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EU Role in enabling civic space

Civil Society for Rights and Equality

Towards a democracy that gives voice to all

Day II: An open civic space at the center of the EU's project

European Parliament, Brussels, 5 December 2019


High-level Policy roundtable

"Enabling Framework for Civil Society: What is the Role of the EU?"




Birgit Van Hout

Regional Representative for Europe

UN Human Rights (OHCHR)



Dear Vice-President of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala,

Distinguished Members of the European Parliament,

Dear representatives of EU institutions,

Dear civil society representatives,


I would like to thank M Roirant and Ms Najmowicz for the invitation to participate in this roundtable. I look forward to the presentation of the Civic Space Watch report 2019 and, of course, the Award Ceremony.

Next week, on 10 December, is International Human Rights Day and we are marking it this year with a Podcast on Spotify in which 4 young activists tell their story of civic engagement and talk about the world they wish to see.

We deliberately decided not to talk about the UN, but to amplify the voice of civil society. And we did so, because there is a danger that in public discourse human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and civic space become dissociated from one another, when in fact these concepts are so closely interlinked. More than that, when one of them is weakened or undermined, they are all at risk. That is the first point I would like to make.

All four concepts - human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and civic space - are intended to make sure that all persons can live in dignity and can contribute to the organization of our society for our common good. As I heard Koen Lenaerts, President of the Court of Justice of the European Union, say recently: "The term illiberal democracy is an oxymoron. Democracy is liberal or it is not." I would even go a step further and argue that human rights cannot be fully realized without democracy, the rule of law and a vibrant civil society.

Rising as a phoenix from the ashes of the second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was conceived to protect the individual against abuse of power by the State -- freedom from fear -- and to allow us all to reach our fullest potential -- freedom from want or need. Hence, it strikes a careful balance between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other.

This also why human rights, democracy, civic space and the rule of law are more than values. The fact that they are enshrined in international treaties, make them legally binding upon the States that have become a party to these treaties.

EU member States have been driving forces behind the advancement of human rights globally and remain so today. EU delegations work hand-in-hand with our field presences around the world to create space for civil society. The EU's Protect Defenders Programme has provided assistance to some 300 activists, academics and journalists worldwide. In the UN Human Rights Council, EU member States run UN resolutions in support of civil society, democracy, the rule of law and a broad range of human rights issues.

Unfortunately, the tide is turning. It is increasingly difficult for EU member States to agree on common positions in international human rights forums, and inside the EU region we are witnessing how democracy is being eroded in some countries and the space of civil society is being shrunk. I am deliberately using the term "being shrunk" instead of "shrinking" because we know that the shrinking is not the result of an invisible hand.

States have the primary duty to guarantee an enabling environment for civil society. EU institutions must hold States that restrict civic space to account and reverse this pernicious trend. We know from our work around the world that a vibrant and critical civil society is a prerequisite for strong, resilient States. Conversely, when civic space is reduced or threatened, this sets in motion a downward spiral, with a profound impact on human rights and society as a whole.

Another challenge, perhaps even more daunting, is the growing indifference to human rights of a large number of the population in Europe, as we sense fatigue or a breakdown of solidarity.

But, I refuse to be pessimistic. Progress in human rights has never been linear and has never been easy. Yet, since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, tremendous progress has been made and I am confident that we will continue to move forward.

Civil society has a long history of being woven into the fabric of European society and today civil society in Europe is strong, well-organized and resilient. But it will need to bridge the gap between organizations working on civil and political rights and organizations working on economic, social and cultural rights, like health, housing and education, and those working for the environment. Coalitions across different "sectors" will become vital.

When, in October this year, we invited activists from various countries to our office in Brussels, they shared experiences of how they had mobilized popular support, against many odds and often in an unfavourable national context. Determination, telling personal stories and an effective use of social media to project hope were common features of these success stories. Unfortunately, many had also faced a barrage of online attacks.

Indeed, we heard harrowing first-hand accounts of how social media is used to target, stigmatize and silence activists and even staff of national human rights institutions and equality bodies. Unfortunately, cyber-bullying and online smear campaigns, particularly against female activists, but also parliamentarians, have become commonplace in the EU.

Traditional and social media companies should exercise due diligence so they do not provide platforms for hate speech and incitement to hatred and violence. Violence online can and does translate into violence in real life. When we consider the scale of the threat to human rights defenders on and offline, it is clear that more concrete and swift measures are needed. In so doing, the twin priorities should be to include civil society in consultations and to make sure that freedom of expression is not undermined.

We have heard strong support from the European Parliament for civic space and I hope this will continue, and that also the new Commissioners will openly support civic space and facilitate civil society participation in all their respective spheres of competence, not only in the Values and Justice portfolios.

As we near the end of the Finnish Presidency of the EU, I would like to congratulate Finland for its consultations with civil society, the unprecedented transparency and information-sharing, and for keeping civic space high on the political agenda. The UN Team in Brussels has met with the Croatian Presidency and expressed the importance of continuing this engagement to hold high the values of civic space, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.


We also encourage EU institutions to develop concrete tools to support human rights defenders within the EU, namely

  • A systematic monitoring of intimidation and harassment of activists
  • Support for activists under threat and the protection of human rights defenders against reprisals
  • The integration into project funding of a provision for support and wellbeing of staff of non-governmental organizations


The creation of the new Rule of Law mechanism will serve as a litmus test for the real commitment of the EU to civil society. If this mechanism is to be credible it should adopt a participatory approach so that the views of civil society can be taken into account. Drawing on our own experience with the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council, we stand ready to advise and support the European Commission in this endeavor.

In closing, I wish to take the opportunity to reiterate the message of our High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to all activists and human rights defenders: that we are here for you and will stand with you during these challenging times.


Thank you.