Report of the Secretary General’s First Regular Exchange of Views

with Civil Society

Strasbourg, 15 September 2023

Plenary Session


Following the opening remarks of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Ms Marija Pejčinović Burić,

Civil society (CS) representatives outlined the following main points during the debate with the Secretary General:

Ø  Civil society plays a crucial role in raising awareness and making democracy function, including in relation to the work of the Council of Europe (CoE).

Ø  Accessibility can be an issue for national and smaller civil society organisations (CSOs) (e.g. need for funding to travel to Strasbourg); meetings online can provide an advantage.

Ø  Awareness raising and dissemination of standards need improvement, such as thorough communication (newsletter) and translation in local languages.

Ø  Consultations and engagement with civil society can be increased: CoE should be more open to inputs from CSOs, provide a functional portal for consultation, identify with sufficient time the organisations that can provide the most appropriate input, including when defining priorities.

Ø  Co-operation with other international organisations: CoE could play a role in co-ordinating and facilitating the development of common standards concerning civil society space in general (EU, CoE, FATF etc) to avoid overlap.


Working Group Sessions

Key trends regarding shrinking of the civil society space

All working groups discussed the key trends of the shrinking of civil society space. The trends are impacting, in particular vulnerable groups and minorities, with an increasing criminalisation of humanitarian support for migrants and a crackdown on environmental activism. The following trends were highlighted:

Ø  Abuse of criminal law is a way to restrict the operation of civil society, for example via the implementation of anti-terrorist legislations applied to CSOs carrying out human rights activities (including vulnerable groups, bar associations and medical chambers). Also, overly frequent inspections of associations are used as a measure of restriction. Introducing new legislation such as “foreign agent” laws is a major hindrance for civil society space and freedom of association. When the CSOs are labelled as “foreign agents”, it becomes challenging to help them as the organisations in question cannot receive foreign funding.

ØIn some countries, constitutional restrictions for CSOs prevent them from taking part in political activities and having access to certain public institutions such as mental institutions and care homes. Lack of access to decision making is also prevalent, for example when CSOs are not invited to participate in legal committees.

Difficulties regarding access to funding is another restrictive measure on civil society space, which can be due to the lack of transparency of funding rules and in some cases increasing amount of GONGOs successfully competing for the same funds. Funding is increasingly provided via governmental channels, but it is becoming difficult to receive it for litigation of human rights issues. Additionally, CSOs encounter increasing difficulties to register and the labelling of civil society activities as “political” is restricting their action.

Workshop A: The participation of civil society in the elaboration and monitoring of Council of Europe standards

Challenges: CSOs noted that the CoE should pay more attention in ensuring the consistency of CS’s involvement in the different standard-setting work of the Organisation, as often access depends on each standard-setting body, and at times even on the personal engagement by the Chair/Secretariat staff. The relevance of the acknowledgement for the contributions submitted, or feedback about the usefulness and impact of the contribution itself was highlighted. This latter aspect is necessary for CSOs to be able to illustrate the impact of their involvement. The following suggestions for a more meaningful engagement were made:

Ø  Common rules and guidelines for CSOs’ participation should be developed. For engagement to be truly impactful, CSOs need to know when and how to contribute: timeline, content, context of the request (use of blank forms is discouraged), email alerts, single portal of entry.

Ø  Engagement should be inclusive of all groups, especially minorities, including those without many resources/lack of presence in Strasbourg; CoE should consider funding those who cannot afford to participate in key meetings.

Ø  If too many CSOs representatives wish to attend, selection processes/limitation of numbers/co-ordination among CSOs and National Human Rights Institutions could be explored. Enhanced use of online meetings or centralised repository should be considered.

Ø  Training for CSOs, also by civil society itself, about CoE, as well as for CoE staff on how to work with CS could be useful supporting a more open culture and way of working.

Ø  It is important for the NGOs to know how their contribution will be used. Likewise, for the CoE is important to evaluate the impact of CS contributions and the results of the consultation processes. This evaluation also helps to connect CS input to the implementation of standards and avoid considering consultations as a “ticking the box” exercise in standard-setting. Also, the CoE could consider how to use the same contribution across CoE mechanisms.

Ø  The co-management model used in the youth field could be experimented with in other areas of the organisation with respect to the elaboration of standards.

Workshop B: Democracy in action: working together to strengthen implementation of Council of Europe standards for democracy and good governance

The implementation of human rights, rule of law and democracy standards is essential to the functioning of civil society and the lack thereof hampers an enabling environment for CSOs.  The following suggestions for strengthening CS involvement in implementation of standards were made:

Ø  Access to information should be increased and flow in both directions, from CoE to CSOs and vice versa. Good, timely and accessible information on CoE standards, monitoring recommendations and reports is essential to get CSOs meaningfully engaged. Likewise, local CSOs knowledge of what is going on, on the ground, should be better exploited by the CoE in decision-making and standards’ implementation. State actors could also be included in some exchanges.

