An overview of the situation of human rights defenders in Europe

By Souhayr Belhassen, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

This article offers a mapping of the situation of a range of human rights defenders in Europe, including those protecting minorities’ rights, and provides examples of the obstacles and attacks they face because of their work. It also explains the history of the term “human rights defender”.

“A true society, where discussions and debates are an essential technique, is a society full of risks” [1]. Although written over thirty years ago, these words by Moses I. Finley compellingly illustrate the vulnerability of those who promote tolerance, pluralism, the respect fundamental freedoms, rights and democratic ideals. Indeed, the experience of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which operates a programme dedicated to the protection of human rights defenders [2] , shows that, even in the most accomplished democracies - or those which consider themselves as such, the right to defend human rights is constantly challenged by the powerful to protect individual interests or impose intolerance.

The term “human rights defender” emerged in 1998 with the adoption by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Following the adoption of major human rights instruments in 1966, the international community observed that those who act to promote or protect human rights were particularly vulnerable to human rights violations and needed a dedicated system of protection to guarantee a favourable environment for these individuals. Today the 1998 UN Declaration is the cornerstone of the system of protection of human rights defenders.

Today, human rights defenders who defend the rights of vulnerable categories are subjected to direct attacks and threats from non-State actors, often in impunity, amid growing nationalism and extremism.

Everywhere, human rights defenders play an important role as a bulwark against arbitrariness and abuse. Because they alert and document human rights violations, they are vulnerable to acts of violence and repression by those who are responsible for human rights violations - the authorities or other actors of influence (armed groups, businesses and individuals).

In the democracies of Western Europe [3] , the situation of those who defend human rights is significantly better than in other continents, but human rights defenders continue to face obstacles and sometimes even targeted harassment and attacks. In most countries of the Western European region, harassment targets those who defend the rights of vulnerable groups, notably minorities, migrants or LGBT and those who fight against corruption. In Turkey, human rights defenders who are critical of the human rights record of the authorities are subjected to a large scale campaign of harassment.

Today, human rights defenders who defend the rights of vulnerable categories are subjected to direct attacks and threats from non-State actors, often in impunity, amid growing nationalism and extremism. Furthermore, the continuing adoption of restrictive laws, motivated by security concerns, impact negatively on the ability of many human rights defenders to carry out their activities. LGBT rights defenders and their organisations also face administrative or judicial restrictions and attacks by extremist groups, so do those exposing corruption. Restrictions to trade union activities are also reported in some countries.

The situation of human rights defenders defending minorities

Pina Selek, Turkey Judicial and administrative harassment directed against groups or individuals who defend the rights of migrants is a major trend in the region (Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece, Poland). Harassment against those opposing the degrading treatment of migrants about to be deported by air is a recurring trend. Human rights defenders have also been arrested in connection with peaceful demonstrations of solidarity towards migrants. While judicial and administrative harassment remained the main action taken against defenders of migrants’ rights, direct attacks - sometimes violent - continue to be reported (Cyprus, France) and their impunity prevails (Greece). Another way to restrict the activities of defenders of migrants’ rights is to limit their access to funding (Cyprus).

In Greece, Thanassis Tartis, attorney and legal counsel working for the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM), and Panayote Dimitras, GHM Spokesperson, are facing threats and abusive and racist messages in impunity for fighting racism.

In the context of stigmatisation of the Roma community, in some countries the defenders of the rights of the Roma are subjected to judicial harassment and violence (Czech Republic, Italy).

In Italy, Roberto Malini, Dario Picciau and Matteo Pegoraro, co-Presidents of the EveryOne Group, an organisation supporting Roma and refugees, have faced many trials over the past years.

In the Balkans, acts of harassment and intimidation against outspoken defenders continue, often in relation to minorities’ rights issues (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia).

Attacks on LGBT rights defenders are many. In some countries, attempts are made to restrict freedom of assembly for gay pride’s marchers (Croatia, Finland, Lithuania, Serbia, Sweden, Turkey), thus leading the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights to comment on the issue.

