

1. Ensure a framework for the protection of HRDs, including better monitoring of threats and attacks and measures to promptly investigate incidents and prosecute perpetrators, including where they are State authorities;

2. Take steps to protect civil society organisations and HRDs from the abuse of laws or process laws which result in forms of legal harassment, including SLAPPs;

3. Evaluate existing laws and practices regulating or otherwise affecting civic freedoms, civil society organisations and HRDs against national, EU and international legislation, including regional and international human rights standards, and repeal or revise rules resulting in undue restrictions, in particular as regards rules on registration and dissolution, reporting and transparency obligations and criminalization of activities;

4. Secure a conducive legal and policy framework to enable civil society organizations and HRDs to carry out monitoring activities, humanitarian and advocacy work;

5. Ensure better involvement of civil society and HRDs in law and policy making, in particular to secure consultation and participation of vulnerable groups, including through representative associations and civil society organisations;

6. Secure an enabling financing framework for all civil society organisations and HRDs to carry out their work and prevent or eliminate any undue obstacles to access to funding, including from foreign sources;

7. Foster awareness about the relevance to rule of law and human rights protection of the work of civil society organisations and HRDs among public authorities, stakeholders and the general public.

This will remain an important area of work for European NHRIs, on which ENNHRI will continue to foster collective action and collaboration as well as engagement with national authorities, EU and other regional and international actors, in accordance with its Regional Action Plan on HRDs.