The 17th EU-NGO Human Rights Forum took place in Brussels on 3 and 4 December, bringing together hundreds of civil society organisations from across the globe, representatives from international and regional human rights mechanisms and from the EU institutions and Member States. The Forum is a joint venture between the European External Action Service, the European Commission, and the Human Rights & Democracy Network. The overarching theme for this year’s Forum is Protecting and Promoting Civil society Space, one of the key priorities of the EU Strategic Framework for Human Rights.
In her address to the Forum, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, stated: I believe that the civil society has a crucial role to play in any policy and in our foreign policy. It is not only a key player, but a main driver for change in all societies, in terms of democracy, good governance, resilience, cohesion, promotion of fundamental human rights.
Freedom of expression is one of the most powerful weapons against radicalisation and terrorism. To better protect our citizens we need above all to build strong democratic institutions and a healthy democratic dialogue. I am very often asked whether security should not be the main focus, more than human rights. But there is no security without human rights”.
She also called for renewed efforts to fight attempts to control the work of civil society in many countries around the world: “During the last years, the space for civil society has shrunk in many countries”. “These trends demand a redoubling of our efforts in the human rights sphere. The European Union, the institutions and myself personally, will do all we can to protect civil society organisations fighting for human rights and protect human rights defender on an individual basis.
The theme of this year’s NGO Forum – Protecting and Promoting Civil Society Space – reflects the EU’s strong commitment to put Freedom of Association and Freedom of Expression at the heart of the EU’s human rights policy as essential foundations for democracy, rule of law, peace, stability, sustainable inclusive development and participation in public affairs.
This year’s event saw contributions from the current UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association, Maina Kiai; the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst; Vice-Chair of the European Parliamaent Subcommittee on Human Rights, MEP Barbara Lochbihler; the Secretary Generalof the Community of Democracies, Amb. Maria Leissner; Sakharov Prize recipient Memorial, represented by Oleg Orlov; alongside many representatives from civil society, Human Rights Defenders, NGOs, the EU Institutions and many representatives from EU member states.
The forum looked at the recent EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Expression, as key tools enabling the EU to promote and protect freedom of opinion and expression and to counter the clear and disturbing trend over the last few years towards an increasingly restricted space for independent civil society as well as outright threats, intimidation and violence that civils society organisations and representatives, journalists, media actors and other individuals face in many countries across the world because of the exercise of their rights.
Given the scale of the problem and its constantly changing manifestations, urgent action is required not just to understand the scale and evolving nature of the threats, but particularly to identify ways to achieve effective and concerted policy responses and counter actions.
The EU is committed, as indicated in the EU strategy on human rights and democracy and its Action Plan (2015-2019), to address threats to civil society space, through actions that support laws and policies to protect human rights defenders; report on and counter threats to civil society space; and oppose unjustified restrictions to freedoms of assembly and association.
Engagement with civil society is essential for the ongoing work the EU is undertaking to help realise human rights, indivisible and universal for all peoples. The Forum discussions provided a significant opportunity for an interactive dialogue among representatives from the EU member states, the European Institutions (European Parliament, Council, European External Action Service, European Commission) and global civil society and human rights defenders from all over the world, working on the promotion and protection of human rights. The outcome of the Forum will be an important stepping stone for ensuring effective EU action and future policy developments in this field.