Warsaw Conference on the role and position of NGOs in the Council of Europe

Warsaw , 

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Ladies and gentlemen,


In a triangle of human rights, rule of law and democracy, NGOs are essential. And NGOs are essential partners for the Council of Europe.

Throughout my career I have seen time and again the extraordinary commitment and dedication of activists and organisations to the cause of human rights.

I saw it during my time in Norwegian politics, and again over the course of the last ten years.

The Council of Europe exists to uphold commonly agreed standards of human rights, democracy and the rule of law: standards underpinned by law.

But as an international, intergovernmental organisation, we operate under different rules from NGOs.

People from organisations in this room – and far beyond – have an enormous reach.

You are out there on the ground, learning, supporting and communicating in ways that are not always possible for the Council of Europe.

But having that information, understanding the NGO perspective, is vital for our work too.

That’s why, on a personal level, and on mission after mission, I have insisted on meeting with the sector’s representatives – to hear their views, at first hand.

But that relationship is not simply informal.

It is an institutional partnership too.

Our intergovernmental committees, our INGO Conference, and other mechanisms – including NGOs’ capacity to make third party interventions before the Court:

These ensure NGOs’ direct involvement in the work we do – on the basis of our shared priorities.

Some recent examples.

Their proactive input to the drafting of the Protocols that reformed the European Convention system and ensured the effectiveness of the Strasbourg Court.

Their work with our Committee of Experts leading to the codification of member states’ standards when it comes to detaining migrants.

And their commitment to the report that is being drafted on improving social rights in Europe: a report that will be presented to our Committee of Ministers in due course.

Not to mention NGOs’ input over the years to our work on youth, sustainable development, human trafficking and so much more.

I should also make mention of the civil society contribution to the application of Rule 9 of the Committee of Ministers’ Rules for the supervision of judgments process.

That is the process by which our Committee of Ministers assesses member states’ execution of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights.

NGOs can contribute information that informs the Committee of Ministers’ work indicating shortcomings that hamper the implementation of those judgments at national level.

And they do contribute – as often as 90 times in one year – to the benefit of people across Europe.

The trade unions, human rights organisations, and campaigners who have contributed in all of these areas are too many and too varied to mention by name.

But each and every one of them – of you – should know that the Council of Europe is grateful for your support in the development and implementation of our standards.

Not least because you are often making that contribution in a more hostile environment than we have known in the past.

This hostility can manifest as opposition to the rights of minorities and specific groups.

For example, there can be no doubt about the good work done by NGOs to advocate for our Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Advocating and of course myth-busting in the face of misconceptions and sometimes deliberate misinterpretations.

It was a privilege to convene a roundtable of representatives in November last year who shared their first-hand experiences with me.

As you know, NGOs sometimes end up in the line of fire too.

Many people in this room could tell stories about being intimidated, threatened – and sometimes subjected to legal restrictions including so-called foreign agents laws.

This is deeply wrong.

That is why the Report on funding of associations, adopted last week by the Venice Commission, is so important.

It is clear that associations should have access to funding – including foreign funding – in order that they can operate effectively and achieve their aims.

These recommendations are critical and they must be implemented.

Without a free, active, and vibrant civil society, democracy can never be complete.

The Council of Europe will continue to make that case, working with our member states to provide NGOs with the protections they need.

In 2017, our Committee of Ministers agreed Guidelines for Civil Participation in Political Decision-making.

In 2018, it adopted a Recommendation to member states on the need to strengthen the protection and promotion of civil society space in Europe enabling NGOs, human rights defenders and institutions and civil society as a whole to operate safely and freely.

And we are currently looking to update our recommendations on the Institution of the Ombudsman – and on the establishment of independent national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights too.

Civil society, has fed into each of these processes.

At the Council of Europe we are proud of that co-operation and I hope that everyone here today is proud of it too.

That is not to say that every protection required is in place, or that our excellent relationship can be strengthened further still.

We must constantly seek out ways to move forward.

On human rights defenders, for example, the right of everyone to strive for the protection of human rights – individually and in associations – is laid out in the UN Declaration on human rights defenders.

So too is the duty of member states to protect those who do so.

And in 2008 our Committee of Ministers’ Declaration on human rights defenders also committed to creating an enabling environment in which these people – and their work – are protected.

Certainly, human rights defenders should never be subject to reprisals for their work with the Council of Europe.

Two years ago, I put in place a mechanism to ensure that, where this happens, it can be reported directly to my Private Office, so that we can respond.

It was right to establish that mechanism then, and it is right to review it and strengthen it now too.

There will be changes to the assessment criteria, to the process and to the co-ordination, all designed to make improvements, and all to be further outlined in my forthcoming report.

NGOs are vital to the Council of Europe’s strategic triangle: our standard setting, our co-operation and our important monitoring work.

Our partnership exists to protect and promote the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention system.

And for all the challenges in Europe today, there is still a well of goodwill among member states from which we can draw.

So together, let’s look for ways to strengthen that co-operation and the systems that facilitate it.

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law must be protected and promoted.

Together, we can achieve so much more.