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INTERVIEW - EU sets bad example on human rights with NGO crackdown - U.N. expert

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 26 January 2018 15:34 GMT

People gather at the Main Square during a protest against judicial reforms in Cracow, Poland, November 24, 2017. Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Wlodek

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The EU has historically done a good job supporting and protecting rights advocates worldwide but the bloc's authority is now being undermined from within

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON, Jan 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The European Union is setting a bad example by allowing some of its members to stifle human rights groups, which is encouraging crackdowns elsewhere in the world, a top United Nations official charged with defending rights activists said.

Michel Forst said officials in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel and other countries pointed at recent laws in Hungary and Poland to justify their own regulations which may curb the independence of non-governmental organisations.

"There is a need for European countries to be more coherent ... not to teach human rights outside of Europe and then not respecting human rights inside Europe," said Forst, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.

Charities in dozens of countries, from Angola to India and Tajikistan have faced restrictions targeting their funding and operations over the past two years, according to an EU report.

The trend is part of a global backlash on civil society that has seen rights activists in some parts of the world criminalised or branded as troublemakers, Forst told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in London.

In 2017, thousands of activists were detained and at least 312 killed because of their work, up 11 percent on the previous year, according to Front Line Defenders, a watchdog group.

Forst said the EU has historically done a good job supporting and protecting rights advocates worldwide but the bloc's authority is now being undermined from within.

Last year, Hungary introduced a measure requiring NGOs that get money from abroad to register with the state, a bill that NGOs say stigmatizes them and is intended to stifle independent voices.

Poland instead introduced legislation to set up a centralised authority controlling charities' funding.

As countermeasure, the EU should boost direct funding of rights groups operating within its borders, Forst said.

"What is absurd for me is that the EU is funding organisations in Latin America, in Africa - which is good - but there is no more funding for EU NGOs," he said.

Money should be allocated from a dedicated fund and not channelled through governments, he said.

The European Commission said last year it was taking Hungary to the EU's top court over its NGO laws that the government says aim to protect the country from foreign influence.

Besides Europe, Forst also singled out Australia for its treatment of asylum seekers held in offshore camps, adding it was "not a safe place" for human rights defenders due to pressure from the government.

A December report by Pro Bono Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, two rights groups, found Australian NGOs were often pressured into "self-silencing" their advocacy work fearing funding cuts and political retribution.

"(Global civil society) space is shrinking because it is shrinking in Europe, because it is shrinking in the Americas, in Australia," said Forst.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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