Sunday

19th Nov 2017

Opinion

Civil society protects us and now it needs our help

  • In one way or the other, civil society is all of us. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

A thriving civil society sector is imperative for a healthy democracy. That is why laws like the one recently passed in Hungary, on foreign-funded NGOs, are so problematic.

Actions such as these suggest that civil society is a problem and not an asset. But the very opposite is true. Rather, civil society promotes public participation and ensures the accountability of governments.

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In one way or the other, civil society is all of us: it is trade unions, employers’ organisations, professional associations, churches and other faith organisations, schools, universities, NGOs, and the media.

The European Union is generous with the advice and resources it provides to civil society beyond its own borders, and rightly demands high standards from aid recipients.

But it is always easier to criticise countries far away than to address the human rights situation closer to home. And it is not just one EU member state we need to be scrutinising.

Even following remarks from UN human rights experts that the recent Hungarian legislative changes could have a “chilling effect, not only on expressions of peaceful dissent, but also on the legitimate work of NGOs and individual human rights defenders,” we must not forget that this is only one – if the most extreme – manifestation of a worrying trend across the EU.

Cause for concern

Based on data and information collected from across the EU, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has identified a number of concerns.

One is the regulatory environment, which has become more problematic for civil society organisations in many places.

Take some counter-terrorism legislation, where moves to strengthen national security can also impinge on space for civil society.

While there is no absolute right to demonstrate, there needs to be a good reason to prohibit a demonstration. And once lost to a state of emergency, it is difficult to regain civic space.

Then there is the issue of finance and funding.

The new law in Hungary requires NGOs to declare their sources of foreign funding.

At first glance, the stipulation seems quite harmless. However, the implication that finance or assistance from outside a country’s borders is suspicious, may fuel xenophobic sentiment and can also be damaging to the general public’s sense of trust in the organisations concerned.

And there are other fears surrounding the issue of finances elsewhere in the EU.

Many of our own civil society partners have voiced disquiet about moves to remove human rights advocacy from the list of charitable purposes for tax purposes.

A third area of concern is the lack of access to decision-makers and the decision-making process.

Access to information is a matter of basic human rights, not to mention good governance. But there are few examples of guidelines or regulations that concern when and how decision-makers should involve civil society organisations in law and policy-making.

Theory vs. practice

Even where rules do exist, they are not necessarily well applied in practice.

Finally, there is the level of danger involved in civil society work in many parts of the EU.

Personal safety often depends on the political popularity of the theme focused on by an organisation.

For instance, rescuing or helping migrants may expose you to criminal sanctions in some places. Advocacy for LGBTI rights can bring you into danger in others. On top of this, the state is too often failing to investigate hate crime and bring perpetrators to justice.

This may seem a long list of concerns. But we are not powerless.

First of all, we need to remember that there is strong legal protection for civil society, enshrined in human rights treaties and in EU law – a point recently made by Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission.

Legislation passed in the EU member states must always be compatible with the so-called "four freedoms", which include the free movement of capital and the freedom to provide services. So first and foremost, we are calling for respect for the law.

At the same time, we must realise that stifling civil society will have an impact on all of us. This is not just about the staff who work for NGOs or the people on whose behalf they work.

We need to raise our voices and make them heard all the way to the political leaders in our capital cities: we do not accept the threat to our civil liberties, coming from the pressure placed on civil society.

To do this, finally, we need to build partnerships.

The newly inaugurated French president, Emmanuel Macron, said that “a rise in illiberal democracies” could be witnessed all around the world.

It is clear to me that if we fail to cherish and protect civil society in the EU, a widespread illiberal democracy is just what we may end up with here, in our own corner of Europe.

Michael O’Flaherty is the Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights brings together a network of more than 500 civil society organisations, in the conviction that civil society and the protection of human rights are mutually interdependent, and that the state of civil society in the EU is an indicator of the health of our society.

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