In the context of stigmatisation of the Roma community, in some countries the defenders of the rights of the Roma are subjected to judicial harassment and violence.

The situation of other human rights defenders

In Turkey, the contrast with other countries of the region is particularly striking as those who speak out on “sensitive” human rights issues (including civil and political rights), in particular members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but also lawyers, trade unionists, journalists, scholars and academics, writers, and family members of victims of serious violations, have been subjected to severe repression. “Sensitive” issues include in particular expressing alternative identities (ethnic and religious minorities’ rights, particularly the Kurdish issue, and sexual minorities), and criticising the State and its institutions (the functioning of the institutions, including the independence of the judiciary and the impunity of the State and the army for human rights violations). Many administrative practices and criminal provisions, notably in the Turkish Penal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Law, continue to be used to criminalise legitimate and peaceful activities of human rights defenders. Early 2012, dozens of journalists, lawyers, members of human rights organisations and trade unionists were jailed, most of them on anti-terrorism charges. More are subjected to years-long judicial harassment on similar charges. Sociologist Pınar Selek, prosecuted since 1998, lawyer Muharrem Erbey, detained since December 2009, and publisher Ragıp Zarakolu, detained during more than five months, are among the most emblematic cases of this appalling situation.

In some European countries (Montenegro, Turkey), some trade unionists are hampered in their right to demonstrate, while some workers may even be dismissed for being unionised. Environmental defenders are also subjected to restrictions, including judicial harassment (Belgium).

Roberto Malini and Dario Picciau, Italy Public figures who fight against impunity of human rights violations are not immune from acts of intimidation including judicial harassment and death threats (Spain, Turkey). For instance, in Spain, Judge Baltasar Garzón, who was sitting at the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court, has been facing judicial harassment since 2009 in relation, in particular, to his investigation over crimes against humanity, especially enforced disappearances perpetrated during Franco’s dictatorship.

Whistle-blowers are also confronted with private companies that subject them to judicial harassment in reprisals for critical statements (France). For instance, the Network for Alert and Intervention for Human Rights (Réseau d’alerte et d’intervention pour les droits de l’Homme - RAIDH), a human rights organisation, launched a vast campaign against the use of Taser guns by the police, resulting in the company SMP “Technologies Taser France” to take legal actions against RAIDH for the “abuse of freedom of expression” and “disparagement of the trademark and trade name Taser”.

Additionally, a large number of journalists are subjected to acts of harassment after they expose human rights violations (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Latvia, Turkey). On 6 March 2012, Dicle News Agency (DIHA) correspondents in Adana, Özlem Ağuş, Ali Buluş and Hamdullah Keser, were taken into custody in Adana, on accusations of “spreading terrorist propaganda” by breaking the story of rape, sexual abuse and torture of minors charged with terrorist offences held in Pozanti Juvenile Closed Prison, near Adana. The three were remanded into pre-trial detention.

Human rights defenders should be guaranteed effective protection and a legal environment that enables them to operate freely without any illegitimate hindrance, harassment or threats. Even though in the Western Europe region, those who defend human rights enjoy better protection, there is still an urgent need for a stocktaking process to review laws, policies and practices that affect human rights defenders at the domestic, regional and international levels. In this context, the Observatory continues to provide support through alert, documentation and assistance to those who face obstacles and harassment for defending human rights, regardless of the “sensitivity” of the human right they defend.

[1] See Moses I. Finley, Democracy Ancient and Modern, 1973, Rutgers University Press. Non official transcription.

[2] In 1997, FIDH together with the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) created the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. It is today the leading global programme on the protection of human rights defenders. It bases its action on the conviction that solidarity with and among human rights defenders and their organisations ensures that their voice is being heard and their isolation and marginalisation broken. It responds to threats and acts of reprisals suffered by human rights defenders through urgent interventions, vital emergency assistance for those in need, international missions and advocacy for their effective domestic or international protection.

[3] The countries of Western Europe include the Member States of the European Union and the States Parties to the European Free Trade Agreement. Turkey is also included in this region owing to the historic nature of its negotiations with the EU.


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