A new, pan-European watchdog organisation was launched in Berlin, by 11 human rights NGOs, with the help of the Open Society Foundations. Its goal is to revitalise people’s trust in human rights. Liberties.eu aims to work in all EU countries. We asked Balázs Dénes, the organisation’s founding director, about lobbying in the EU, the shrinking space for NGOs and the current state of civil rights in the EU.
Krisztian Simon: What is Liberties.eu? And why was there a need for such an organisation?
Balázs Dénes: Five years ago, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) realised that there was no watchdog organisation with an EU focus. Although big human rights organisations – such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – have established offices in Brussels, they focus on developing countries, and the human rights approaches of EU foreign affairs. This is why we, at the OSF (I was working for them at the time) came up with the idea of creating our own organisation. I was tasked with founding the organisation (through the cooperation of 11 human rights NGOs), but I soon realised that this could not be done in a top-down manner. Thus, our starting point became the strengthening of organisations active in EU countries on the national level.
Liberties.eu itself was founded approximately a year ago, in Berlin. The organisation has three main tasks. First, it prepares national organisations, such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee to do more effective EU lobbying. For no matter how well these organisations do their jobs at home, they don’t have enough experience or resources to operate on the EU level. Second, we do watchdog work related to privacy, the rights of civil society organisations, the human rights protection work of the EU, and the freedom of speech (these fields will be most likely complemented by refugee issues. We’re addressing the need for an organisation that follows EU decision-making procedures on these issues. And our third, and most ambitious, goal is to organise campaigns that bring together EU citizens who still care about human rights and civil liberties, and still believe in the EU – even if they criticise its current functioning.
What is the reason for the backlash against human rights?
There are many possible explanations: The rise of populist, nationalistic political forces, disillusionment in the mainstream political elite, fear from mass migration – you name it. But I think probably the biggest problem is that large parts of the mainstream public have not realised for decades, and still don’t realise today that the protection of human rights isn’t only about the protection of marginalised or vulnerable minorities, but about their own rights and freedoms. Also, many people associate human rights protections with the protection of people living under suppressive regimes in other parts of the world, but not with protections in their home countries, and don’t see human rights playing a useful role in their own lives.
And I think that this is largely our own responsibility – we took it for granted that respect for human rights is deeply rooted in European societies. Therefore, neither progressive politicians, nor civil society organisations have put sufficient efforts into bringing the norms closer to the people.
Moreover, human rights organisations have for years believed that it is enough to draw the attention of politicians to the fact that laws have been violated, and the problem will take care of itself. Thus, they were shocked to see that a completely new situation emerge with the financial and the refugee crises. Populist politicians (as well as some mainstream ones under populist influence) have realised that there is no price tag on human rights. What is more: they might even lose out on votes if they put too much effort into the protection of human rights.
Was there a time when human rights had substantial support in the population?
We witnessed the most visible support at the time of Central and Eastern European transitions. We can refer to the changes that took place in the years following 1989-1990 as clear human rights success stories, as they have guaranteed many liberties for the population. Moreover, parts of the democratic opposition founded human rights organisations in those years, which were highly valued for many years – at least amongst the intelligentsia.
Furthermore, there are also examples from Western societies that human rights – if presented in the right way – can have a considerable support in society. Just think of same-sex-marriage. But, in the meantime, it causes major hardships for multiple-issue civil rights organisations that there are only a few people who can agree with all the causes they try to advance – thus they have to be careful when communicating their efforts, not to scare away those who don’t support that particular cause.
So, basically human rights are part of an elite discourse; and thus, the dwindling of the legitimacy of the intelligentsia leads to a decrease in the acceptance of human rights?
Yes, so far it was the intellectuals who supported the work of civil rights organisations. Now our task is to start communicating to the masses, not just to the elites – I know it’s not easy, but there is no way around this.
This means that human rights defenders have to learn a new way of communicating which these kinds of organisations have never utilised before?
Yes. They have to talk about complicated legal issues in a way that is not only accessible to the masses, but also convincing. We also cannot forget that the answers to many of the questions they raise are not black or white. They have to explain, for example, why neither capital punishment, nor life-long imprisonment are in accordance with human dignity. The situation is made even harder due to often inexplicable societal perceptions. For example, even though French crime statistics show that violent crime is declining, the French population doesn’t feel safe, and increasingly supports reinstating capital punishment.
