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The research underscores that the situation varies considerably across Member States. Yet it also shows that the situation in 2020 was generally more difficult than in previous years, often due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite this reality, the research also points to some positive developments.
In this report:
The EU and its Member States are encouraged to make use of the Council of Europe’s Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)11 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the need to strengthen the protection and promotion of civil society space in Europe and the United Nations (UN) guidance note on the protection and promotion of civic space, which indicate steps and processes to protect and promote civic space. While applicable to the EU’s external policies, the EU’s guidelines on human rights defenders could also serve as inspiration.
In line with the Council of Europe’s Recommendation CM/Rec(2021)1 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the development and strengthening of effective, pluralist and independent national human rights institutions, Member States should ensure that their NHRIs have sufficient resources to engage regularly with human rights civil society actors and monitor challenges affecting them.
The European Commission should ensure consultation with civil society during the preparation or review of legislation potentially affecting civic space and civic freedoms. The European Commission could consider providing targeted guidance on the application of its rules, to prevent any unintended restrictions, building on existing good practices.
Member States should ensure that laws that could restrict civil society space to operate comply with EU law and international human rights standards and principles, such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. They should consult transparently a wide range of CSOs when drafting and implementing legislation that may potentially affect them.
EU institutions could explore the added value of harmonising the basic rules for the functioning of CSOs in the EU internal market.
Member States should draw on the expertise of civil society when monitoring the enabling conditions related to fundamental rights under the Common Provisions Regulation for the shared management of EU funds, including the horizontal enabling conditions related to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as – where applicable – the thematic enabling conditions related to gender equality, Roma inclusion, etc.
The European Commission should continue observing national rules regulating access to and use of foreign funding by CSOs in the light of relevant EU provisions and the recent Court of Justice of the European Union judgment, including the free movement of capital within the EU, and offer Member States, with the involvement of CSOs, a space for exchanging information and good practices in this area.
EU institutions and Member States should ensure that the legal and policy environment is conducive to the possibility of CSOs having access to diverse pools of resources and that they face no undue obstacles when accessing funding from domestic or foreign sources, including through the use of technologies. Financial support offered should cover the full range of civil society activities, including advocacy, community engagement and civil society development. Beyond project funding, infrastructure core funding and multiannual funding cycles would strengthen the civil society sector and ensure the sustainability of civil society’s human rights work.
Such means could include funding for appropriate processes, training of officials, and the regular organisation of civil society consultations and exchanges, including through the representations of the European Commission and the European Parliament in the Member States. The framework should facilitate the participation of civil society in consultations all along the policy cycle on EU law and policy. Emphasis should, in this regard, be given to access to information and the participation of CSOs representing vulnerable and underrepresented groups.
Guidance for developing such a framework is provided by the Council of Europe Guidelines for civil participation in political decision-making. When following up on the recent fundamental rights-relevant EU action plans, strategies and other policy frameworks, including on the implementation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and in the areas of anti-racism, LGBTIQ+ equality, Roma inclusion, children’s rights, disability, victims’ rights, gender equality and migrant integration, the Member States should be urged to integrate the results of these consultations, as well as future outcomes of the Conference on the Future of Europe and the European Democracy Action Plan.
The European Commission should ensure that its upcoming initiative on SLAPPs offers effective protection to CSOs and human rights defenders against legal harassment. Such protection could include uniform procedural safeguards against abusive lawsuits, provisions precluding libel tourism and forum shopping, and the obligation to provide assistance and support to victims of SLAPPs. The European Commission and Member States should use their respective means to raise awareness among justice authorities and practitioners of the negative impact of SLAPP practices.
Building on the example of the existing external EU human rights defenders mechanism protectdefenders.eu, the EU could consider providing appropriate financial support for the creation and maintenance of a similar monitoring mechanism in the EU, allowing CSOs and human rights defenders to report attacks, register alerts, map trends and provide timely and targeted support to victims.
Member States should ensure that crimes committed against CSOs and human rights defenders are properly recorded, investigated and prosecuted, including under applicable hate crime provisions where relevant. Politicians and policymakers could contribute to developing a positive narrative about civil society and highlight its important role, avoiding statements that could fuel hostility towards CSOs and human rights defenders and have a chilling effect on their human rights work.
Member States should refrain from criminalising or taking similar legal actions that hamper the operation of CSOs in the context of humanitarian assistance for asylum seekers and other migrants and during search and rescue at sea.