Posts Tagged ‘freedom of association’

UN Guidelines for use of emergency powers in time of covid-19 pandemic

April 14, 2020

UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions Agnes Callamard. Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikipedia.

a set of guidelines issued by the UN’s Human Rights’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESR), in whcih governments are urged to respect human rights across the spectrum, including economic and social rights, and civil and political rights as this would be fundamental to the success of the public health response.

The announcement shed light on the controversial decision by the Maltese government to close the country’s ports as migrant boats were stranded. The UN said it was aware that governments had to take difficult decisions in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but insisted measures should be proportionate. Emergency powers must be used for legitimate public health goals, not used as a basis to quash dissent or silence the work of human rights defenders or journalists.

This was also highlighted by Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, who said these emergency measures also had to be lifted when these were no longer necessary for protecting public health. People needed to be informed about the emergency measures, where these applied and for how long they were meant to be in effect. “As the crisis passes, it will be important for governments to return life to normal and not use emergency powers to indefinitely regulate day-to-day life, recognizing that the response must match the needs of different phases of this crisis,” the CESC said.

Unfortunately, several governments around the world – and in the EU – have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to implement a series of measures that roll back human rights.

  • As people are being called upon to stay at home, governments must take urgent measures to help people without adequate housing. …The authorities should also take particular care to prevent more people from becoming homeless and implement good practices such as moratoriums on evictions, deferrals of mortgage or loan payments.
  • It was also important to keep in mind people who relied on community and home services to eat, dress and bathe – including people with a disability or the elderly.
  • The guidelines also refer to prisoners and those kept in detention, saying these were at a higher risk of infection in case of an outbreak. Social distancing was difficult to maintain in these places, which had a high risk of contamination. States should “urgently explore options for release and alternatives to detention to mitigate the risk of harm within places of detention,” it said.
  • The document also tackled the issue of migration, saying migrants and refugees also faced “particular risks” as these may be confined to camps and settlements, which might be overcrowded, overstretched and with poor sanitation. “It is also vital that any tightening of border controls, travel restrictions or limitations on freedom of movement do not prevent people who may be fleeing from war or persecution from accessing safety and protection,” the committee said.

This recommendation is the exact opposite of the decision taken by the Maltese government last week to close its ports, making it very clear that it would not be taking any more migrants as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This announcement came 24 hours after Italy closed all its ports, saying its harbours could not be considered safe. The decision was harshly criticised by more than 20 non-governmental organisations who called on the prime minister to ensure that all persons within Malta’s responsibility were rescued and their safety guaranteed. “The nation cannot quietly celebrate Easter while men, women and children are drowning on our doorstep. Saving lives and ensuring their disembarkation at a safe place is a fundamental legal obligation and also a moral imperative that can in no way be negotiated or renounced,” the NGOs said.

The guidelines called on governments to take “specific actions” to include migrants and refugees in national prevention and response campaigns by ensuring equal access to information, testing, and health care for all, regardless of their status. Earlier this month, the Maltese authorities put the Hal Far open centre under a two-week quarantine after eight migrants tested positive for coronavirus. The decision was slammed by local NGOs who said this would exacerbate the situation where the virus could potentially spread among the 1,000 residents.

On 14 April 2020 Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, called on States not to use state of emergency declarations during the COVID-19 crisis to impose wholesale restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and released detailed Guidelines governments and law enforcement agencies must follow to avoid human rights abuses.

No country or government can solve this health crisis alone and I am concerned about worrying trends and limitations emerging from civil society reports around the world, including on civil society’s ability to support an effective COVID-19 response,” said Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. “Civil society organisations are key in helping States to frame inclusive policies, disseminate information, and provide social support to vulnerable communities in need,” he said.

In his 10 Guidelines, the expert said that where new laws or regulations are adopted, any limitations on rights imposed must adhere to the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality. Free-flow of information is crucial in times of crisis and laws criminalising ‘false news’, including those targeting human rights defenders, must be avoided. “It is inadmissible to declare blanket restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Voule said. “Exemptions should be foreseen for civil society actors, particularly those monitoring human rights, trade unions, social services providing humanitarian assistance, and journalists covering the management of the crisis. “State of emergency does not halt the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association,” the human rights expert said.