Are there organisations similar to Liberties.eu in every EU country?
No, these kinds of activities are far from being present in all Member States. Five years ago, I realised that former socialist bloc countries are more likely to have these kinds of multiple-issue organisations – organisations with relatively large budgets, large staffs and independent of the state.
In Western Europe, this is less the case. This has mainly cultural and historical reasons. There was a preconception that established democracies were less prone to human rights violations and didn’t need these multi-focus organisations.
Of course, there are outliers in Western Europe. In the United Kingdom, for example, there is an organisation called Liberty, but in Spain and Italy such things were unknown until now. My goal with Liberties was to assist the creation of these kinds of organisation where they are not yet present. Because, there is now an increased need for these organisations across the EU.
Did American influence play a role in the strength of these organisations in Central and Eastern Europe? Most civil rights organisations were founded in the early 90s with the help of US foundations.
The situation on the ground played a much more crucial role. These organisations were founded by people who lived through the communist era and spent many years in the democratic opposition. This historical experience made it clear how important organisations with the capacity to act as a check on any form and colour of government are.
Of course, it is true that American private foundations helped fund the creation of these organisations. In the early 2000s, however, many donors decided to leave the region. Besides the Open Society Foundations, there is basically no other major donor in these countries, which is a great challenge for the survival of NGOs.
Has there been a similar trend in the countries of Southern Europe that went through the process of democratisation 10 or 20 years prior to Central and Eastern Europe?
No, in Spain, there are Catalan and Basque human rights organisations, as well as specialised Spanish organisations, but independent, multi-issue organisations like the Civil Liberties Union or the Helsinki Committees have been absent for many years. It was partly due to our assistance that Rights International Spain managed to start its operations a few years ago, and Liberties.eu also contributed to the creation of Cild in Italy.
The Hellenic Human Rights League, on the other hand, has a much longer history. In Southern and Western Europe, if there are such organisations, their history usually traces back to before WW2, or even before WW1. The French Human Rights League, for example, was formed during the Dreyfus affair.
Why? What is the difference?
Unlike in Central and Eastern Europe, watchdog organisations in France, Italy, and Spain tried until recently to live from state subsidies. This, however, makes it very hard for them criticise the government. Even if the original intention of post-WW2 social democracy was to finance these NGOs in a non-interventionist way, financing models have changed somewhat in recent years.
You mentioned earlier that many American organisations left the region. Why was there no one in Europe to step in and fill the void they left?
There is no regional or pan-European answer to the question of why there hasn’t always been someone to fill the void. In Hungary, most millionaires do business with the state. Therefore neither rich business people, nor Hungarian-owned companies felt like it would be in their interest to support organisations that have bad relations with the government (as these organisations scrutinise those in power, regardless of government party ideology). In Poland, on the other hand, we are talking about a much bigger economy, where human rights organisations had the chance to create more wealth and accumulate larger reserves – thus they haven’t faced the same lack of resources as elsewhere in the region.
But in regard to political participation, I find the existence of micro-donations much more important. Micro-donations have a long tradition in the United States, but I hope they will gain ground in Europe in the coming years. In the two decades that I spent in the NGO world, I heard again and again claims that Europeans are not willing to donate, but, based on current developments, this is not completely true.
Why did foreign donor organisations leave the region?
There were many reasons. First of all, these donor foundations deal with global issues, and they realised that whatever happens in Central Europe, the human rights issues and the problems of civil society are much more severe a few hundred kilometres to the East. Second, organisations like the Ford Foundation believed that after spending all that money, there is not much more to do in countries that have since joined the EU. Third, many foreign donors thought the EU would take over their role. Finally, they thought that these countries had arrived at a level of development at which the people are ready to donate. All of these beliefs were legitimate to a degree. But, unfortunately, the reality on the ground was somewhat different.
Not to mention that once a country is a member of a “club”, such as the EU, there are no more incentives to push the country towards the development and maintenance of the rule of law.
And it is also important to look at the motivations that led to the establishment of rule of law in a particular country. It is much easier to change laws than to alter mentalities– half-heartedly created laws can be put in the books, but there is no guarantee that citizens will accept them.
