Civil Society Recommendations Receive Prominent Attention in Hamburg
On 6-7 December 2016, the NHC took part in the annual Parallel Civil Society Conference in Hamburg, organised by the Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), ahead of the twenty-third OSCE Ministerial Council taking place in this city. At the two-day conference, over 100 civil society representatives from across the OSCE region discussed urgent human dimension issues and adopted a set of Civil Society Recommendations to the Ministerial Council, as well the Hamburg Declaration on Protecting Civil Society Space. These outcome documents and in particular the Hamburg Declaration received prominent attention from OSCE representatives and participating States.
The Hamburg declaration has been drawn up in reaction to the increasing pressure on civil society groups critical of government. In many countries of the former Soviet space repression and persecution have grown, as is the case in Turkey. In the western Balkans and in Central and South East Europe, the concept of ‘illiberal democracy’ is spreading and governments increasingly attempt to stigmatize and minimize critical voices in society.
At the closing session of the Parallel Civil Society Conference on 7 December 2016, the outcome documents were presented to OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Austrian Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Linhart, who represented the incoming 2017 OSCE Chairmanship, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic, and ODIHR’s First Deputy Director Katrazyna Jarosiecicz-Wargan. In his remarks at this session, Steinmeier referred to the Hamburg Declaration, expressing concern about growing threats to the security of human rights defenders in the OSCE region and calling on participating States to find solutions to these challenges together with civil society experts. He also said that including the views of civil society has “considerably” benefited the work of the German Chairmanship.
The following day, in his opening speech at the Ministerial Council, Chairperson-in-Office and Foreign Minister Steinmeier emphasized the importance of the work of civil society representatives, including the CSP. “At the same time,” he said, “a strong OSCE needs to think beyond the confines of state structures. By this, I mean civil society and academia, which look closely at our day-to-day work. I had a chance to speak with representatives of the Civic Solidarity Platform yesterday. Day in, day out, courageous men and women fight for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in our countries, often under difficult conditions. Thank you very much for your hard work!”
In his statement at the close of the OSCE Ministerial Council on 9 December 2016, ODIHR Director Michael Georg Link pointed out that the protection of human rights defenders is essential for the realization of the OSCE human dimension commitments in practice. He called for attention to the recommendations endorsed at the Parallel Civil Society Conference:
“Human rights defenders are often the focus of threats, attacks and legal harassment simply for trying to protect the rights of society’s most vulnerable people, without discrimination.” He continued: “I encourage OSCE participating States to seriously consider the Hamburg Declaration, which outlines many important actions to safeguard human rights defenders from restrictions contrary to OSCE commitments.”
Finally, at the close of the OSCE Ministerial Council, 42 OSCE participating States adopted a joint statement in support of human rights defenders in the OSCE region, with reference to the Hamburg Declaration. The statement says, in particular:
“As pointed out in the Declaration adopted by the Parallel Civil Society Conference, the space for civil society is shrinking in our region, with numerous negative implications for the realization of the OSCE comprehensive security concept.
We commend all people and organisations that work tirelessly to ensure that the participating States implement our OSCE commitments on human rights, and who hold governments to account. We speak here of civil society organisations, large and small, local, national and international, and also of courageous individuals who step forward to defend human rights.
However, in certain parts of the OSCE region we continue to see severe restrictions placed on civil society organisations and attacks on human rights defenders. Legislation that restricts the work of civil society, and which results in criminal charges against and detention of people who have devoted their professional lives to the support of others. Lawyers who act in line with their professional obligations to defend individuals, only to subsequently face criminal charges themselves. Journalists who are silenced, through intimidation, legislation and restrictions on their work, and more worryingly through violent acts and murder. So it is not enough just to give them our thanks. It is time for us to stand up for their rights.”
The NHC welcomes the wide attention to the Civil Society Recommendations and the Hamburg Declaration, as well as the strong support expressed for the region’s civil society, and looks forward to continuing cooperation with OSCE institutions and participating States on countering threats to the security of human rights defenders and other pressing human dimension issues.