United in Action- 10 years of promoting and protecting human rights 

Over the past 10 years, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) across Europe have had to work harder and smarter to promote and protect human rights. For this, they have needed an equally strong network for solidarity, mutual learning, and common initiatives to address shared human rights challenges.

By maintaining a steadfast commitment to its values and building partnerships, the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) has impacted regional human rights developments. At the same time, it has shared its expertise to build and support new institutions and strengthen NHRIs across Europe.

The cumulative impact of this is clear. In 2023, NHRIs form an indispensable and acknowledged part of the European human rights architecture.

Below, experience the journey ENNHRI and NHRIs have undertaken to reach this point, and what is planned as we move into a new decade.

Driving the growth of and strengthening European NHRIs over the last 10 years

As the network of NHRIs in Europe, ENNHRI has focused on achieving more and stronger NHRIs in compliance with the Paris Principles. Members have been supported throughout their journeys to establish and (re-)accredit their institutions. With every NHRI facing a unique set of circumstances and challenges, this support has taken a different form each time. This has paid off handsomely: the NHRI and ENNHRI family has grown constantly since 2013.

ENNHRI in numbers

Since 2013, the number of NHRIs in Europe has increased by 34%, the amount of accredited NHRIs by 27%, and the amount of A-status NHRIs by 50%. More countries in Europe now have strong, independent and effective institutions protecting and promoting human rights.

At its heart, ENNHRI is a network of human rights defenders. To instil a culture of independence among and build the resilience of European NHRIs, ENNHRI has provided extensive capacity building – including the annual NHRI Academy – for expert staff. At the same time, ENNHRI has created a Leadership Programme to induct and provide peer support, mentoring and leadership development for heads of institutions. This support has prepared the ground for ENNHRI’s members across Europe to promote and protect human rights in the many ways their various mandates allow.

Stories of solidarity and support

Through the network, ENNHRI members have acted in solidarity for the establishment and (re-)accreditation of NHRIs, while providing mutual support when an NHRI comes under threat. Faced with a worsening environment for the rule of law and human rights defenders, it is more vital than ever to ensure NHRIs are strong, independent and effective. To achieve this, ENNHRI and its members have constantly advocated for the enabling environment NHRIs need to thrive.

The Swedish Institute for Human Rights started operations in January 2022. To lead this organisation is both an honour and a challenge.

ENNHRI’s support has been remarkable, both when it comes to valuable contacts and advice on NHRI standards.

Our collaboration when we applied for international accreditation was crucial, taking place during a period of political scrutiny in Sweden.  

Thanks to ENNHRI, we have felt solidarity all the way from Brussels and beyond. 

Fredrik Malmberg, Director, Swedish Institute for Human Rights

ENNHRI gave us essential support throughout our accreditation journey from a B- to an A-Status NHRI. In particular, discussions helped us establish how we could further strengthen our NHRI’s independence.

Consequently, we achieved a formalised and participatory selection process of the Commissioner; limited a Commissioner’s possible tenure to two terms; and established an Advisory Committee with civil society.

This increased institutional independence was recognised by GANHRI’s Sub-Committee on Accreditation, proving pivotal in its decision to award us A-status.

— Maria Stylianou Lottides, the Commissioner for Administration and the Protection of Human Rights, Cyprus

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ENNHRI gave us essential support throughout our accreditation journey from a B- to an A-Status NHRI. In particular, discussions helped us establish how we could further strengthen our NHRI’s independence.

Consequently, we achieved a formalised and participatory selection process of the Commissioner; limited a Commissioner’s possible tenure to two terms; and established an Advisory Committee with civil society.

This increased institutional independence was recognised by GANHRI’s Sub-Committee on Accreditation, proving pivotal in its decision to award us A-status.

— Maria Stylianou Lottides, the Commissioner for Administration and the Protection of Human Rights, Cyprus

ENNHRI has provided invaluable support to the Ukrainian NHRI during the war, offering expertise, resources, and establishing a Solidarity Fund. Collaboration has included sharing best practices, training staff, and aiding information exchange.

Financial assistance has helped sustain the institution’s operations, while advocacy at international forums has highlighted the urgent need to unite for human rights in the face of the Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine.  

This solidarity has bolstered the institution’s credibility, amplified its voice, and helped us continue promoting and protecting human rights amidst the war. 

Dmytro Lubinets, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights

In 2020 and 2021, the Georgian Public Defender faced verbal attacks and threats from politicians and public figures due to its human rights work.  