Let me bring a concrete example: just because the EU demanded that Member States abolish laws that discriminate against homosexuals, that doesn’t mean that people will think differently of sexual minorities. Their mentality will only change after several decades, when people see that there are people who are open about their sexual orientations, and they experience that regardless of differences in orientations people live together without problems. You can see this in Spain, where in a matter of decades, we went from total rejection to legalising same-sex marriage. Moreover, there is a wide acceptance in society that same-sex couples have a right to adopt. We got here not through legal changes, but through the intervention of civil society and churches.
The other thing is that American foundations believed that human rights can be better furthered if civil society organisations follow the American example, and go to court as often as possible. In the US system, some landmark cases marked the beginning of some deep-seating changes. The Brown vs. Board of Education case, for example, declared the segregation of Black and White students to be unconstitutional, and thereby played a great role in the civil rights movement’s success. However, these foundations didn’t take into consideration that in the legal systems of countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania or the Czech Republic winning a case doesn’t necessarily mean that societal practices will change.
At the Court of the European Union in Luxembourg we see an increased number of issues dealing with civil liberties. What does that mean for the work of Liberties.eu?
We are glad that the Court of the EU is playing a greater role in cases related to fundamental rights. However, unlike the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, civil society organisations cannot directly turn to this court. NGOs can successfully bring cases to the court in Strasbourg, but in the case of Luxembourg you can only get your case there if you start a case nationally, and somehow convince the national court to turn to the Court of the EU with some questions.
Liberties.eu has a member organisation in Germany, called Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte, which deals with taking issues to court, based on the particularities of the German legal system. This is an interesting development, but in general, human rights organisations are only learning how to use this opportunity. We, at Liberties.eu cannot start our own cases – but, on the level of Member States, we only accept organisations who do both information campaigns and legal work as full members.
And how are you going to lobby for relevant issues?
We have two colleagues in Brussels and several employees in Berlin who deal with advocacy, and they are trying to play a greater role in EU procedures. This means two things: we are reacting to the communications of EU institutions, and we are writing opinions about relevant directives. Moreover, we are also trying to put relevant issues on the agenda.
In the so-called illiberal Member States, Hungary and Poland, civil society organisations are having a hard time. Are there similar problems in other EU countries?
The shrinking space of civil society organisations is a global trend; we can see examples of it in many EU countries. According to my definition, there are a number of issues that could be put into this category, and which can appear separately from each other: there are smear campaigns, and in some cases even physical attacks, against civil society; very often the legitimacy of NGOs is questioned; foreign donations are demonised; administrative burdens are created; and their registration is made harder in many countries. While in Hungary there is a law imposing restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs, there are also constant campaigns against civil society in Romania, Spain and Italy. In Italy, it is part of the government’s rhetoric questioning the legitimacy of organisations saving lives in the Mediterranean.
In my opinion, there is only one effective remedy to the shrinking space: if organisations manage to mobilise supporters, they can say that they are the legitimate representatives of those tens of thousands of people who donated to them. The cases the American Civil Liberties Union brought against Trump are not questioned in the US, as the organisation has 1.6 million members, a substantial number even in a country of 300 million.
Besides that, there could be other European tools to safeguard civil society: An EU fund for rights-based NGOs and for the promotion of EU values, as well as a new EU body (or at least a responsible high-level official) who monitors the situation of NGOs. These could be good steps. Liberties.eu also plans to start a European Citizens’ Initiative campaign to improve the rights of NGOs, which could become the first progressive case to collect the necessary one million supporters.
 The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Lithuanian Human Rights Monitoring Institute, the Czech League of Human Rights, the Croatian Centre for Peace Studies (CMS), the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Belgian League of Human Rights, the Nederlands Juristen Comité voor de Mensenrechten (Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights), Rights International Spain, the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights, The Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania – the Helsinki Committee (APADOR) and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC).
 Civil liberties or personal freedoms refer to the freedom from arbitrary interference in one’s pursuits by either individuals or the government – these liberties are protected by the constitutions of most democratic states. They mainly overlap with the first-generation human rights, such as the right to fair trial, freedom of speech, or voting rights.