Voule said his Guidelines could help States reassess measures already in place to ensure compliance with their human rights obligations and to take citizens’ demands fully into account.

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/covid-19-restrictions-should-not-stop-freedom-assembly-and-association-says-un-expert

Coronavirus emergency measures must be timely and proportionate

Following threats to NGO offices in Israel, human rights defenders demand investigation

August 1, 2019

On Wednesday, death threats were found spray-painted outside the offices of Amnesty International in Tel Aviv and ASSAF, an organization which advocates for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. (Photo: @AmnestyIsrael/Twitter)

Human rights defenders in Israel linked recent threats at three civil society organizations to the rhetoric and policies of the country’s government, which has worked to intimidate and suppress groups critical of its treatment of Palestinians and other marginalized people. Staff members at Amnesty Israel in Tel Aviv and the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) on Wednesday found death threats written in spray paint on walls outside the organizations’ offices. A box containing death threats and a dead mouse was found around the same time at the Elifelet Children’s Activity Center, which cares for refugee children.

“We have filed a complaint with the police and we see this as the result of the ongoing campaign of incitement against aid and human rights organizations, led by the government,” tweeted Amnesty Israel. Amnesty International denounced the threats as “deplorable and malicious acts” which must be investigated and unequivocally condemned by the government.

The Israeli authorities should take a strong stand by publicly condemning these acts and making clear that attacks against NGOs will not be tolerated,” said Philip Luther, the group’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa. “The Israeli authorities must also take steps to ensure that human rights defenders and civil society organizations more generally are effectively protected and can carry out their work free from threats, intimidation, or harassment.

[see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/04/18/israel-deportation-of-human-rights-watchs-staff-member-again-on-the-table/ ]

…………”This is not the first time we are being threatened,” ASSAF wrote in a post on Twitter. “This is the result of the ongoing incitement campaign against aid and human rights organizations in Israel—with the encouragement and backing of politicians and public figures.” “You have to make sure this is the last time,” the group added, addressing authorities.

Egypt: crackdown and new NGO law dont augur well

July 25, 2019

On 23 July 2019 FIDH, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) denounce the new crackdown and call on the Egyptian authorities to immediately end any act of harassment, including at the judicial level, against all peaceful activists, in particular political opponents and human rights defenders in Egypt, such as former member of Parliament and human rights lawyer Zyad al-Elaimy. At least 83 persons, including political opposition activists, journalists and human rights defenders, have been arrested in Egypt over terrorist charges since June 25 for their alleged implication in a plot against the State.Human Rights Watch published the next day an elaborate report on Egypt’s New NGO Law which renews draconian restrictions and imposes disproportionate fines and bans links with foreign groups. Here some key elements but the ful lreport should be read:

Equatorial Guinea to close down a human rights NGO

July 17, 2019

Human rights groups have condemned a decision by the government of Equatorial Guinea to close down a prominent rights NGO, the Center for Studies and Initiatives for the Development of Equatorial Guinea (CEID). The country’s Minister of the Interior and Local Corporations published a decree on 5 July, 2019 revoking official authorisation granted to the CEID, one of the few independent NGOs that expose human rights violations in Equatorial Guinea. The resolution dissolving the civil society organisation (CSO) accuses the organisation of violating its own constitution and engaging in political activities.

The dissolution of the CEID is a new low for human rights in a country that has failed for decades to respect fundamental freedoms,” said Paul Mulindwa, Advocacy and Policy Officer for CIVICUS. “The organisation’s closure is aimed at silencing independent and peaceful voices committed to defending human rights in Equatorial Guinea,”.

The CEID’s closure follows physical assaults, arbitrary arrests and judicial persecution of the organisation’s Vice President Alfredo Okenve. The move is intended to silence independent and peaceful voices committed to defending human rights in Equatorial Guinea, and has a chilling effect on human rights defenders and CSOs in the country. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/03/17/equatorial-guinean-human-rights-defender-alfredo-okenve-gets-house-arrest-instead-of-award-ceremony/

The repressive environment in Equatorial Guinea is fueled by the use of violence against human rights defenders, the militarisation of the state and politics, high levels of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of human rights violations and the use of restrictive legislation – such as law No 1/1999 on the Regime of NGOs – to restrict CSO operations. The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Equatorial Guinea as closed.

