Non-Governmental Organisations

The Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe

Speech by the President of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe, Jean-Marie Heydt, Rapporteur Group on Legal Co-operation (GR-J), Strasbourg, 17 February 2009

Mr Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is both an honour and a pleasure for me to address you this morning in my capacity as the newly elected President of the Council of Europe Conference of INGOs.

This meeting is also an opportunity to inform you of the conclusions of the first annual report of the Expert Council on NGO Law, which we recently presented to the Conference of INGOs at our winter plenary session.

I would first like to provide some background in order to give you a better idea of the context in which this report was produced, and more specifically, the context in which the Expert Council on NGO Law came into being.

Two key events led to the setting up of the Expert Council:

    the positive declaration on the role of civil society made at the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe in Warsaw in 2005, and,
    the ambitious and highly gratifying Recommendation(2007)14 adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which sets out a framework for the legal status of NGOs in Europe.

These two key events were given a further boost by both national and international NGOs through practical action in the field. It was as a natural consequence of this that the initiative was taken, at the first Regional NGO Congress organised by our Conference, held in Warsaw in 2006, to request the setting up of an Expert Council. And of course, at the second Regional Conference, the one held in Kyiv in 2007, this request was confirmed and took shape.

The Conference of INGOs very quickly realised the importance of putting this into practice, at both national and international level.
Indeed, once recognition had been given, at the highest European level, to the “essential contribution made by NGOs […] in the development and realisation of democracy”, it was our duty to see to the consolidation and improvement of the legal, political and administrative conditions enabling NGOs to carry out their tasks.

The decision setting up the Expert Council on NGO Law was accordingly adopted at the January 2008 plenary session of the Conference of INGOs.

The Expert Council’s aim is to contribute to the creation of an enabling environment for NGOs throughout Europe by examining national NGO law and its implementation and promoting its compatibility with Council of Europe standards and European good practice.

The Expert Council’s term of office is three years. It has five members (including Jeremy McBride, present here) and its tasks include monitoring the legislative and regulatory framework for NGOs in European countries, as well as the administrative and judicial practices in those countries which affect the status and operation of NGOs.

The Expert Council, which started work in 2008, essentially pursues a thematic approach and its first report dealt with the “conditions of establishment of NGOs”, a subject touched on in 34 articles of the previously mentioned Committee of Ministers Recommendation. Six case studies on individual countries were included in the report as examples. I would like to make it clear from the outset, to remove any possible ambiguity, that the choice of these studies was in no way based on geographical criteria, and still less on political criteria. It was a genuinely thematic choice whose sole purpose was to illustrate the types of development to be encouraged.

This first annual report will thus be the basis for our exchange of views.

In 2009 the Expert Council will be undertaking a new study, this time on the theme of “internal governance of NGOs”. The study will focus on the following themes: self-governance, supervision and intervention by authorities, accountability and transparency, management, and decision-making processes. These points are mentioned in 15 articles of Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)14 and the report will be published next October.

But let us return to the first report and highlight certain aspects to which the Expert Council draws our attention.

First of all, it is gratifying to note that “in many countries in Europe international standards regarding the establishment of NGOs are being observed, either fully or to a very large extent”.

Nevertheless, the Expert Council feels obliged to point out that a number of problems emerge and urges states to be particularly vigilant, particularly with regard to the following points:

    Legislative restrictions on the establishment of informal groupings;
    In terms of simplifying the procedures for securing registration or acquiring legal personality, international standards should be brought into line;
    Formal time-limits for decision-making (whether it is a refusal or a positive decision) should be no more than two or three weeks and should be free from all political influence;
    Grounds for refusal should be reformulated where they are insufficiently precise to ensure their relevance and compatibility with international standards;
    Decisions concerning registration and the grant of legal personality should be subject to judicial control, with judges and lawyers being trained in the relevant international standards and relying on them when scrutinising refusals of registration or the grant of legal personality.

To conclude my statement and allow the discussion to begin, I would like to say that the Expert Council and its President, Cyril Ritchie, who is on mission in Africa for his NGO and apologises for his absence today, have worked really hard to contribute to the creation of an enabling environment for NGOs throughout Europe, by examining national NGO law and its implementation, and promoting its compatibility with Council of Europe standards and European good practice, the major concern and objective being to provide assistance and support and foster healthy co-operation.

Lastly, neither the Expert Council nor the Conference of INGOs has the aim of implementing Recommendation (2007)14. Rather, their aim is to be guided by it and to rely on it in order to promote the proper application of the law in the interests of all the member states’ citizens.

Thank you for your attention.

Jean-Marie Heydt