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Executive summary

NHRIs, ENNHRI and Rule of Law

As State-mandated bodies, independent of government, with a broad human rights remit, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) are a key player in the protection and the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The rule of law and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing principles: a strong regime of rule of law is vital to the protection of human rights, and the rule of law can only be fully realised in an environment that protects human rights.

The involvement of NHRIs in European rule of law monitoring mechanisms has a clear value added in terms of helping policy makers get to a more comprehensive and informed assessment of the situation in each country. In turn, the active engagement of NHRIs has the potential to lead to enhanced impacts of follow up action intended to drive progress in the national and regional rule of law and human rights environment. 

By including rule of law and democracy among the priorities for their regional cooperation, members of the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) have acknowledged this potential and committed to develop a strategic engagement in European rule of law mechanisms. At the core of such engagement lies a united approach meant to enhance coherence and consistency while allowing to reflect the differences in NHRIs’ national environments and regional processes relevant to each country across ENNHRI’s membership.

NHRIs’ contribution to rule of law reporting is one key aspect of such strategic engagement. Information on the extent to which NHRIs are able to independently and effectively fulfil their mandate is internationally recognized as an important rule of law indicator. Furthermore, reporting by NHRIs on the human rights situation on the ground – one of the core elements of their legal mandate – contributes to reflect a more accurate picture of the rule of law environment in which NHRIs operate. On this basis, NHRIs committed to develop national rule of law reports, based on a common reporting structure including consideration of NHRIs as rule of law indicator.

This ENNHRI report compiles national rule of law reports drafted by its members across wider Europe. These reports reflect each institution’s perspectives on the state of the rule of law in their country, based on their human rights monitoring and reporting functions and having regard to their mandate and their national strategic priorities. The report also gives account of the independence and effectiveness of each NHRI where ENNHRI has a member – and of progress made towards its establishment, in those countries where such an institution has not yet been established. 

Key Findings

The trends which emerge from these reports point to a number of challenges related to the rule of law environment across wider Europe, including:

  • Common issues affecting the independence and effectiveness of NHRIs, including a lack of adequate resources and insufficient consultation and cooperation with NHRIs;
  • Restrictions on civil society space, in particular in the form of limited access to funding, regulatory measures having a disproportionate impact on the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders and civil society organisations, limitations to freedom of assembly and instances of threats, harassment and smear campaigns targeting human rights defenders;
  • Pressure on democratic checks and balances, such as the use of special or accelerated legislative procedures, limited consultation and impact assessments, in particular on human rights, deficiencies of judicial control including non-execution of judgments as well as limitations affecting the electoral systems;
  • Shortcomings impacting on the independence, quality and efficiency of justice systems, including delays in delivering justice, appointment of judges, obstacles to the enforcement of judgments and inadequate legal aid systems, which affect particularly the enjoyment by vulnerable groups of their right to access to justice;
  • Threats to media pluralism, including attacks and hate speech targeting journalists and media actors and government’s interference in media independence;
  • Obstacles to eradicating corruption.

Given the relevance to the rule of law of many of the measures recently taken by governments to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, the report also offers an overview of the most significant impacts identified by ENNHRI members in relation to such measures in their countries. Concerns shared among NHRIs in this regard include the way measures are adopted in the context of the state of emergency; the lack of clarity and predictability of measures impacting on the enjoyment of fundamental rights; the situation of vulnerable groups (including the elderly, persons with disabilities, children, women, persons deprived of liberty, national and ethnic minorities as well as migrants and asylum seekers); and the severe restrictions to a number of fundamental rights and freedoms such as access to justice, the right to health, the right to information, freedom of assembly, privacy and the right to family life.

These findings highlight the importance of a regular and comprehensive monitoring of the rule of law environment at regional level and the urgency to make sure that identified challenges are addressed promptly and effectively at national and, where appropriate, international and regional (EU, Council of Europe) level. 

The report also draws attention to the importance of making the establishment of and support to fully independent and effective NHRIs across the region a priority at European and national level: not only to ensure a more comprehensive and consistent collection of information on the state of human rights, rule of law and democracy across wider Europe; but also as a means to strengthen the system of checks and balances that enables the effective protection and promotion of those standards and values.

Next Steps

Looking ahead, NHRIs’ rule of law reporting intends to contribute substantively to making concrete progress to advance the rule of law, democracy and human rights across the region. Indeed, this report, and the sub-regional reports compiled on its basis, are not the end but rather the very first step of NHRIs’ engagement in European rule of law mechanisms. Building on this work, all ENNHRI members will be able to engage in different processes at international, regional and national level in order to inform, based on their institutional role and their understanding of the situation on the ground, the identification and implementation of the appropriate follow-up measures in their countries. They will also be well placed to further contribute to the active promotion of a value-based culture, helping to grow grassroots support for democracy, rule of law and human rights among public authorities as well as citizens.

These efforts will also feed into other key areas of ENNHRI’s work, including as regards the promotion and support to human rights defenders and democratic space, also in connection to NHRIs’ role in the implementation of the Council of Europe Recommendation on the need to strengthen the protection and promotion of civil society space in Europe.

In addition, the information collected on the impact of COVID-19 will inform ENNHRI’s future actions to support NHRIs in this area. 

In this framework, ENNHRI will continue to act as a regional focal point and provide continued support to its members’ engagement to secure its sustainability and enhance its impact. It will keep on investing to secure the establishment and effective functioning of NHRIs across the region, build up NHRIs’ expertise and capacity, and ensure support to NHRIs under threat. Several needs, opportunities and recommendations to strengthen this approach are identified in the section on ‘Strengthening NHRIs through regional cooperation’. ENNHRI stands ready to further engage with international and regional actors to further the advancement of rule of law, democracy and human rights in wider Europe.