CIVICUS calls on the government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo to publicly rescind the resolution, respect its international human rights obligations including commitments made recently to the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review process and create an enabling environment for civil society organisation and human rights defenders.

https://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/news/3959-government-s-closure-of-prominent-human-rights-ngo-another-blow-for-fundamental-freedoms-in-equatorial-guinea

LGBTIQ human rights defenders in Asia-Pacific: vibrant in spite of restrictions

May 8, 2019

Indian Government accused of harassment of Amnesty and Greenpeace India

February 22, 2019

Shemin Joy, for DH News Service, New Delhi, reported on 21 February 2019 that a letter addressed by 3 UN Rapporteurs to the Indian government has now been made public as no reply was received. The letter will now be part of the report to be discussed in UN Human Rights Council as India has not responded to the charges. In the letter, the Special Rapporteurs referred to the raids and searches conducted at the offices of Amnesty International India and Greenpeace India as well as the blocking of foreign funding to these NGOs. ….concern is expressed at the alleged smear campaign against Amnesty International India, in what seems to be an attempt to tarnish the organization’s reputation in the absence of formal charges

We reaffirm our position that the ability to access foreign funding is an integral part of the right to freedom of association, and reiterate our concerns at the highly detrimental impact of the FCRA, which has been increasingly used to obstruct Indi.reiterate our concerns at the highly detrimental impact of the FCRA, which has been increasingly used to obstruct Indian civil society’s access to international funding,” they said. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2013/11/05/india-should-end-funding-restraints-on-human-rights-defenders-says-hrw/]

The seven-page letter was written by Special Rapporteurs David Kaye (promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression), Clement Nyaletsossi Voule (rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association) and Michel Forst (situation of human rights defenders) on December 20 last year and had said that they would make public the letter after two months with or without the government’s response.

Read more at: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/smear-campaign-against-amnesty-719547.html

In Russia first criminal case under “undesirable organizations” law

January 22, 2019

he Russian authorities have for the first time used the repressive “undesirable organizations” law to open a criminal case against human rights defender Anastasia Shevchenko, exposing her to the risk of a six-year prison term. Until now, violations of this law were punished under administrative law.

This morning Anastasia Shevchenko, a Coordinator with the Otkrytaya Rossiya (Open Russia) movement, was charged with “repeated participation in the activities of an undesirable organization.”  “In recent years, the Russian authorities have progressively suffocated and criminalized dissent. The Open Russia movement has become the latest victim of this crackdown,” said Marie Struthers, Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at AI.

It’s clear that the authorities are expanding their toolkit for imprisoning human rights defenders and activists, so if applied broadly this practice will have far-reaching implications for the right to freedom of expression.”In recent days, police have opened criminal investigations, conducted searches and arrests of Open Russia’s activists across the country. [see also my older post: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/05/21/russia-human-rights-ngos-likely-to-become-officially-undesirable/]

Background:  On 17 January, Open Russia Coordinator in Pskov Liya Milushkina and her husband Artyom Milushkin were arrested and accused of selling drugs, an offense punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Artyom, who is also a political activist, previously reported that police officers threatened to plant drugs on him during his recent arrest in November. Amnesty International has interviewed several associates of the Milushkins all of whom are adamant that the criminal case against the couple is fabricated. Amnesty International has documented a number of cases in which activists in Russia have been prosecuted on trumped-up drug charges, including human rights defender Oyub Titiev who is currently standing trial in Chechnya. On 18 January, police filed a case against Open Russia Coordinator in Krasnodar Yana Antonova for posting a video about the shortage of schools in the region. She was charged with “participation in the activities of an undesirable organization”, an administrative offence when “committed” for the first time.

see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/03/18/fidh-collected-russias-50-anti-democracy-laws/

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/01/russia-the-first-criminal-case-under-the-undesirable-organizations-law-marks-a-new-level-of-repression/

Bangladesh Government depicted as “against human rights defenders”

March 5, 2018

Among the many (written) NGO statements issued during the current session of the UN Council on Human Rights in Geneva, this one by the Asian Legal Resource Centre stands out by describing a whole government apparatus as standing against independent human rights defenders. It was dated 26 

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) wants to bring the situation of human rights defenders of Bangladesh to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Government of Bangladesh stands against the human rights defenders with draconian legislations and various institutions and agencies of the State. Independent dissenting voices face systemic harassments. Given the circumstances, the human rights defenders have to work without any notion of protection while defending rights in the country. The threats against the human rights defenders are increasing as the 3rd Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is approaching.

