The participation of civil society in public decision-making and the foreign funding of associations were the key themes of the international round table event entitled “Civil Society: Empowerment and Accountability” in Strasbourg, organised by the Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR in the framework of the Irish Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
The event assessed the changing landscape that civil society organisations face today and reviewed the legal frameworks through which states ensure freedom of association and related rights.
In her opening speech, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić highlighted the challenges of inclusive decision-making. “There are often difficult questions about who represents civil society and who does not, and how to make sure that dialogue is not dominated by NGOs that are government-organised or unrepresentative of broader civil society thinking,” she said. The biggest challenges are restrictions imposed on NGOs that receive foreign funding, Secretary General added. She criticised the use of “foreign agent” laws, the stigmatising effect of which has proved “tragically effective at silencing important civil society voices.” “Following the expulsion of the Russian Federation from our organisation and the suspension of all technical cooperation with Belarus, we remain concerned nonetheless about the freedom and well-being of civil society actors from those countries,” the Secretary General stressed. Representatives of Belarusian and Russian civil society took part in the event.
Irish Minister of State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne said: “The freedom to associate, to convene, to come together for a common purpose are amongst the most fundamental of our freedoms. Today more than ever before, civil society plays a crucial role in securing these rights. Understanding the importance of civil society’s role is what makes this conference so vital. The Irish Presidency stands by and supports the Venice Commission and ODIHR in its efforts to empower them.”
The President of the Venice Commission, Claire Bazy Malaurie, spoke of the need for member states to render their legislative processes more transparent, inclusive and less hasty, to make sure that decisions are more reasoned and accepted by the public, as well as to create a sense of “ownership” of the political process by the whole population. She mentioned the need to ensure that consulting civil society on matters of public interest does not encroach on representative democracy, especially when public decisions must be taken quickly, as was the case with the recent pandemic. She also touched upon the “demarcation line” that should exist between political parties and associations.
Matteo Mecacci, OSCE/ODIHR Director, stressed that challenges and obstacles in the exercise of the right to freedom of association have increased and become more severe over the past years. “Our work with civil society and our many activities on freedom of association remain at the core of our mandate.” He spoke of the joint work between ODIHR and the Venice Commission to review legislation impacting freedom of association, producing joint guidelines for lawmakers and wider civil society on how to draft human rights-compliant legislation on associations.
Other speakers in the opening session included the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Tiny Kox, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe Dunja Mijatović, the Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Michael O’Flaherty, and Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Irish MEP Frances Fitzgerald also contributed to this key event of the Irish Presidency.