The role of civil society in the promotion and protection of tolerance and non-discrimination

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director's speech on 26 June at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) III in 2023 in Vienna on the role of civil society in promoting and protecting tolerance and non-discrimination.

Dear Director Mecacci, dear Chairperson, Your Excellencies, dear friends, it is always an honour to come before you in my capacity as the Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. 

In these months as I am coming to the end of my mandate, I am reflecting back on memorable moments. One such moment was a visit to an organisation in Dublin called Pavee Point. It is one of the best-known organisations of the Irish Traveller and Roma communities. I spent a day with them and watched as they engaged in an astonishing array of activities. But what I remember most is that, while many of the activities were about their community, at least as many again were about their outreach to society, to the general population. I remember their investment in education and awareness-raising to combat hatred and intolerance against Roma, and Irish Travellers. 

I have many other such memories. I recall in Paris, meeting with Jewish groups, who are as intent as in any other activity in tackling local forms of antisemitism, again, through awareness-raising and education. I recall a tiny LGBTI organisation in the United Kingdom that was going into schools to speak about the key issues. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in eastern Poland, in the city of Lublin, where I spent time with young people in small organisations, doing very impressive work in welcoming migrants and, just as importantly, working with the local community and in close cooperation with the city to support respectful integration. 

These memories reinforce my conviction that the role of civil society is not just useful, it is essential to the functioning of respectful societies that uphold human dignity. I would go further; I would say that, without civil society, we could not even have the foundations for such societies. Let me give you two examples. 

Human rights - we would not have them without civil society.  

Their origins are in civil society. Just think of the role of 20th century intellectuals, like Lemkin, Lauterpacht, Rosalyn Higgins and the recently deceased Thomas Buergenthal.  

Their great champions are typically in civil society. Think of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador.  

Civil society is the brave custodian of human rights. Think of the astonishing achievements of the Helsinki Watch Committees.  

Civil society is the guardian of hope. Hope in a future in which human rights are finally realised. Think how powerfully that hope is triggered by listening to Beethoven's 9th symphony when performed by musicians from the organisation Musicians for Human Rights. 

My second example regards how it is impossible to conceive of true and lasting peace without the role of civil society. This is well-illustrated, for example, in the case of Northern Ireland where, this year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Peace Agreement. It is essential to acknowledge the role of civil society in the negotiation of that peace, especially of a coalition of women's groups from across all communities that history has proven to have played a critical role.  

The role of civil society in the realisation of the peace is no less significant. I saw this while I was the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I saw how civil society patiently, persistently, and expertly supported the development of the respectful, fair and equal society, that was essential for the peace to be sustained. 

My friends, taking all of these and other considerations into account, it is not at all surprising that, in February of this year, the Council of the European Union stated that CSOs and human rights defenders are, and I quote, “essential in constitutional democratic societies, and are an indispensable element in the systems of checks and balances in a healthy democracy.” They added that “unjustified restriction to their operating space can present a threat to the rule of law.”  

Now, if we accept statements such as these, we have to invest in our civil society. I appreciate that holding this event, this meeting with this theme, is such an investment. 

I welcome the very important statements that have already been presented. I strongly associate myself with what Professor Polak said about the need to gender our work. The work of my Agency supports everything that she said, and indeed, I have seen time and time and time that the drivers of positive change are women. 

But going forward, what more can States do? Allow me to suggest three areas for attention. 

First, we need to protect civil society. We see worrying and growing levels of threat, intimidation, and harassment. In a recent consultation of CSOs in the EU by my Agency, 60% reported attacks, harassment, or being the targets of disinformation. Approximately 50% told us of their being subjected to smear campaigns online.  

Now, how to respond? Mr. Hadjiyanni has already given us many excellent ideas on how States and authorities could respond. Let me suggest just one more immediate action, which could be very usefully taken, and that is for our States to prohibit strategic litigation against public participation, the so-called SLAPPs. This is something that the EU is now progressing.  

Second of my three areas for attention: we must enable civil society. One obvious element of enabling is to put in place appropriate regulation that is not excessively burdensome and that respects human rights. In this regard, we can rely on the excellent guidance that has been offered by the Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR in their recent joint publication on guidelines for freedom of association.  

The second dimension of enabling civil society that I have in mind is that of the State and local government working as partners, in a way I saw in Lublin, as I mentioned a moment ago. There are already so many good examples of how there can be such partnerships for the combating of racism and hate. Beyond Lublin, I think of the partnership in Brussels to support the reporting of LGBTI hate crimes. I think of the nationwide partnership in Spain, between the Ministry of the Interior and civil society to report all hate crimes. We can learn so much from each other; allow me to refer here to one useful tool, recently adopted by EU Member States working closely with us at the Fundamental Rights Agency, on the topic of cooperation between law enforcement authorities and civil society organisations.  

My final area of attention regards how we can better support civil society. Again here, just two thoughts. First, we can do a better job of providing funding support. It is still too often the case that when money is provided, it goes only to service provision. This is good but it is not enough. CSOs also need support for their core costs, as well as for their advocacy work.  

Secondly, support should also include providing shelter for civil society groups that have to flee from third states. My Agency will, in coming days, publish a report on this topic which offers States recommendations on how to operationalise such support and protection, through such tools as humanitarian visas.  

Allow me, if you will, to conclude with the words of a former United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, which I paraphrase: “One of the main lessons I have learned during my years as Secretary General is that broad partnerships are key to solving broad challenges. When governments, international organisations, business, philanthropies, and civil society work hand-in-hand, we can achieve great things.”  

Thank you. 

See also