The Government of Bangladesh has amended the existing laws and has adopted new laws with vague definitions and harsher provisions to stifle the human rights organisations and individual defenders along with other dissenting voices.

The incumbent government made the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act 2016. This law not only intimidates the civil society actors but also prevents the expected outcome that the human rights organisations strive for achieving for the society. The law provides the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB), a wing under the Office of Prime Minister, the power to review and cancel proposed projects by NGOs. A persons’ travelling out of Bangladesh in relation to the projects requires prior governmental approval. The NGO Affairs Bureau is authorised to scrutinise the activities through inspections and monthly coordination meetings by the representatives of the NGOAB while prior approval is also required for planned activities before receiving the grants. Without any judicial process the NGOAB is empowered to impose sanctions for alleged ‘non-compliance’ against any organisation or individual receiving foreign funds for voluntary activities. Such actions also include fines, disciplinary actions, and cancellation of registration of the NGO even for ‘derogatory’ remarks. The decisions of the NGOAB can only be brought before the Secretary of Office of the Prime Minister as an ‘appeal’. The law establishes the bureaucrats’ control over voluntary activities while Bangladesh’s bureaucracy has reputation for systemic corruption and abuse of power.

Bangladesh’s Cabinet has approved the Digital Security Bill-2018 on 29 January 2018. This Bill may be enacted in any day during the ongoing Session of the national parliament. This proposed law curtails both the freedom of press and the writ of human rights organisations. The police is authorised to arrest any person without a warrant of arrest issued by a Court of the country if the police officer believes that an offence is committed under this law. A person can be imprisoned for 14 years, with or without a fine of BDT 10 million for publishing any material online for ‘spreading negative propaganda against Liberation War or the Father of the Nation’ while there is no definition of ‘negative propaganda’ provided in the law. Publishing ‘false’ and ‘distorted’ information to tarnish the image of the State is punishable with three years’ imprisonment and with or without a penalty of BDT three hundred thousand. If a person is held for the second time for the same crime he or she will be imprisoned for five years with or without a penalty of BDT one million. Such provision will put the human rights defenders in grave danger, as they have to contest the official version of the State, which always denies allegation of human rights abuses and accuses the rights groups for ‘tarnishing the image of the State’. For example, the government and the law-enforcement agencies of Bangladesh deny every incident of enforced disappearances and each of extrajudicial executions while the human rights defenders and media explore and expose the truth.

Bangladesh Government, by default, protects the perpetrators of human rights abuses in a deeply rooted culture of impunity. The State prevents the basic institutions from functioning and serving the people with fairness. Instead, the incumbent government uses all the institutions, including the judiciary, as tools to secure its power at the cost of the lives and liberties of the ordinary people.

The participation of independent human rights organisations in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council makes them governmental targets for exposing the human rights realities. For example, Odhikar, a locally based human rights organisation, contributed to the UPR process during the first and second cycles in 2009 and in 2013. This rights group consistently documented the cases and pattern of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, custodial torture, curtailing the freedom of expression and opinion, and denial of justice to the victims of gross human rights abuses in Bangladesh. The government started harassing this organisation for publishing a fact-finding report on a massive crackdown in May 2013. Its leaders were made the victims of the country’s first ever cyber crime case, which is still pending before a special tribunal incepted for holding trial of such cases. Their bank accounts are frozen and NGO registration’s renewal has been halted since mid 2014. The activists who are engaged in standing beside the victims of human rights violations remain under active surveillance by the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies.

Bangladesh is moving toward another general election by the end of 2018. The incidents of gross human rights abuses are also on the rise. The incumbent government is using the State’s law-enforcement agencies and judiciary to drive away the political opposition. The government has already started arresting the opposition activists arbitrarily as the main opposition leader is afraid to be convicted in controversial corruption cases. As days pass on more violation of human rights would deteriorate the situation requiring the human rights defenders to assist the victims. The activities of the rights groups would invite more reprisals against the human rights defenders, except those who directly or indirectly align with the incumbent government for their financial and political benefits.

