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Civil society and human rights in Europe

10 December 2018

Statement by Birgit Van Hout
Regional Representative for Europe of the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)

I thank the European Civil Forum for the invitation to share the perspective of the UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe on "civil society and human rights in Europe" on this very symbolical day which is International Human Rights Day.

We note with concern that space for civil society is shrinking in parts of the European Union. We interpret the term civil society in its broadest form, including not only traditional human rights NGOs, but also the media, academic institutions, and religious communities.

From all these sectors we have received alarming reports. And I would like to add that it is not only our Regional Office for Europe that receives reports and allegations of shrinking space, but also the international human rights treaty bodies and the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. 

Shrinking space for civil society takes many forms. I would like to start with the most shocking fact. Who would have imagined a few years ago that journalists would be killed in the European Union? Yet, three journalists were killed in the last two years: Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia, and Viktoria Marinova in Bulgaria. All three victims were investigating allegations of corruption. Several journalists around the continent are consciously taking a low profile. Yet, investigative journalism is a critical element of a vibrant democracy.

I would further like to highlight three broad trends regarding civil society in Europe, even though of course the situation varies greatly depending on the national context and it tends to be more acute where the political environment is highly polarized.

The first trend is a diminished openness by Governments to engage on some human rights matters. We see this, for example, with respect to the rights of migrants, the protection of minorities or freedom of religion. The sovereignty argument is increasingly invoked to criticize international norms and standards, like the Global Compact for Migration, or to avoid or contest scrutiny of States' human rights records.

On the flipside, we notice among the general population, in parts of the European Union, less appetite for participation, as demonstrated by the relatively low turnout in elections, or worse, a sense of indifference or disaffection which feeds on the perception that human rights and democracy have failed the majority. A key challenge is how to create or recreate a culture of participation. The need for civic and human rights education has thus become all the more pressing.

A second trend we witness is the adoption of restrictive national legislation and funding cuts. These are the "starve-and-strangle policies," the extreme manifestation of which are the so-called "délits de solidarité" or the criminalization of the defense of human rights in some countries.

In an increasingly unfriendly environment for civil society, critical organizations find themselves excluded from important policy dialogues or lose access to decision-makers, as some human rights organizations and media representatives have reported.

More and more civil society actors allege being stigmatized or accused of being political or ideologically driven, or worse, unpatriotic, or a traitor. This may also be the misfortune of local officials or administrators who do not share the national agenda.

There was a time when human rights activists were admired and respected. Today, they are often portrayed as cosmopolitan elitists and some are the target of ruthless smear campaigns. Facing up to negative labeling over a prolonged period of time poses real questions in terms of stress and mental health, as we have seen with some activists leaving the sector.

A second development I would like to point out is the "shifting" space for civil society, where new NGOs see the light and receive priority access to and funding by the Government. While the diversity of civil society is to be welcomed, this may contribute to human rights defenders feeling "spied upon" by other civil society representatives.

This phenomenon is also linked to the trend among certain constituencies in Europe to redefine or re-interpret human rights in a matter that thwarts their original meaning. I am thinking for example about the concepts of "gender" or "family values" which come to mean the opposite of their human rights contents, or the organized movement to discredit the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

For the European Union and its member States a lot is at stake. Freedom of association and assembly, freedom of expression, and the principle of non-discrimination are human rights pillars, enshrined in binding treaties ratified by all EU member States.

But I would like to offer not only the legal argument for a free and protected civic space, but also a policy imperative which relates to EU internal - external policy coherence. EU countries have traditionally taken a leadership role in standing up for civil society in third countries. I am thinking, for example, of the resolution against reprisals in the UN Human Rights Council, which is led by EU member States, the support of EU member States for LGBTI activists in Africa, or the EU's emergency protection programme for human rights defenders under threat.

If we were to witness a regression of space for civil society within Europe, that would risk damaging the credibility of EU countries in the international sphere. There is thus a reputational risk not only for the EU countries most affected by shrinking space, but also for those where the situation is less flagrant or where this is not the case at all. To preserve its influence in the international community, it is therefore in the in the interest of all EU member States to take action against shrinking space in the EU, even when it is not a domestic problem.

Aside from the external challenges mentioned earlier, at least part of civil society also faces challenges that are not necessarily the result of external factors. Some NGOs lack sufficiently strong roots in society or function too much in echo-chambers. Civil society actors need to mobilize more young people, more inhabitants of rural areas, and also better reflect the diversity of the population living in Europe in their own structures.

The civil society landscape is also a fragmented landscape, where some are working in silos or competing against each other. In the current context, it seems is important that civil society groups exchange know-how, further strengthen existing coalitions, to develop new partnerships and reach out to non-traditional constituencies. Many are doing this already.

You cannot work in human rights for a long time if you are not an optimist. I therefore do not think the picture is entirely bleak. Many governments and many people across the European Union remain committed to human rights. We have seen the emergence of spontaneous social movements, like the #MeToo movement, or new citizen initiatives that effectively create pressure for action on human rights.

In addition, even in countries where the situation is particularly challenging, governments and national administrations are not monolithic blocs and there are those who continue to defend civil society from within official structures or who act as whistleblowers.

I am very impressed by the resilience of the civil society representatives I have met across the European Union, many of them brave and courageous in the face of adversity. Maybe because times are difficult, we increasingly see bridges between civil society and national human rights institutions or equality bodies, between civil society and the private sector, or between traditional NGOs and faith-based groups.

In terms of action by the European Union, the activation of article 7 proceedings to protect the EU's fundamental values, which include respect for human rights and the rights of persons belonging to minorities, illustrates the EU's willingness to address the problem, even if procedures are slow and in some places civil society might be exhausted or depleted by the time these procedures actually start yielding results - I hope not.

I also think the European Parliament has proven to be a strong ally of civil society, with resolutions calling for greater protection of civic space both in- and outside the EU. The European Parliament also called for a European Values Instrument - to promote and protect EU values, especially democracy, freedom, the rule of law and fundamental rights within the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) as a way to guarantee access to EU funding for those organizations that are being cut off from national funding streams.

In this context, we welcomed the Justice, Rights and Values Fund proposed by the European Commission in the MFF, even though we believe its scope could be broader and its financial capacity enhanced.

The UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe also welcomed the introduction of a rule-of-law conditionality by the European Commission in its MFF proposal, even though we would have preferred an even broader human rights conditionality. We hope that this provision will remain in place as the MFF goes through further negotiations.

It is vital that EU funding is not used to support human rights violations. In this regard, a closer connection between EU funding on the one hand and respect for human rights is essential.

We believe in the positive contribution that the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency makes to safeguarding human rights in the EU. We welcome in particular its publication on shrinking space, which contains important recommendations to EU Member States.

The EU and its member States have solid legal frameworks and systems in place to protect democracy and human rights, and civil society is an essential component of both. As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is important that democracy and human rights, which are also the values on which the European Union was built, are not eroded.