The EU must fully support civil society at home


By Birgit Van Hout

Human rights defenders are essential to democracy. Yet, the intimidation of human rights defenders in the European Union has become a serious problem and the implications for democracy are profound. Decision-makers at all levels have a responsibility to protect civic space in the European Union, writes Birgit Van Hout.

Birgit Van Hout is the Regional Representative for Europe at UN Human Rights (OHCHR).

 The hundreds of thousands of young people calling for climate action on the streets of Europe and around the world are a powerful reminder of how critical freedoms of expression and assembly are for progress in society. In recent months, environmental activists have inspired millions of people around the globe. Unfortunately, they have also faced, like many human rights defenders, a barrage of online attacks.

Human rights defenders are being stigmatized and harassed in a growing number of countries. Staff of national human rights institutions and equality bodies are targeted and defamed. Investigative journalists have been murdered. There is a perception that the problem does not affect the European Union (EU), but it does. Increasing numbers of activists are affected, since one in four people in the EU volunteer for a local group, an association, an NGO or other type of civil society organization.

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. In the EU, the protection of human rights defenders and civic space has long been approached as a foreign policy issue. Indeed, the EU is a vocal advocate and ally for human rights around the world, providing assistance and protection to activists, academics and journalists.

But, in recent years, civil society actors in the EU have increasingly been facing push back. Last month, a report of the UN Secretary-General on intimidation and reprisals listed three EU member States over reprisals against civil society actors for cooperating with the UN on human rights. There is a potential domino effect both within the EU and beyond its borders. The EU and its member States should be coherent and grant as much importance to the protection of civic space within as well as outside EU borders, because when human rights and the rule of law are weakened or taken for granted, we are all at greater risk.

The media play a crucial role in promoting human rights. New technologies have enabled civil society networks to develop. Social media has proven to be an exceptional vehicle for human rights campaigns and has allowed human rights advocates to expand their reach beyond traditional constituencies. Yet, social media has also opened up new avenues to threaten dissenting voices. Unfortunately, cyberbullying and online smear campaigns, particularly against female activists, 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. This is not a call to restrict freedom of expression, but to ensure that the legal test for restrictions to freedom of expression – legality, proportionality and necessity – is at the centre of any further action.

The new EU leadership has placed the protection of democracy and the rule of law high on its agenda. This is a welcome and important step. 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 priority should be to include civil society in consultations and to make sure the right balances are struck.