Civil society organizations, including groups that work to protect human rights, are under growing threat in Europe.
The threat these days doesn’t come just from repressive governments like those in Russia or Turkey. Nor it is even confined to democratic states on the road to authoritarianism like Hungary and Poland. It now also comes from elected governments in states whose democracies appear in better health, such as France, Greece, Italy, and the UK.
European democracies used to respect civil society’s independence and recognize the value of their work, even if those groups said and did things that the government didn’t like.
Now we see efforts to restrict civil society space, with government ministers and officials openly criticising the work of these groups. Governments have imposed legal restrictions, including in some cases on the use of foreign funding. Officials use the criminal justice system to prosecute and intimidate activists. Regulators curb or threaten groups, and governments and ruling parties try to influence the activities of publicly funded organisations through funding or board membership.
The idea that a state can legitimately interfere with civil society groups simply because it doesn’t like what they are working on or what they have to say has troubling implications for the health of democracy and the protection of human rights.
Civil society organisations exercise a critical function in a democratic society as a check on executive power. Curbs on their work undermine that function, and thereby fray the democratic fabric.
In France, state efforts to define the place of Islam and Muslims in society under President Macron’s government have extended to curbs on groups that speak out against those efforts, including bans by government decrees and asset freezes, notably against the anti-discrimination organisation Collective Against Islamophobia in France, known by its French abbreviation CCIF.
The French government put pressure on the European Commission to cut funding to French and other organisations for speaking out against French government policy. The government used the criminal justice system against people showing solidarity with irregular migrants until appeal courts stepped in. It passed a law requiring organisations in France to sign up to an ill-defined loyalty contract, including to receive public funding.
In the UK, ministers and other members of the ruling Conservative party have put pressure on groups through public criticism and via the main regulator of groups that have charitable tax-exempt status. When the head of a children’s charity wrote a blog about racism, for example, it triggered complaints to the regulator by ruling party MPs. Similar complaints were made about groups exposing Britain’s history colonialism and government failings on racism. And a proposed new law would deepen already onerous restrictions on the ability of groups to protest.
In Greece, under the New Democracy government, the criminal justice system has been used to threaten civil society groups and activists especially those working on migration issues. New registration requirements have imposed an unreasonable burden on groups. All of this has prompted criticism from the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders.
Civil society groups working with migrants in Italy, carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and reporting on migration cooperation with Libya have faced similar pressures, including smears, surveillance including unauthorized wiretapping, and prosecution.
The most recent EU rule of law report makes recommendations on civil society space (as a proxy for expressing concern) to Greece, France, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Ireland, Germany, and Latvia. Frontline Defenders, which works to support human rights defenders and groups under threat around world has worked on cases in nine EU member states, including Spain, France, Greece and Italy.
Practically speaking, impeding the work of NGOs leaves them less able to respond to the needs and protect the rights and interests of those on whose behalf they work. Internationally, it normalizes the idea that executive interference with the legitimate work of civil society is acceptable, undermining efforts by EU and other European governments to promote space for civil society groups in other parts of the world.
What can be done to reverse the trend? It’s vital for legislators to speak out about executive interference and why it matters even for the work of groups they don’t like. There is an important role for regional and international bodies and courts, like the Council of Europe, European Court of Human Rights and UN bodies like the UN expert on human rights defenders.
The European Commission and EU Court of Justice, both of which have already shown some willingness to act, could do more to uphold the rights of civil society. Solidarity is also important: while large international groups are less likely to be targeted, they can help preserve space for others.
The ability of independent groups to work freely is a measure of the health of our democracies. We ignore these curbs at our peril.