Five Steps the EU Must Take to Protect Civil Society

“Imagine what a world would look like without civil society.” This was the challenge posed in the final report of Maina Kiai, the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly, in June 2017. He argued that although silencing critics might seem to bring short-term electoral benefits, limiting the space for civil society is harmful for the continued existence of pluralist democracies.

In the public statements of European Union institutions, the EU is steadfast in defending the consensus that civil society is a fundamental pillar of open and democratic societies. Yet over the last few years, and particularly during 2017, some EU governments took definitive action to close the public space for debate and free expression. Hungary, Poland and Romania, for example, have introduced laws designed to restrict and undermine civil society, accompanied by public vilification of individuals and organizations:

  • In Hungary, a law stigmatizes NGOs who receive foreign funding.
  • In Poland, a new government body has been created to manage the distribution of public funds to NGOs, increasing the likelihood that political interference will affect allocations to NGOs critical of government policy.
  • In Romania, the government has put forward a bill which imposes disproportionate reporting requirements on NGOs. 

These are dangerous steps away from the commitments that these countries made when they joined the EU, and EU leaders need to be clear about what society loses when independent voices are silenced. There are five key areas for EU action—recognition, communication, leadership, litigation, and protection:

1. Recognize the Problem

There is limited awareness among EU policymakers of the scale and the impact of attacks on organizations that promote human rights in Europe. These are not limited to the legislative proposals in Hungary, Poland, or Romania.

For example, the right to peaceful protest has been curtailed in countries such as France and Spain, while the UK has questioned the use of public funds by organizations engaged in critical campaign work. Together, these actions show a pattern that European governments are increasingly tempted to use policies that suppress civil society in order to stifle criticism and oversight of government activities.

The pattern has deep consequences. It is time to recognize what is happening, sound the alarm, and respond. This week, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights will release a report that examines the closing space for civil society within Europe. This is an important and timely step—and the first time that threats to civic space across Europe have been reviewed by an EU institution. EU institutions and governments should immediately take action to address the agency’s findings and develop an adequate response.

2. Communicate Effectively

Legislative restrictions on civil society have been reinforced by smear campaigns. In Hungary, in particular, unsubstantiated attacks and disinformation campaigns have been used to ensure restrictive legislation is passed. Civil society groups and individuals are threatened and delegitimized through insinuations of foreign influence and a desire to undermine national identities and values.

In Hungary, but also in Italy, political party campaigns have targeted the funding of George Soros; in Romania, government-controlled media outlets have doubled down on outrageous claims, even going so far as to report that Soros was paying dogs to join protests critical of the government.

Organizations working with migrants and asylum seekers have been subjected to particularly malicious attacks. In Italy, NGOs conducting search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean have been accused of colluding with smugglers. They have also been co-opted into a “voluntary” code of conduct that undermines their independence. The sustained campaign of misinformation by several parties has resulted in an all-time low in public support for the work of NGOs.

Once a negative narrative takes hold, it is difficult to regain public trust. EU institutions must recognize what is at stake and engage in an innovative and sustained effort to communicate to Europeans about the vital role that civil society plays in democratic societies.

3. Take the Lead

The protection of civic space—including freedom of association, assembly, and expression—needs to be designated as a specific objective in the mandate of the EU’s first vice-president in charge of rule of law and fundamental rights.

This leadership should be accompanied by increased capacity across the EU institutions to monitor, assess, and respond to threats to civil society in a timely manner. In addition to public statements by high-level officials and politicians, the FRA should be able to carry out on-the-ground assessments, provide legal opinions and advise EU policy makers on specific action to hold governments accountable for any abuse and promote an enabling and safe environment for NGOs.

4. Litigate

In April 2017, the European Commission initiated legal action against Hungary on the basis that the NGO law disproportionately restricts donations from abroad to civil society organizations, and thus breaches the free movement of capital as well as the rights enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This is a significant step and the first time the EU has taken legal action to defend civil society against repressive measures undertaken by member state governments.

The commission needs to further study how to create the necessary legal framework to allow independent civil society to function without government interference. At present, the commission has only a bare minimum of resources to investigate the impact of NGO laws and to protect civil society.

A good start would be for the commission to undertake an overall assessment of any new NGO legislation to ensure compliance with both EU law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. All EU institutions should engage with lawyers and organizations with expertise in protecting civil society.

