Shrinking civil space in Europe: Part II

Annie Schultz Credit to C. VenablesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis post is by Annie Schultz. Annie is currently working at QCEA as an intern on the Human Rights Programme for two months.

       Restricting anyone’s right to speak his or her voice and truth is fundamentally at odds with both the Quakers’ testimony to equality and the EU democratic foundation[1]. All voices should have an equal opportunity to be heard. The restriction of the space in which civil society is able to express itself is therefore unjust.

          In addition, the civil liberties that are being violated are universally recognized as human rights protected by international treaties. All European countries involved in shrinking civil space are bound by those international agreements: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights[2] and the Charter of Fundamental Rights (for EU Member States) all protect freedom of expression, of association and assembly. These binding documents give the international community the responsibility to protect civil liberties and stand up for them when they are under threat. For it to remain silent is therefore nothing less than condoning these unacceptable crackdowns.

What can Europe do?

          The issue of shrinking civil space, in all its forms, affects both the Council of Europe and the European Union, for it is taking place in their Member States and contradicts the values these unions are built upon.

Stop turning a blind eye to Europe’s austerity demonstrations

          There is, however, a greater focus on one part of the problem than on the other. The institutional crackdown in Russia or Azerbaijan is much more reported than the repression of people’s freedom of assembly experienced in EU Member States[3]. The silence of the institutions on the matter may be a way to avoid challenging Europe’s austerity policy, so cherished by the European

Start of the protest against IMF’s austerity measures in Europe in Syntagma Square in Athens, May 2011, gathering 100 000 people

Start of the protest against IMF’s austerity measures in Europe, gathering 100 000 people in Syntagma Square in Athens, May 2011.

Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund, often referred to as the Troika. Even though President Jose Barrosso announced last May that the Commission would give extra time to some countries to complete their austerity plans, the substance of the policy has not fundamentally changed.

          Firstly, both the Council of Europe and the European Union should give the issue of excessive use of police force during demonstrations the attention it deserves. On the one hand, this should be done by publicly acknowledging it as a human rights violation. On the other hand, Member States must be held accountable for this police violence, as it is a factor instilling fear, inhibiting freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. In November 2012, during a 24hours general strike against austerity in Madrid, police resorted to fire rubber bullets against protesters. Amnesty International calls these “less-lethal weapons” for they are no firearms but still have the potential to be lethal. Their use and the way they were used testify to police violence during many demonstrations.

          Secondly, the EU must start listening to what citizens have been asking for in the streets for a while now. The fact that demonstrations are recurring over a long period shows that the social malaise is not a mere discontent coming from the pain of change. It is a sign that the on-going austerity has gone beyond the limits of possible social acceptance. In Greece, where the austerity programme has been the longest and the most severe, demonstrations started in spring 2010 and never really stopped since then. As a result, the EU should look into alternatives to austerity. This is especially urgent now that the IMF has recognized that austerity measures were based on poor assumptions and may not be the right path for European Member States.

Coherence needed between the EU and its values   

          In contrast, both the Council of Europe and the European Union have repeatedly reacted with concern to the crackdowns in Hungary, Russia and Azerbaijan.

          The Council of Europe[4] has resorted to almost[5] all the instruments at its disposal regarding these states. However, the Council of Europe alone does not seem to be the appropriate institution to tackle this particular issue. This is partly due to its nature.

Portrait of Vladimir Putin wearing a colourful mask, characteristic of the music band Pussy Riot. Three members of the band were condemned to two years of imprisonment for inciting religious hatred after having sung a song in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Church, asking Putin’s departure, in February 2012

Portrait of Vladimir Putin wearing a colourful mask, characteristic of the music band Pussy Riot. Three members of the band were condemned to two years of imprisonment for inciting religious hatred after having sung a song in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Church, asking for Putin’s departure, in February 2012

Being an institution that is intergovernmental and based on consensus between states, it cannot trigger change in states that do not want such a change[6]. The Council of Europe would rather be a provider of assistance to states that are willing to get in line with the Council’s human rights standard. Clearly this is not the case in Russia, Azerbaijan, or Hungary, where violations go on despite the European Court of Human Rights’ judgements[7], or the monitoring procedures[8].

          Conversely, the EU is a more integrated ensemble and is economically stronger than the CoE. Therefore, its influence on states could potentially be more efficient. The most difficult challenge for the EU here is to be coherent with itself, and to implement a policy of conditionality[9] towards problematic States.

       For instance, Hungary, a EU member state, is clearly in breach of EU Law by disregarding human rights and democracy, which are conditions of access to EU membership. After having launched two infringement procedures without much success, and considering a third one, the EU should resort to the next step: Article 7 TEU[10] provides the EU with a procedure that could potentially lead to the suspension of a Member State’s voting rights in the Council of Ministers.

