During the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe session in January 2016, the Assembly adopted two resolutions on civil society space and the right to be a human rights defender. These resolutions come at a crucial moment, when the international community must react to an increasingly deteriorating work environment for human rights defenders. The United Nations General Assembly acted in December 2015 by adopting a resolution on human rights defenders.
Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy Human Rights House Network, underlined the importance of these resolutions: “With its resolutions, PACE has sent a clear signal to the Council of Europe institutions and to its Member States: these States must stop impeding the work and functioning of NGOs. If they do continue, the Council of Europe must address this more decisively. These resolutions state clearly that a State harassing, arresting, or threatening human rights defenders, or worse, must feel the full political weight of the Council of Europe in protecting these defenders.”
These resolutions repeat calls for States to abide by the European Convention on Human Rights and other international human rights standards, and they expand on previous resolutions to include provisions on reprisals, protection for lawyers, increased dialogue with civil society, mechanisms to tackle NGO restrictions, and an end to impunity for attacks on human rights defenders. HRHN particularly welcomes the following points.
The resolutions stress the importance of civil society in providing information to PACE MPs and other stakeholders, and the dangers these human rights defenders face in doing so. As Rapporteur Mailis Reps (Estonia) stated at the session, “human rights defenders are putting their life at risk to give us valuable information.” The resolution also directs States and the Council of Ministers to increase their dialogue with civil society.
In the current climate, the authorities in many Council of Europe Member States hold a negative prejudice against civil society, aiming to limit its influence and its participation in the public space. HRHN welcomes these timely resolutions highlighting the importance of civil society in realising all human rights, and recognising that countries only gain from such cooperation with civil society. These resolutions must be heard by the international community and local presences in countries such as Azerbaijan and Russia. Their role is now to give credit to, raise the visibility of, and empower civil society actors in countries where authorities aim to silence them.
The resolutions call on States to “refrain from any acts of intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, and in particular from physical attacks, arbitrary arrests, and judicial or administrative harassments.” They also call on the Council of Ministers to report on intimidation of human rights defenders for cooperating with Council of Europe bodies.
HRHN has extensively lobbied the Council of Europe to adopt a fully fledged mechanism to address intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the Council of Europe. Human rights defenders are concerned, and so are lawyers and victims. “We look forward to seeing the Secretary General’s response to this call from PACE, echoing the recent decisions taken by the Committee of Ministers on the right to freedom of association,” said Florian Irminger.
Protections for lawyers
Crucially, the resolutions address reprisals against lawyers for appealing cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
HRHN welcomes the specific mention of lawyers as human rights defenders. This will help to protect lawyers from the significant risks they face for their work, as documented in HRHN’s report Human Rights Lawyers at Risk.
The need to protect lawyers from reprisals is also illustrated by the politically motivated imprisonment of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, who was targeted by the authorities in Azerbaijan for his work bringing more than 200 cases of human rights violations before the European Court of Human Rights. HRHN continues to call for his release.
The resolutions state that authorities may be held responsible for the actions of non-State actors that target human rights defenders, and call on States to “conduct effective investigations into any such acts in order to effectively fight against impunity.”
This important measure will help to address the climate of impunity in States where human rights defenders are targeted for their work, particularly for working on sensitive or minority issues. In recent months, HRHN has spoken out about the need to tackle impunity for crimes against HRDs in Armenia and against journalists.
The resolutions call on Member States to “review existing legislation with a view to bringing it into conformity with international human rights instruments regarding the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression,” and specifically call on Azerbaijan and Russia to amend their laws on NGOs to bring them into line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission. They also demand that States desist in using restrictive legislation to criminalise the work of human rights defenders.
“The Council of Europe cannot continue to tolerate that some of its Member States bluntly violate one of its founding principles and a core fundamental right: the right to freedom of association,” stated Florian Irminger. “We expect the Secretary General, in his role as guardian of the Convention and the rights enriched therein, to conduct a fully fledged investigation under article 52 of the Convention on Azerbaijan, and to hold the Russian Federation to its obligations by investigating its legislation on NGOs.”
Side event on 27 January
Human rights defenders spoke at an event on 27 January about the repressive climate in several Council of Europe member states – focusing on Azerbaijan and Russia – and highlighted the need for PACE to address this by adopting these resolutions. This side event was organised by a group of NGOs at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and sponsored by MPs Mailis Reps (Estonia) and Yves Cruchten (Luxembourg).