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18 January 2018 – It is with great concern that the European Association for the Defence of Human Rights (AEDH) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) acknowledge the conclusions set in the European Agency for Fundamental Rights’ (FRA) report on the challenges facing civil society organisations working on human rights in the EU, published today. “In several countries of the European Union, civil society is more and more systematically facing numerous obstacles as well as threats and attacks that hinder their work and undermine their role as a safeguard of democracy, rule of law and human rights”, stated the organisations. A sad observation for FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty, a reality for AEDH, FIDH and their member organisations.
Of course, the report mentions the repeated attacks by the Hungarian and Polish governments on civil society organisations that take place in the wider context of a severe breakdown of the rule of law and democratic standards and have been condemned on multiple instances by the European and International institutions. However, threats, physical and verbal attacks against activists, as well as smear campaigns are not their prerogative only since we find such practices throughout the whole European territory: Bulgaria, Croatia, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, and Romania. Yet, AEDH points out that the reported cases represent only the tip of the iceberg and that, indeed, in the absence of reliable and comparable data on a European scale, it is difficult to take full measure of the evil that is eating away at civil society in Europe.
AEDH and FIDH welcome FRA’s emphasis on the increasingly restrictive regulatory environment that civil society organisations in Europe have to cope with and, in particular, on the instrumentalisation of counter-terrorism laws (surveillance, state emergency, etc.) against them that consequently limit their actions and ultimately lead to the shrinking of the civil society space as well as the rights and freedoms that they protect. A situation denounced for a long time by AEDH and FIDH.
AEDH and FIDH themselves observe a growing dislike of politicians, at different levels, towards watchdog and advocacy NGOs. Such dislike leads to the obstacles set in place by the governments in order to limit the access to funding to those NGOs. Access to financial resources without unjustified barriers is key to allow civil society organisations to do their work and is an important part of the right to association guaranteed by international law.
AEDH and FIDH are therefore pleased by FRA’s warning in this area and its recommendation to the European institutions and Member States to fund all types of civil society organisations. They invite the EU institutions as well as the Member States to facilitate the actions of NGOs and recognise their role as guarantors of the democratic societies’ good health, by avoiding to pass laws and adopt policies shrinking their space and hindering their work, but on the contrary to ensure an environment suitable for the development of civil society in the EU. AEDH and FIDH hope that the European institutions and the Member States will follow FRA’s recommendations and reverse the trend.