          The same challenge goes for the relationship between the EU and Russia. How does it show coherence if EU High Representative Catherine Ashton denounces the situation in Russia in March, the European Parliament asks for a EU Magnistky act[11] in June, and yet, during the same month, the European Commission’s vice president visits the Federation with European business delegations in order to reinforce the EU’s commercial ties with Russia?

          The EU should act in coherence with the values it promotes. It should do so first internally: before pointing its finger at non-EU Member States, the EU had better make sure its own Member States aren’t suppressing their own citizens’ civil rights.

          Once fundamental rights of expression, assembly and association are guaranteed in practise in all EU Member States, the EU should also encourage other countries to honour their citizens’ human rights. This may mean consistently withholding privileges of

Photo credit to the European Union. 2013.  Antonio Tajani, Vice President of the European Commission, during his stay in Russia from 16th to 18th June as a part of the « Mission for Growth »

Photo credit to the European Union. 2013.
Antonio Tajani, Vice President of the European Commission, during his stay in Russia from 16th to 18th June as a part of the « Mission for Growth »

making profit from partners who are actively infringing civil liberties.

          Not only does the EU need to do so for the sake of its own integrity and credibility, but also as a matter of strategy. As highlighted during the recent discussion in the European Parliament on the EU Human Rights Strategy on June 25th, values and interests go hand in hand. An economic partner who deliberately and continuously violates human rights is not a reliable one. The trade –and profit- in which we engage should help create a world which enshrines the EU and CoE values with regard to the freedom of people to express their opinion.


[1] See Art. 2 Treaty on the EU listing the common values on which the European Union is founded: « The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights »

[2] See list of signatories of both treaties: ICCPR and ECHR

[4] The Council of Europe should not be confused with the European Union, for they are two separate entities. The Council of Europe has 47 Member States, including all EU Member States, but also others that are not part of the EU, for instance: Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, etc. See: http://hub.coe.int/

[5] The Council of European Parliamentary Assembly refused to open a monitoring procedure with Hungary during the Plenary of 25th June, see: http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/NewsManager/EMB_NewsManagerView.asp?ID=8881&L=2

[6] Council of Europe, Secretary General. (2013). Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Europe: Strengthening the impact of the Council of Europe’s activities. IV.B. « The objective is not to shame and blame any country for any shortcomings, but rather to establish a constructive dialogue on the basis of the findings by various monitoring and evaluation bodies”. Retrieved from: https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?Ref=SG/Inf(2013)15&Language=lanEnglish&Ver=original&Site=COE&BackColorInternet=C3C3C3&BackColorIntranet=EDB021&BackColorLogged=F5D383

[7] The judgements of the European Court of Human Rights are binding for CoE’s Member States. Member States have to remedy violations judged by the Court but they are free to choose the means by which to do so. The CoE’s Council of ministers supervises the good implementation of the judgements and accompanies states in this process. However, because there is a lack of sanction in case a Member State does not honour the judgement, a lot of them are not respected. The Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights are aware of those limitations and are reforming the Court in order to strengthen its judgements. Protocol n°14 was enforced in 2010, and Protocol n°15 is being discussed.

[8] A monitoring procedure in the Council of Europe is a procedure conducted by the monitoring committee of the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The monitoring committee, or the Committee on the honouring of obligations and commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe is in charge of ensuring the Member States’ conformity with fundamental texts of the Council of Europe, for instance the European Convention of Human Rights. When a Member State does not comply with those in a persistent manner, the committee can ask for a monitoring procedure to be opened with this state. Once it is opened, it consists of a close observation of that state by the committee, visits and public declarations. There are currently 10 monitoring procedures going on, with, among others: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Russia, etc.

[9] A EU’s conditionality policy is the policy according to which the EU takes advantage of its economic attractiveness to promote its values of democracy and human rights in third countries. In practise, it would consist in including those values in clauses of trade agreements or partnerships for instance.

[10] The Treaty of the European Union (TEU, 1992) constitutes one the two treaties ruling the European Union; the other being the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

[11] A Eu Magnistsky Act refers to the adopted US Magnistky Act and is described in the European Parliament’s resolution on the Rule of Law in Russia as follows: « The European Parliament (…) Recalls its recommendation on common visa restrictions for Russian officials involved in the Sergei Magnitsky case and asks the Council and the Commission to implement an EU-wide visa ban and to freeze the financial assets in the EU of all officials involved in the death of Magnitsky, which is being prosecuted posthumously, and of other serious human rights violators in Russia; stresses that those individuals must not benefit from any EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement

About Bethany Squire

Bethany worked as QCEA's Sustainability Programme Assistant from September 2012 to September 2013
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