ENNHRI and its partners responded rapidly, publicly supporting the Defender. They highlighted to the Georgian Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Georgian Parliament that NHRI staff should face neither reprisals nor intimidation due to their work. 

In such times, public support from international bodies is essential: it reinforces an institution’s credibility and that attacking NHRIs violates international standards.  

Dr. Tamar Gvaramadze – First Deputy Public Defender of Georgia

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In 2020 and 2021, the Georgian Public Defender faced verbal attacks and threats from politicians and public figures due to its human rights work.  

ENNHRI and its partners responded rapidly, publicly supporting the Defender. They highlighted to the Georgian Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Georgian Parliament that NHRI staff should face neither reprisals nor intimidation due to their work. 

In such times, public support from international bodies is essential: it reinforces an institution’s credibility and that attacking NHRIs violates international standards.  

Dr. Tamar Gvaramadze – First Deputy Public Defender of Georgia

Collaboration: the key to NHRIs establishing themselves on the European stage

Through ENNHRI, NHRIs have united in action. Their common work has come to influence European regulation and policies across a range of key human rights topics. Indeed, their broad mandates allow NHRIs to engage on a wide variety of human rights challenges. This is reflected in ENNHRI’s human rights advocacy, which includes longer standing issues like asylum and migration and the rule of law alongside emerging ones like artificial intelligence and climate change.

Thanks to their contributions in the regional human rights arena, NHRIs have – individually and collectively – been recognised as indispensable actors for human rights protection. Their unique ability to bridge between the national and European levels – applying international human rights standards locally and reporting the reality on the ground internationally – has set them apart.

Joining forces for common action

ENNHRI’s Working Groups (WGs) provide the foundation for the network’s members to tackle Europe’s most pressing human rights challenges. They also offer a platform to undertake common initiatives and engage on human rights at the regional level.

Key achievements:

  • Advocating to ensure regional legislation and policy on AI adhere to human rights standards, for example the draft Council of Europe Convention on AI and the EU AI Act. 
  • Extensive NHRI engagement in a recently founded group that has created common spaces for exchange and learning.

Key achievements:

  • Brought NHRIs together for multilevel work on strengthening human rights accountability and migrants’ rights at borders, supporting their role. 
  • Provided a platform for NHRIs to exchange and collaborate on supporting people fleeing the war against Ukraine, calling for human rights-based solutions. 

Key achievements:

  • Alongside peer exchange, coordinating extensive regional engagement, including on the drafting and review of Council of Europe Recommendation. 
  • Developing submissions to align EU policy and legislation with the international human rights framework, such as on corporate sustainability due diligence. 

Key achievements:

  • Third-party interventions in major climate change cases before the European Court of Human Rights, including oral interventions before its Grand Chamber.  
  • Representing ENNHRI at the Council of Europe Drafting Group, advocating for a binding instrument on the right to a healthy environment. 

Key achievements:

  • Creating a community of practice through peer training on skills and knowledge for effective human rights communications, such as delivering campaigns and creating accessible products. 
  • Using the multiplier effect of the network to amplify the voices and work of members through ENNHRI and vice versa. 

Key achievements:

  • Fostering a long-standing relationship and cooperation with the EU CRPD Monitoring Framework, bringing NHRIs’ voices to this crucial body.  
  • Released a report on implementing supported decision-making for people with disabilities, which also guides NHRI work in this vital area.  

Key achievements:

  • Creating resources to strengthen and show NHRIs’ work in this area, including a tool on their role and a guide on a human rights-based approach to poverty measurement and reduction
  • Ensuring NHRIs are aware of other fields’ intersection with economic and social rights, while working with partners on issues including the impacts of AI, the cost of living crisis, and COVID-19. 

Key achievements:

Key achievements:

Achieving change together

During the last 10 years, European NHRIs have acted in solidarity for and with a common voice on matters resonating across Europe. As time has progressed, what these are has shifted in some cases. Regardless, NHRIs have continued impacting the standard setting powers of regional actors and shaping human rights promotion and protection in Europe.

Cooperating through the network has empowered NHRIs to help shape human rights protection and promotion at the European level. ENNHRI’s common rule of law reporting embodies this.

ENNHRI’s Working Groups bring together NHRIs to engage and speak with a common voice in the regional human rights arena. Recently, this saw ENNHRI intervene before the European Court of Human Rights in major climate cases.

