OSCE member states urged to protect civil society space

Representatives of NGOs and the governments of OSCE member states met in Hamburg last week for the 2016 OSCE Ministerial Council and Parallel Civil Society Conference. NGOs, including UNITED and members of the Civil Solidarity Platform (CSP) presented a set of recommendations to member states highlighting the need for protection and expansion of civil society space in Europe, as well as reaffirming the need to protect the rights of migrants, refugees and minorities.

“Human rights defenders are often the focus of threats, attacks and legal harassment simply for trying to protect the rights of society’s most vulnerable people, without discrimination,” said Michael Georg Link, Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) ahead of the International Human Rights Day on 10 December. “I encourage OSCE participating States to seriously consider the Hamburg Declaration, which outlines many important actions to safeguard human rights defenders from restrictions contrary to OSCE commitments.”

On 7 December 2016, the parallel civil society conference at the OSCE Ministerial Council presented the Hamburg Declaration on Protecting and Expanding Civil Society Space to the incoming 2017 Austrian OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, as well as to ODIHR and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

“OSCE participating States emphasized the need for protection of human rights defenders in Budapest in 1994, yet defenders are under threat more than ever, now over 20 years later,” said Director Link. “ODIHR will continue to bring attention to the situation of human rights defenders across the OSCE region, so that states can better protect human rights defenders and support their role in addressing some of today’s greatest challenges in the human dimension of security.”

As well as the issue of protecting civil society space, the parallel civil society conference looked at specific issues of human rights abuses, such as the treatment of the Crimean Tatar minority, as well as the growing threat of right-wing populism and extremism. Members of the CSP also highlighted the importance of the 2014 Basel declaration on rising intolerance and discrimination in Europe, and called once again for OSCE member states to ensure that these recommendations are fulfilled.

“It is vital that the Civil Solidarity Platform and NGOs cooperate with the OSCE and its special institutions such as ODIHR to push the member states to take OSCE recommendations more seriously and give these bodies more resources.” Said UNITED programme coordinator Balint Josa, who represented UNITED at the parallel civil society conference and gave a presentation on the lack of solidarity between European states in their reaction to the refugee crisis.

“The consensual model of decision-making at the OSCE means that progress is often slow, but the outgoing chairmanship has moved many things to the right direction, and cooperation with CSP is now more effective and institutionalised,” said Mr Josa. “That helps both sides to work effectively and make sure that the spirit of the founding doctrine of human values and the search for peaceful solutions to our problems are taken more seriously by all member states.”

In 2016, the annual UN Human Rights Day campaign calls on all to “Stand up for someone’s rights today!” UNITED also coordinated a special campaign for this day connected with the annual International Day Against Fascism and Antisemitism campaign. The Human Rights Superheroes campaign called on the European antiracist movement to celebrate those individuals from past and present who have taken a stand, often at great personal risk, to protect the rights of others.

ODIHR is presently engaged in a three-year project on the protection of human rights defenders across the entire OSCE region, building upon the OSCE Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

This report is partly based on a press release from ODIHR, wich can be read here.