Ten years ago the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers adopted its Declaration on action to improve the protection of human rights defenders and promote their activities. Since then, the institution of the Commissioner for Human Rights has strengthened its action to support the work of human rights defenders, making increasing use of the full spectrum of the tools at its disposal to address challenges faced by human rights defenders. In 2017 alone I have had to raise the situation of human rights defenders in dialogue with various Council of Europe member states at least seven times. I also had to publicly intervene in fourteen cases which required urgent attention as the safety of human rights defenders was in jeopardy and the environment for their work seriously compromised. Furthermore, over the last years, I intervened as a third party before the European Court of Human Rights in a number of cases grouping dozens of human rights defenders whose rights had been affected by restrictive measures in different European countries. Naturally, I also continued to meet with human rights defenders and co-operate with national and international stakeholders on issues concerning defenders’ safety and the environment in which they operate.
Despite progress made in some Council of Europe member states, there is a worrying trend towards growing backsliding in the protection of human rights defenders in a number of other European countries. Human rights defenders, activists and journalists are increasingly subjected to various forms of reprisals, including judicial harassment, smear campaigns, threats and even physical attacks, while a growing number of European governments are narrowing the space for the work of independent civil society and human rights organisations. Defenders active in protecting the rights of persons belonging to certain groups, including migrants, LGBTI persons and women, or working on sensitive issues, such as impunity for serious human rights violations in certain Council of Europe member states, have been increasingly targeted by state and non-state actors in recent times.
Ten years ago, the Declaration recognised that the prime responsibility to promote and protect human rights defenders lies with states. Although the Council of Europe must also contribute to creating an enabling environment, its efforts will only bear fruit if member states uphold their commitments in good faith. In particular, all Council of Europe member states should refrain from committing any acts of intimidation of human rights defenders and protect them from attacks or harassment by non-state actors. States should also bring their national legislation into line with applicable European human rights standards and guarantee the exercise of freedom of expression, assembly and association, as well as access to effective domestic remedies and international human rights protection mechanisms. Finally, states should encourage and create favourable conditions for human rights defenders to participate in public life, dialogue with the authorities and co-operation with national and international stakeholders. The crucial role of defenders in the development of human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law should be publicly acknowledged and recognised.