Civil society: empowerment and accountability - challenges of inclusive decision-making processes

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty delivers his speech during a roundtable organised by the Council of Europe Venice Commission, OSCE/ODIHR and the Irish Council of Europe Presidency. The event took place in Strasbourg on 13 September 2022.

Madam President of the Commission, Mr President of the Assembly, dear Dunja, Mr Byrne, from the Irish Chairmanship, dear colleagues.

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this meeting. I would like to express deep appreciation to the Council of Europe and ODIHR for their sustained work in support of civil society and human rights. We rely deeply on your resources. They often guide the way in which we engage.

And we are heavily invested ourselves. For instance, we maintain what is probably Europe’s largest platform of civil society organisations working in the field of human rights. There are 900 participating organisations in our Fundamental Rights Platform.

We also publish annual reports on the situation of human-rights-related civil society in Europe, the so-called ‘space for civil society’. This comprises both survey and qualitative analysis; it draws from our national research teams in EU Member States, as well as the input of typically 600 organisations. The 2022 report, which we published recently, demonstrates many impressive and good practices of civil society and of states supporting civil society. We are impressed, for instance, by the extent to which civil society is engaged right across Europe in upholding and working for the rule of law.

However, our 2022 report also presents disturbing figures. When we asked organisations whether the situation had deteriorated for them since 2020, 30% of organisations said yes, the situation was worse, or very much worse.

Going into some specifics on the critical issue of involvement, engagement and participation, 41% of the respondent organisations spoke of inadequate information in order to engage in consultations; 37% said that deadlines for participation or consultation were too short; and 37% said that they gave their input to policymakers but lacked feedback on outcomes.

Turning to the issue of legislation and its impact on the operation of civil society. In 2021, 31% said that they encountered problems doing their jobs because of emergency laws, and 22% spoke of travel restrictions. Some of these reports are not so surprising given the pandemic. Nevertheless, we also saw repeated concerns that had nothing to do with Covid. We heard about the consequences – admittedly often unintended consequences, of laws on transparency, on tax, on charitable status and on anti-money laundering.

And finally, in terms of that report, turning to – most seriously of all – the issue of threats and attacks on organisations and individuals. Again, referring back to 2021, 31% of organisations said that they had experienced negative media campaigns; 26% said that they had experienced coordinated online threats; and then when you turn to individuals who work for these organisations, the figures are very disturbing: 43% of individuals said that they had experienced an online threat at some point in the previous year; 12% reported the use of SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation); and 7% of the individuals reported physical attacks against them.

I suggest figures such as these must constitute a wake-up call, in terms not only of the well-being of civil society itself, of these organisations, but also – given its importance for democracy – the well-being of our societies. Given this importance, I greatly welcome the increased attention we see at the present time.

If I may turn just briefly to the Commission of the European Union, there are at least three interesting contemporary developments. The first is that it has decided to devote a section of its 2022 report on the application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to the topic of the health of civil society. That report will be published on 10 December. I also welcome the European Commission’s initiative to counter SLAPPs and its efforts to deliver funding support to NGOs operating inside the European Union.

But I think we would all agree that notwithstanding impressive initiatives such as these, we still have a great way to go. And I will leave you with just two suggestions of areas that may benefit from close attention.

The first is to invest in establishing better-structured and well-researched dialogue spaces between the holders of power and civil society. We would suggest that particular attention is needed to this at the national level. There are a number of models that can be drawn from. One is the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland. And I am also struck by the work of the Open Government Partnership in developing ideas and models of how such dialogue systems and spaces could be put in place.

And secondly and finally, I believe it is important for us to invest further resources in protecting civil society where it is under pressure and attack. And in this regard, if you will allow me to return to an old recommendation of my Agency, and that is for consideration to be given to the establishment of a European observatory, a place where civil society can report attacks, register alerts and map trends, and where support can be offered.

And in all of this, to conclude, I would like to assure you of the continuous cooperation of the Agency for Fundamental Rights in this important and indeed essential area.

Thank you.

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