Ø  More visibility for civil society is needed. The Secretary General could prepare an annual report on the state of civil society with accountability and follow-up to the various CoE recommendations.

Ø  In order to use better CS potential with regard to the effective implementation of CoE standards, there is a need to also strengthen capacity building of CS in member states. This means helping civil society master the numerous, good quality CoE standards (conventions, recommendations) by increasing the occasions to acquire knowledge and exchange experience. CS can be a medium to disseminate this knowledge at local level.

Ø  The role of CSOs in the implementation of standards should be maximised. The CoE should help develop a collaborative way of working with CSOs, calibrated to local circumstances. It should use international/national CS as a catalyst to ensure early engagement of local CSOs, who know well the local circumstances but lack the knowledge and the financial resources to act effectively. A good example is the second monitoring round of the Lanzarote Convention, where CSOs were actively involved from the early stages. 

Ø  The CoE should be more receptive to the input from the CSOs and to publicise it, when appropriate, as this will encourage other organisations to get involved.

Ø  The implementation of the standards of the Council of Europe are universal, their implementation is localised and requires contextualisation. Enhanced visibility of CSOs contributions would also help the CoE to widen impact of its work. There is also a budgetary dimension in co-operation to empower local CS.

Workshop C: Freedom of association in Europe: protecting and strengthening civil society space and enlarging the Council of Europe space for civil society

A closer monitoring on civil society space situation in member states and the strengthening of the CoE interaction with CSOs are two sides of the same coin, because one cannot exist without the other. There is space for improvements on both sides:

Ø  All CoE entities should prioritise issues relating to the shrinking of civil space (ECHR to prioritise applications concerning that topic, CM to prioritise implementation of ECHR judgments on the topic, etc.). The civil society space situation in member states should be monitored to ensure that legislative proposals and implementation of laws are aligned with CoE human rights standards and obligations.

Ø  The CoE should speak out, both at national and European level, against legislation which is harmful to civil society space and which threatens to undermine basic democratic standards – the reaction to negative trends should be prompt and stern.

Ø  There is a need to introduce a mechanism to alert and raise awareness about the shrinking of civil society space, including that on children’s rights and, similar to the Platform for the Freedom of Journalists, to share the challenges faced by CS and potential ways to counter them.

Ø  Enhance participation of CSOs in public decision-making, which should be done at two levels: within states (include civil society participation from the start in policy- and law-making) and within the Council of Europe.

Ø  The CoE should assess the instruments/mechanisms in place against the current threats to civil society (are the instruments put in place really designed to help with the particular issues at a given time?). Importance of reviewing implementation on commitments that the CoE has already undertaken, for example the Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2018)11 on the shrinking of civil society space. The CoE should also assess its standards to prevent their possible abuse at national level (for example national legislation on financing of terrorist organisations through Moneyval).

Ø  Strengthen the existing human rights defenders’ mechanism of the Private Office of the Secretary General, to raise awareness about its existence and publish a report on the pertinent activities.

Final discussion with the Secretary General in the plenary session

The rapporteurs presented the points above, elaborated in each workshop, stressing in particular that the:

Ø  CoE should strive for inclusivity and engage with local, national and international CSOs. Fields offices are solicited to create opportunities for CS to engage in the work of the Organisation. The Secretary General could also take advantage of visits to member states to meet with CSOs.

Ø  CoE can act as a bridge between the international and the local context of CS, which may give way to new opportunities. Synergies and co-ordination on the ground with other IOs is essential to allow CSOs to invest where they can maximise impact.

Ø  CSOs stand ready to contribute to the implementation of the Reykjavík Declaration commitment towards a meaningful engagement with civil society.

In her final remarks, the Secretary General praised the constructive discussions during the first exchange. Recalling the Fourth Summit’s commitment to a meaningful engagement with civil society, she highlighted in particular that:

Ø  the CoE’s recognition of the need to be more consistent in its engagement with CSOs is the right way forward and it is shared by its member states; many of the proposals emanating from CS representatives are already part and parcel of the Secretary General’s Roadmap;  

Ø  the CS contribution to the work of the Organisation shall be acknowledged in a more visible way and more weight given to the existing mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders;

Ø  the CoE will engage on more national and local level, through field offices, to make best use of CS expertise on the ground;

Ø  the new Steering Committee for Democracy (CDDEM in 2024) would aim at contributing to the implementation of the Reykjavík Declaration, including the Reykjavík Principles for Democracy, as regards the engagement with CS.