New restrictions on NGO activities in Council of Europe member States

Ried zur Presentaioun vu mengem Rapport iwwert ONG’en an der Commission juridique vum Conseil de l’Europe, 22.5.2018 zu Reykjavik

Dear Chair, dear Colleagues,

In December 2015, the Committee approved my previous report on this subject and on its basis, in January 2016, the Assembly adopted its Resolution 2096 (2016) and Recommendation 2086 (2016) and decided to remain seized of this matter. Almost two years after the adoption of Resolution 2096 (2016), it is time to take stock of the developments concerning the situation of civil society in Council of Europe member States.

My report of 2015 focused on the situation of civil society in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Hungary, and thus, I have first examined the situation in those countries.

As regards Russia, the controversial “Foreign Agents” Law, obliging NGOs receiving foreign donations to register as “foreign agents”, has been applied and, so far, over 150 NGOs have been registered as “foreign agents”. Currently, there are “only” 79 NGOs registered as such, because some NGOs have closed down voluntarily or have ceased to receive foreign funds. Moreover, there is a register of “undesirable organisations”, which currently includes 14 organisations.

As regards Azerbaijan, in October, the Assembly critically assessed the situation in this country in its Resolutions 2184 (2017) and 2185 (2017), due to reprisals against numerous activists and a restrictive legislation on NGOs. Despite the fact that some rules have been simplified, NGOs and their donors are still subject to the obligation of receiving authorisations from the authorities and the procedures are cumbersome.

In Turkey, following the failed coup of July 2016, over 1,400 associations and over 140 foundations have been permanently dissolved on the basis of an emergency decree and their assets have been transferred to the State Treasury. I had the occasion to discuss this issue at length with the Turkish authorities during my visit to Ankara at the beginning of April. I also met numerous representatives of NGOs and trade unions. They complained to me about the shrinking space for civil society, due to an increasing number of restrictions on the freedom of association, assembly and expression. The authorities often invoke the argument of combatting terrorist organisations such as the FETŐ or the PKK, but I have the impression that these arguments are used against any critic of the authorities. I find it counterproductive for the good functioning of a democratic society and the fight against terrorism.

In Hungary, last June, the Parliament adopted a law, which obliges NGOs receiving foreign donations of 24,000 EUR or more to register as organisations “receiving foreign funding”. This law has been criticised by the Venice Commission. Moreover, smear campaigns against certain NGOs have been launched in the media and some of them have been orchestrated by the authorities themselves, apparently in order to prevent the influence of the “Soros network”. In February, the government presented a package of three bills, called “Stop Soros”. It is aimed at restricting the activities of NGOs working for refugees’ and migrants’ rights and is now being scrutinised by the Venice Commission. Due to these developments, the Open Society Foundations, financed by the billionaire George Soros, decided recently to move its Budapest-based operations and staff to Germany.

Some other member States have also taken steps to “reframe” the activities of civil society. For example, parliaments in Romania and Ukraine are currently working on draft legislation imposing additional reporting obligations on NGOs and these legislative proposals have been criticised by the Venice Commission.

Therefore, there have been many new developments and new restrictions imposed on NGOs activities. I am particularly concerned about two trends: 1) the adoption of laws aimed at imposing new obligations on NGOs, especially in terms of declaring their assets and donations coming from abroad and 2) judicial or administrative harassment and smear campaigns organised against certain NGOs and the leaders and members by the media and sometimes even by the government itself. I trust that this second issue will be addressed by our colleague Mr Vareikis in his report on the situation of human rights defenders.

The existence of a vibrant civil society is crucial for the good functioning of a democratic State and I think that the Assembly remain seized of this matter, in view of the new restrictions imposed on NGO activities in many Council of Europe member States. There are on-going discussions on the funding of NGOs: to what extent NGOs can receive public funding and remain independent? What are the permissible restrictions on foreign funding? According to international standards, including the CM Recommendation (2007)14, NGOs shall be free to solicit and receive any funding. Nevertheless the issue of foreign and public funding would deserve a closer scrutiny by the Assembly.

Therefore, the preliminary draft resolution contains a number of proposals concerning measures that States should take in order to ensure full observance of freedom of association. It also calls on a few States mentioned in my report to repeal restrictive laws and comply with the recommendations included in the relevant opinions of the Venice Commission. The preliminary draft recommendation contains a number of proposals of concrete measures that the Council of Europe could take to reinforce its dialogue with NGOs and promote cooperation with them. The INGO Conference is currently working on a project with the aim of introducing a mechanism for receiving and reacting to alerts concerning new restrictions on NGO activities. The Assembly should strongly support this.

I also propose to change the title of the report from “How can inappropriate restrictions on NGO activities in Europe be prevented?” to “New restrictions on NGO activities in Council of Europe member States”.

I hope that the Committee will back my proposals.

Thank you for your attention.





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