Bangladesh’s system of governance is authoritarian and coercive by nature. The institutions – be it a constitutional body or a statutory entity – function according to the wish of the Prime Minister, as a supreme controller of everything. The universal normative principles of justice and good governance do not exist or work in this country. As a result, all the basic institutions constantly fail to act for the actual purpose of upholding the rule of law and facilitate functional democracy. The judiciary and the entire criminal justice apparatus, survive as mere facades. These facades facilitate the process of silencing the society’s vibrant voices.

The ALRC urges the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders to request Bangladesh for sending invitation to the mandate for country visit. The Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to focus on Bangladesh’s domestic human rights realities and intervene for the protection of victims from gross violation of rights.

For some of my other posts on Bangladesh see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/bangladesh/

http://alrc.asia/bangladesh-government-stands-against-independent-human-rights-defenders/

250 NGOs address letter to Hungarian parliament regarding restriction on the work of human rights defenders

February 20, 2018

Bulgaria: 200 European Human Rights Organizations Protest in Hungary

More than 250 (!) human rights organizations protested today against the new laws proposed by the Hungarian Parliament aimed at limiting the work of NGOs helping refugees in the country. “We express our solidarity with civil society and all human rights defenders in Hungary – the brave people who are fighting for a more honest society,” reads part of the open letter  published by Amnesty International [the list can be consulted via the link below]. Today, parliament is going to discuss legislative changes that will impose new restrictions on non-governmental organizations in the country. It is expected that many of them will even be banned. According to the bills published last week on Parliament’s website, these organizations will be required to pay a 25% tax on all their foreign funding, and their workers will be banned from accessing refugee centers near the country’s borders.

The affected NGOs will also have to register with the Ministry of the Interior, which in turn will have the right to impose fines or deny them the right to work legally in Hungary. But to approve the changes, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government needs a two-thirds majority, which is not currently in parliament.

On 15 February 2018 the High Commissioner of Human Rights of the Council of Europe had already addressed the issue in a tough statement :

I am seriously concerned at the legislative package recently announced by the Hungarian government under the name “Stop Soros”. If adopted by Parliament, it will introduce further arbitrary restrictions to the indispensable work of human rights NGOs and defenders in Hungary. In a letter I sent to the Hungarian Parliament in May 2017, I set out my concerns regarding the then draft law on the Transparency of Organisations Supported from Abroad, which stigmatised a large number of organisations pursuing lawful activities in the field of human rights and introduced far-reaching restrictions on freedom of association in contravention of international human rights standards. I regret that instead of addressing those pressing human rights concerns, the Hungarian government appears now intent on intensifying stigmatisation and restrictions against NGOs working specifically on migration-related issues.

While I have not yet seen the final text of the proposed legislative package – changes to an earlier version I had examined were announced only the day before yesterday to make it “significantly stricter” – I am alarmed that it will aggravate the situation of freedom of association in Hungary even further. I understand that the changes made this week introduce mandatory licences for NGOs with a goal “to ensure that it is only possible to organise, support or finance migration in Hungary while in possession of a licence, which would be issued by the Minister of Interior following an assessment of the related national security aspects”. NGOs failing to abide by this requirement could be subject to sanctions, including a fine and ultimately dissolution. In addition, any such NGO that receives any amount of funding from abroad would be required to pay a 25% tax on such foreign funding.

The package also foresees the creation of “immigration restraining orders” that can be used to prevent any person deemed to “support the unlawful entry and residence of a third-country national” from accessing an 8-km zone from external borders – or even the entire Hungarian territory for non-nationals. Considering the context in which the proposed measures were conceived, there is an obvious risk that arbitrary restrictions may be applied on the freedom of movement of persons involved in refugee assistance at the border.

These proposed measures raise particular concerns because of the likelihood that they will be applied to organisations and individuals who carry out activities in the field of protecting the human rights of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees that should be fully legitimate in a democratic society. Unfortunately recent public declarations of the Hungarian government referring to organisations which may come under the effect of the package only reinforce these concerns. In particular, the proposed package (which the government itself has named “Stop Soros”) follows a series of legal measures and stigmatising government rhetoric targeting entities funded or otherwise linked to Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, which carry out professional and important work in Hungary, including in the field of human rights.