The promotion and protection of human rights is even more important in fragile contexts, including (post-)conflict situations. ENNHRI has offered a platform for NHRIs to exchange on this and developed guidance.

Defining moments of NHRI recognition and engagement

The common work and huge value of NHRIs – united through ENNHRI – has been acknowledged throughout the last 10 years. Their participation, engagement, and contributions have led regional mechanisms, such as the Council of Europe and the European Union, to recognise NHRIs in various human rights policies and frameworks.

Laying the foundations for ENNHRI (1993-2012)

ENNHRI was established in 2013 to meet a clear need: an official network for European NHRIs. Prior to this, European NHRIs had been working together in a more informal grouping. Its success laid the foundations for ENNHRI as it is today. 1994: the first meeting of European NHRIs takes place. 1997: the European Group of NHRIs is established in Copenhagen. 2001: the European Group of NHRIs is accorded observer status at the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Human Rights. 2007: the Regulation for the EU Fundamental Rights Agency is adopted – it includes references to the Paris Principles and…Read More

ENNHRI starts cooperation with key partners

Immediately after ENNHRI’s establishment, a joint conference was held in Vienna in October 2013 with the Council of Europe, the European Network of Equality Bodies, the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions, and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). This conference led to the creation of cooperation platforms in the fields of asylum and migration, hate crime, economic and social rights, and Roma (in 2015).

First NHRI Academy with OSCE/ODIHR

The first edition of ENNHRI’s flagship capacity building event for NHRI staff took place in Budapest. It continues to this day as a joint initiative with OSCE/ODIHR, and its 10th edition took place in June 2023. Each year staff have been trained on how to use their mandates to work on a pressing human rights topic.

EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2015-2019)

The EU Action Plan supported the crucial role of NHRIs as independent institutions, while affirming the EU’s commitment to support and engage (in particular) with Paris Principles-compliant institutions. It also endorsed the upgrade of institutions from ‘B’ to ‘A’ status and cooperation with regional and international NHRI networks (ENNHRI and GANHRI respectively).

ENNHRI’s first written third-party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights

ENNHRI’s first third-party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights was in the case Big Brother Watch & others v. the United Kingdom (UK). This concerned surveillance regimes in the UK. This was followed in 2019 by a third-party intervention in the same case before the Grand Chamber. The Court’s final judgment was a landmark in the areas of mass surveillance and the right to privacy. Prior to this in 2008, NHRIs made their first collective intervention before the Court. This was in the case D.D. v. Lithuania and related to the legal capacity rights of people with a…Read More

Copenhagen Declaration cites NHRIs as crucial for implementing European Convention on Human Rights

Through the Copenhagen Declaration, Council of Europe Member States confirmed their commitment to a strong and independent European Court of Human Rights; the right to individual petition; and the responsibility of states for national implementation. The Declaration also reiterated the significant role that national human rights structures and stakeholders play in implementing the Convention. In doing so, it called on states – if they had not already done so – to consider the establishment of an independent NHRI in accordance with the Paris Principles.

EU Council Conclusions highlight NHRIs as key to implementing EU Charter

In its Conclusions, the Council of the European Union recognised that independent NHRIs (and equality bodies) play a crucial role in protecting and promoting fundamental rights, while aiding awareness raising and contributing to the compliance of national policies with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. NHRIs were identified as being key for Charter implementation on account of their broad and horizontal fundamental rights mandate and their proximity to citizens.

FRA report on strong and effective NHRIs

This major report from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) called for the effectiveness and impact of NHRIs in the EU to be strengthened. It emphasised that stronger NHRIs would support the monitoring of the rule of law and implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. This was FRA’s second report on NHRIs following an in-depth study in 2010.

European Commission and European Parliament recognise NHRIs as a rule of law indicator

The European Commission’s first report on the state of the rule of law in the European Union recognised an NHRI in compliance with the Paris Principles as an indicator for a healthy national rule of law situation. It states that NHRIs “play an important role as rule of law safeguard and can provide an independent check on the system in a rule of law crisis.” In the same year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for NHRIs’ involvement in an EU Mechanism on Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights. It calls for NHRIs to be involved in…Read More

Landmark Council of Europe Recommendation on NHRIs adopted

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted a milestone Recommendation on developing and strengthening NHRIs. This fleshes out a series of principles that Member States are encouraged to implement in law and practice, including: providing a firm legal basis for NHRIs, preferably at constitutional level; ensuring adequate access to information and to policymakers and involvement in all stages of legislation and policymaking 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…Read More

Fourth Council of Europe Summit calls for more engagement with NHRIs

The Fourth Summit of the Council of Europe was a major moment for NHRIs. Its Reykjavik Declaration called for the facilitation of more meaningful engagement with NHRIs. This also recognised the added value of NHRIs for implementing European Court of Human Rights’ judgments and strengthening Council of Europe work on the environment and human rights.

