Protecting civil society – Update 2023

Civil society organisations struggle to maintain an environment safe from threats and attacks. FRA’s sixth annual update on civic space explores the challenges for organisations across the EU. While there has been significant development since FRA began monitoring the situation in 2018, civil society organisations remain under immense pressure. Abusive lawsuits and attacks against those involved in migrant search and rescue at sea are just some of the challenges identified. This report presents ways forward to protect civil society and human rights.

We live in a world where those who stand up for our rights and values are faced with immense pressure. Both policymakers and donors alike have woken up to the need to protect human rights. But organisations that defend human rights face constant challenges.

Civil society organisations in the EU are forced to battle abusive lawsuits that aim to intimidate and drain their resources. They are targeted by smear campaigns that spread false information, harming their names and reputations. Even more alarmingly, human rights activists are threatened and subjected to physical attacks.

We should never accept attacks like these. They are unacceptable, including against people who help migrant search and rescue at sea and those who represent vulnerable groups. 

Threats against civil society greatly affect activists' safety, mental health and resilience while working on human rights. Under sustained pressure, civil society organisations and activists will struggle. We need new solutions to make human rights work sustainable.

Since 2018, FRA has been closely monitoring civic space in Europe. In a remarkably short time, the term ‘civic space’ has become recognised and accepted within the EU. In the past 18 months alone, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of the EU have adopted ambitious proposals on civic space. New EU laws such as the Whistleblower Directive and the anti-SLAPP Directive will help protect activists. The Commission has also considerably stepped-up funding for those that defend the rights and values across the EU. These are steps in the right direction but many more are needed.

Civil society must remain robust and resilient as key promotors of our rights. Protecting civil society is the only way forward.


Michael O’Flaherty