The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) today released a report detailing the increasing difficulties for civil society organisations (CSOs) operating within the EU. In a highly critical report, the agency details the hostile environment for CSOs in countries such as Hungary and Poland but also outlines challenges for the Irish government in ensuring anti-corruption and transparency laws do not violate fundamental rights such as freedom of association and freedom of expression.
In a statement, Liam Herrick of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) welcomed the report as an important contribution to the current debate about how Ireland can provide an enabling environment for civil society, saying:
“This report clearly demonstrates that we are at a crucial moment for European democracy. Restrictions on civil society and public discourse are a growing problem across Europe and our colleagues in several member States are experiencing severe difficulties in advocating for human rights in the face of repressive governments. Ireland has a strong record in supporting civil society internationally and it is important that the Irish Government show leadership in defending human rights and democratic values at this time.”
He continued, “In that regard, Ireland must get its own house in order. In this report, the EU FRA recognises that laws introduced in Ireland for legitimate reasons are now having unintended effects in stifling the legitimate role of civil society. Specifically with regard to Ireland’s Electoral Act, the Fundamental Rights Agency expresses concerns that the definition of ‘political purposes’ under the Act is so broad that it could be interpreted as curtailing legitimate human rights advocacy. ”
The report sets out the human rights principles which member States are obliged to respect with regard to the regulation of CSOs. It recognises that transparency, electoral and lobbying laws are legitimate and important, but warns that these can sometimes unwittingly have a chilling effect on the work of CSOs and specifically mentions “transparency laws that require entities involved in political campaigns to register as third party campaigners”. It refers to the current application of the law in Ireland as a “blanket ban on foreign funding” and states that this is particularly problematic in Ireland where “most independent funding of human rights work comes from trusts and foundations based outside of Ireland”. The report is explicit in its analysis that Ireland’s political funding laws are having a negative impact on civil society, and underlines that CSOs in every European country have the right to receive overseas funding for their work.
Mary Lawlor, board member of the ICCL and founder of Front Line Defenders, an Irish-based NGO which works to protect human rights activists at risk, said “the EU FRA report is unequivocal in stating that NGOs have the right to receive funding from overseas, and refers to three pieces of international law to make that point, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which enshrines the right to ‘solicit, receive and utilise resources’. Ms. Lawlor continued, “Ireland is a world leader when it comes to the protection of human rights defenders, and actually drove the drafting and subsequent implementation of the EU Guidelines on HRDs, so it’s very important that the government would be able to stand over what’s happening at home too.”
Mr. Herrick said that “The challenge facing Ireland is to get the balance right between necessary regulation in areas such as political financing and anti-corruption measures while also ensuring that a healthy and vibrant civil society can operate in Ireland – just as we continue to champion the role of civil society in other countries. ICCL calls on the Irish Government, and the relevant regulatory bodies, to lead by example in the EU, by engaging in an open consultation with all strands of Irish civil society to make sure we get that balance right.”