5. Protect

Organizations and individuals who face threats need to be able to seek protection and support. Legal advice and psychosocial support is particularly needed. National authorities should designate a focal point for human rights defenders, who can track attacks on individual defenders and coordinate an appropriate response with the police and interior and foreign affairs ministries. In its foreign policy, the EU supports a number of mechanisms to protect human rights defenders, which could be replicated within the Union.

Adequate and flexible funding is critical. As a funder, the EU has an important role to play, alongside others, to ensure that resources are available to NGOs so that they can develop medium- to long-term strategies, maintain a watchdog role and respond to emerging threats.

In conclusion, the essential conditions of EU membership—democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and the protection of minorities—cannot be maintained without the active participation of a free and independent civil society. The coming year will be crucial for the European Commission and Parliament to develop further tools to defend civil society organizations ahead of the European elections, decisions on the next EU budget, and the new term of the European Commission.

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Thank you for helping me sorting out my own thoughts on this topic.

Dear Open Society Foundations,

I am human rights defenders. I have written reports on human rights issues, with a focus on Impunity for the crimes against Human Rights Defenders & Protect human rights defenders at risk.

Unfortunately, as I learned in Hungary that human rights defenders face serious obstacles in their work. Improve the capacity to guarantee every person the possibility to request international protection in a legal way, and create conditions for the medical and psychological treatment of human rights defenders, especially those who were victims of torture and violence. In its pilot judgment of 10 March 2015 - 2017 the European Court of Human Rights concluded that Hungary had to take measures to improve the problem of widespread cases of violations of Article 3 of the Convention. The Court found that there had been a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights in more than 100 judgments since 2015 -2017 and that over 6800 similar cases were pending before it. Unfortunately the judgments where not translated into Hungarian.

The European Union's own civil society is facing a pattern of threats and pressures in many parts of the European Union. We would like to recruit applicants from European fund for the Human Rights Defenders Educational Partnership scholarship program. European institutions should set up a instrument to defend civil rights organisations adding that there were such mechanisms for accession and third countries, but not for European Union member states. The funding from abroad has been key to maintain the protection of human rights defenders.

This year mark the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a landmark resolution that was adopted after years of struggle by civil society actors around the world. The declaration defines a human rights defender as someone who "promote[s] and to strive[s] for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels." Source of law:

UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders * ENSZ emberi jogok védelmezőiről szóló nyilatkozata

Unfortunately the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders where not translated into Hungarian language. Concurrently, certain obstacles arose, in particular our judges unfamiliarity with foreign languages. The two go together, so I am working on promoting my field of training work human rights defenders' rights at risk and peace movements into education and to make available the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders to colleges, universities, high schools in Hungary and on all the website of Human Rights.

The primary responsibility for Human Rights Defenders’ protection rests with the States and their governments. This obligation has been officially recognised in the UN declaration on Human Rights Defenders in article 2 (and further expressed in articles 9 and 12). Authorities must ensure that all crimes against Human Rights Defenders are investigated efficiently, pursued by the judiciary, the perpetrators must be punished, and protective means must be implemented in practice.

In Hungary, only the state-approved Hungarian Office for Translation and Attestation Ltd is authorized to prepare such translations. In this case that human rights defenders do need an attested translation, we need Your help as Open Society Foundations Activists, to translate into Hungarian language as as it is an extraordinary help. Human rights defenders are people who stand up for justice in sometimes extraordinary circumstances.

Yours Sincerely,

Human Rights Defender Circle - survivors of torture

International & National Human Rights Action Plan to build an e-book website that support to human rights defenders at risk. The site's address: coming soon. We describe the Istanbul Protocol of the United Nations as a e-book, an excellent tool that can help physicians and health professionals recognize and treat cases of torture or institutional violence.

Dear OSF,

This is a very good report.

we hope to make sense and succeed in wiping out this unscrupulous, libelous ministers and their relatives from parliament.the eu's money is split between each other.
the current Hungarian ministers steal, cheat, lie, and nothing is true of what they say. The newspapers, the media, the police, the courts are under their control.

a lot of illegal immigrants that come to the United States end up in gang activity because of the limited job opportunity.

the flow will corrupt governments along the immigrants path. its not good for ether side.we need to stop all emigration to able to practice human rights.

most of them come from countries with a lot of resources.

Respect to Hungary and Poland to keep their countries safe.

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