Finally, I am alarmed at the escalating rhetoric used by the Hungarian government to portray NGOs and immigrants as a threat to national security. This discourse is stirring up among the population fears and intolerance towards foreigners and mistrust towards civil society organisations.

The proposed package of laws introduces administrative and financial burdens that constitute restrictions on freedom of association which cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society and are therefore at variance with international human rights standards. The package as a whole is stigmatising and is bound to have a chilling effect on NGOs but also their donors and individuals who work for or with them. I call once more on Hungary to refrain from penalising, stigmatising or putting at any disadvantage whatsoever NGOs, including those working in the field of migration, and to restore an enabling environment conducive to the work of human rights defenders.

The next day the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights labeled the law an “assault on human rights” and urged its government to uphold the right of freedom of association. It appeared to mark a further tightening of controls on groups “working on issues the government regards as against state interests, such as migration and asylum”, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said. It represented “an unjustified restriction on the right to freedom of association and is a worrying continuation of the government’s assault on human rights and civic space,” he told a Geneva news briefing…

See also my earlier post: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2014/06/13/human-rights-defenders-in-hungary-not-yet-foreign-agents-but-getting-close/

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2018/02/in-solidarity-with-civil-society-in-hungary/

http://www.novinite.com/articles/188074/200+European+Human+Rights+Organizations+Protest+in+Hungary

https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/commissioner-concerned-about-proposed-additional-restrictions-to-the-work-of-ngos-in-hungary

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-soros-law-un/hungary-anti-immigration-bill-an-assault-on-human-rights-u-n-idUSKCN1G0102

 

Human Rights NGOs in Europe no longer the standard to follow!

January 27, 2018

In January 2018 the EU Fundamental Rights Agcncy (FRA) published a Report “Challenges facing civil society organisations working on human rights in the EU“. Its conclusion is that the situation is getting more difficult. Also, on 26 January 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation published an interview with Michel Forst, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders said that the EU are setting a bad example by allowing some of its members to stifle human rights groups, which is encouraging crackdowns elsewhere in the world.

In the interview done by Umberto Bacchi, Michel Forst said that the EU has historically done a good job supporting and protecting rights advocates worldwide but the bloc’s authority is now being undermined from within. Officials in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel and other countries pointed at recent laws in Hungary and Poland to justify their own regulations which may curb the independence of non-governmental organisations.

There is a need for European countries to be more coherent … not to teach human rights outside of Europe and then not respecting human rights inside Europe,” said Forst, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. Charities in dozens of countries, from Angola to India and Tajikistan have faced restrictions targeting their funding and operations over the past two years, according to an EU report. The trend is part of a global backlash on civil society that has seen rights activists in some parts of the world criminalised or branded as troublemakers, Forst stated.

Last year, Hungary introduced a measure requiring NGOs that get money from abroad to register with the state, a bill that NGOs say stigmatizes them and is intended to stifle independent voices. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2014/06/13/human-rights-defenders-in-hungary-not-yet-foreign-agents-but-getting-close/]. Poland instead introduced legislation to set up a centralised authority controlling charities’ funding. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/03/02/backsliding-on-civic-space-in-democracies-important-side-event-on-3-march-in-geneva/%5D. As countermeasure, the EU should boost direct funding of rights groups operating within its borders, Forst said. “What is absurd for me is that the EU is funding organisations in Latin America, in Africa – which is good – but there is no more funding for EU NGOs,” he said. Money should be allocated from a dedicated fund and not channelled through governments, he said.

Besides Europe, Forst also singled out Australia for its treatment of asylum seekers held in offshore camps, adding it was “not a safe place” for human rights defenders due to pressure from the government. A December report by Pro Bono Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, two rights groups, found Australian NGOs were often pressured into “self-silencing” their advocacy work fearing funding cuts and political retribution.

(Global civil society) space is shrinking because it is shrinking in Europe, because it is shrinking in the Americas, in Australia,” said Forst.

—-

The FRA’s report finds that civil society organisations in the European Union play a crucial role in promoting fundamental rights, but it has become harder for them to do so – due to both legal and practical restrictions. This report looks at the different types and patterns of challenges faced by civil society organisations working on human rights in the EU. While challenges exist in all EU Member States, their exact nature and extent vary. Data and research on this issue – including comparative research – are generally lacking. The report also highlights promising practices that can counteract these worrying patterns.