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Keynote by Birgit Van Hout, UN Human Rights, Regional Representative for Europe

European Civic Forum

CIVIC PRIDE AWARDS: Civic actors in times of crisis

Award Ceremony

17 March 2022, 3.30 PM CET

Honourable Member of the European Parliament, Mr Bartolo,
Dear Co-Presidents of the European Civic Forum, Ms Bolini and Mr Roirant,
Dear civil society representatives,
Friends and colleagues,

It is once again a great honour to be invited to the Civic Pride Awards.

I am proud and moved to open this Award Ceremony today, as we witness the impressive mobilisation and resilience of volunteers and civil society to oppose the war raging in Ukraine; to monitor abuses and prompt international justice; to call on governments across Europe and the world to stand up for peace and work together towards a ceasefire; and, especially, to support civilians, the main victims of this conflict and of any conflict, by disseminating trustworthy information, welcoming and assisting the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war zones, collecting medical supplies, food, and basic necessities and sending them to the millions of civilians who remain in the country.

In this incredible display of civic responsibility and solidarity, in Ukraine and in all countries across Europe, civil society bravely stand at the forefront, driving a major collective effort to respond to such large-scale human rights and humanitarian emergency. NGOs, associations, grassroots movements and informal groups of activists work relentlessly, relying on their own resources, against unprecedented time, financial and psychological pressures.

This effort comes on top of their intense engagement to support authorities and communities in responding to the public health emergency that we have been facing over the past two years.

In fact, the organisations, associations, grassroots movements and informal groups of activists that are helping to contain the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine, are the same that have been fighting for human rights, equality and justice over the past years at home – including within the borders of the European Union.

The stories documented in the Civic Space Watch report, and the organizations that are being awarded the Civic Pride Awards today, reflect this very well. They tell of efforts to protect and support the most marginalised groups in society. They stand up for equality, irrespective of the colour of one’s skin, nationality or sexual orientation. They monitor abuses and call for accountability. They defend civic engagement and democratic participation.

Veronika, Ahmed, Nathalie, Denitsa, Kuba, Karolina, Lisa: I look at your stories of courage and I congratulate all of you for your resilience and determination, for your enduring commitment to giving a concrete meaning to the rights, freedoms and values that unite us, and for inspiring so many others to do the same.

And I commend the European Civic Forum for showcasing these brave and impactful initiatives, which exemplify once again the crucial role that civil society plays in safeguarding democracy and the human rights of all of us.

The stories today also serve to remind us how these efforts are often frustrated by the lack of help, or in some cases the active obstruction by the very same State authorities who, in times of emergency, acknowledge and praise, and get praised for, their civil society efforts and resilience.

Civil society in general and human rights defenders in particular increasingly face an unfavourable regulatory and political landscape – whether we are talking about restrictive rules on registration, transparency and dissolution, the criminalisation of humanitarian assistance, the lack of avenues for participation in law and policy-making, a challenging financing framework, negative narratives, or even smear campaigns against critical organisations and activists working on the rule of law, anti-corruption, women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, the rights of people of African or Arab descent, or environmental matters.

This deteriorating landscape also makes activists and human rights defenders more vulnerable to verbal and physical threats and attacks, online and offline, as well as legal harassment by non-State actors – the infamous SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) that, more often than not, go unpunished.

Restrictions, attacks and impunity not only hinder civil society’s work. They lead to self-censorship and discourage civic activism more broadly. Against this background, promoting and supporting a vibrant civic space becomes even more urgent. Without recognition, adequate support and protection, the efforts of civil society cannot be sustained in the long-term.

EU member States’ duty to promote, protect and respect civic space and to create an enabling environment for civil society directly stems from their obligations under the international human rights treaties. Preserving freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and information is also an inherent part of respect for the rule of law. States have further committed, under Sustainable Development Goal 16, to ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels. Therefore, we welcome the monitoring of civic space by the European Commission as part of checks and balances in its annual rule of law reports.

If you follow our work, you will have heard our High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet regularly speak out publicly about situations of concern affecting civil society, journalists and human rights defenders. You may also be familiar with the independent expert mechanisms, called Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, that can receive complaints, raise their concerns with governments, and carry out country visits. The first ones that come to mind are of course the Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights Defenders and Freedom of Assembly, but other mandate-holders also routinely address the question of civic space, as do UN Treaty Bodies.

In Ukraine, threats to civic space have been monitored by our Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which last December issued a dedicated report on civic space in Ukraine. Our human rights monitors continue to operate across the country to the full extent of their capacity, tracking civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian infrastructure like hospitals and schools.

This engagement is part of our Office’s broader effort to monitor, preserve and expand civic space globally, by advocating for the protection civil society actors at risk, including from intimidation and reprisals for cooperating with the UN, by ensuring inclusive, diverse, safe, independent and meaningful civil society participation in UN processes; and by actively promoting an open civic space at national level to facilitate the meaningful participation of civil society online and offline.

For the first time in EU history, the mandate of European Commission Vice- President Jourova includes the protection of civic space within the EU. This is an important step forward. We also welcome the active role of the European Parliament as well as the upcoming package against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), aimed at tackling abusive lawsuits that silence watchdogs such as journalists and human rights defenders.

But, more can be done, like systematic impact assessments of EU laws and policies that impact on civic space or the creation of a rapid response system to act on the first signs of attacks against human rights defenders, similar to the EU’s Protect Defenders programme for activists outside the EU. Our Regional Office will continue to engage and advocate with the EU to support progress in line with the international human rights treaties and recommendations from the international monitoring mechanisms.

Because, as we certainly welcome the EU’s efforts to date, we also see the need for further, concrete EU action to protect, support and empower civil society across the EU. Indeed, during these very troubling times, this need is more relevant and urgent than ever.

Dear colleagues, dear friends,

We all know a lot is at stake. Failing to act and letting the space for civil society deteriorate within Europe risks deepening divisions within our society and weakens our ability to stand up for human rights within Europe and on the international scene.

Today’s awards publicly recognize some of Europe’s civil society struggles – a sign of support to the awarded activists and organizations, whom I warmly congratulate again, and to all the activists and organisations that stand up for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and peace, in Europe and beyond, even under the most challenging circumstances.

Today’s awards publicly recognize some of Europe’s civil society struggles – a sign of support to the awarded activists and organizations, whom I warmly congratulate again, and to all the activists and organisations that stand up for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and peace, in Europe and beyond, even under the most challenging circumstances.

As we pay tribute to their efforts, let us renew our commitment to join forces and show, through concrete action, that we truly are here for them and will stand with them. Thank you.