Timeline

Laying the foundations for ENNHRI (1993-2012)

ENNHRI was established in 2013 to meet a clear need: an official network for European NHRIs. Prior to this, European NHRIs had been working together in a more informal grouping. Its success laid the foundations for ENNHRI as it is today.

1994: the first meeting of European NHRIs takes place.
1997: the European Group of NHRIs is established in Copenhagen.
2001: the European Group of NHRIs is accorded observer status at the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Human Rights.
2007: the Regulation for the EU Fundamental Rights Agency is adopted – it includes references to the Paris Principles and for the Agency to cooperate with NHRIs.
2008: the first collective NHRI intervention before the European Court of Human Rights is submitted in D.D. v. Lithuania, a case relating to the legal capacity rights of persons with disabilities.
2010: the European Commission’s first Fundamental Rights Strategy recognises the role of NHRIs.

ENNHRI starts cooperation with key partners

Immediately after ENNHRI’s establishment, a joint conference was held in Vienna in October 2013 with the Council of Europe, the European Network of Equality Bodies, the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions, and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). This conference led to the creation of cooperation platforms in the fields of asylum and migration, hate crime, economic and social rights, and Roma (in 2015).

First NHRI Academy with OSCE/ODIHR

The first edition of ENNHRI’s flagship capacity building event for NHRI staff took place in Budapest. It continues to this day as a joint initiative with OSCE/ODIHR, and its 10th edition took place in June 2023. Each year staff have been trained on how to use their mandates to work on a pressing human rights topic.

EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2015-2019)

The EU Action Plan supported the crucial role of NHRIs as independent institutions, while affirming the EU’s commitment to support and engage (in particular) with Paris Principles-compliant institutions. It also endorsed the upgrade of institutions from ‘B’ to ‘A’ status and cooperation with regional and international NHRI networks (ENNHRI and GANHRI respectively).

ENNHRI’s first written third-party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights

ENNHRI’s first third-party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights was in the case Big Brother Watch & others v. the United Kingdom (UK). This concerned surveillance regimes in the UK. This was followed in 2019 by a third-party intervention in the same case before the Grand Chamber. The Court’s final judgment was a landmark in the areas of mass surveillance and the right to privacy.

Prior to this in 2008, NHRIs made their first collective intervention before the Court. This was in the case D.D. v. Lithuania and related to the legal capacity rights of people with a disability.

Copenhagen Declaration cites NHRIs as crucial for implementing European Convention on Human Rights

Through the Copenhagen Declaration, Council of Europe Member States confirmed their commitment to a strong and independent European Court of Human Rights; the right to individual petition; and the responsibility of states for national implementation. The Declaration also reiterated the significant role that national human rights structures and stakeholders play in implementing the Convention. In doing so, it called on states – if they had not already done so – to consider the establishment of an independent NHRI in accordance with the Paris Principles.

Realising NHRIs’ potential as human rights changemakers

Partnerships have been one of the threads running through the network’s achievements of the last decade. By working hand in hand with its key partners, ENNHRI has extended its reach and increased the impact of NHRIs to promote and protect human rights.

There is still much to be done. Work on human rights and the rule of law needs to be strengthened; the challenges are intensifying daily. But these can be tackled. Central to doing so are alliances and joint action with regional mechanisms, civil society, other independent bodies and state actors. That is to say: all those who can harness the huge potential of NHRIs to effect real change in structural human rights challenges across the region.

The next steps together

As we enter into ENNHRI’s next decade, join us as we call for:

The existence of an NHRI in compliance with the UN Paris Principles in each European state

Greater awareness of NHRIs and an improved enabling environment on the national level

More effective action when NHRIs and other human rights defenders come under attack

Strengthened rule of law and checks and balances, including the independent role of NHRIs

A human-rights based approach to key societal challenges, such as artificial intelligence, securitisation, migration and climate change

ENNHRI will continue to develop. It will continue to seize opportunities for NHRIs to be strong, effective and independent. And it will continue doing so to make a real difference for human rights, the rule of law, and – at its base – the lived experience and dignity of individuals across Europe.