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Democracy, Human Rights, and the fundamental underpinnings of the Rule of Law: NHC 2021 Annual Report

06 May 2022

In 2021 the NHC continued to work towards strengthening the rule of law and democracy, promoting human rights and the values enshrined in the OSCE. Through four programmes: Access to Justice, Criminal Justice Reform, Human Rights Defence, and Integrity and Accountability the NHC has implemented integral strategies for advocacy and developed impactful actions throughout Europe and the OSCE region. This year, the NHC’s mission gathers a special importance, as current developments have shown that democracy and peace are not values to be taken for granted. In this context, the NHC has been working to defend these key principles across its projects and activities.

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1) Access to Justice

The Access to Justice programme aims to bring down the barriers between justice and vulnerable groups, tackling the systematic impediments that difficult the achievement of reparations. The Countering Discrimination and Protecting LGBTI Rights in Albania project, aimed at improving the response of the Albanian justice system on how to assist members of the LGBTIQ+ community through a series of training workshops aimed at police officers, prosecutors and judges, that brought together Dutch and Albanian officers and allowed both groups to share best practices in this regard.

Xheni Karaj, Executive Director of Aleanca and one Albania’s foremost LGBTIQ+ activists viewed the impact of this project in a positive way, highlighting the practical changes that it brought to Albanian law enforcement:

“Seeing the police officers who initially seemed quite closed off and unapproachable, careful not to say things in the wrong way, now gain interest in the issue, trying to use the right language and actually learn from the case studies we discussed (…) The whole process was very interesting; to see how they would change throughout the years, it was a real and palpable impact of the trainings.”

Alongside this, another area of action for 2021 was established in the Balkans Act Now project, which improved monitoring and reporting of human trafficking in the region. Next year, the NHC will continue to support access to justice by developing 3 projects aimed at supporting women victims of domestic violence in Armenia, improving civil society response to discrimination in Turkey and strengthening civil society capacities and resilience in Armenia.

2) Criminal Justice Reform

The NHC continued working sanctions and the introduction of prison reforms across Europe, focusing on transitioning the targeted systems from a punitive approach to justice to a rehabilitative one. This was achieved through driving capacity building of relevant stakeholders in the criminal justice chain and enhancing strategic institutional support through the development of knowledge and skills.

Rita Selimi, a criminology researcher from Kosovo who dedicated her PhD project to exploring how to change the current perceptions of juvenile criminals and other vulnerable groups in society, worked closely with the NHC as part of the Creating a safe and rehabilitative prison environment for juveniles in conflict with the law in Kosovo  project, by tutoring Mirlinda[1] a Law and Criminology student, serving a sentence at the juvenile facility in Kosovo:

“Following Mirlinda’s success story, many now feel like they have options. When you interview the minors that are studying, you can see that they have a very concrete plan on what they want to do. It is clear that education offers these children a chance at effective rehabilitation, changing their own perceptions of themselves, as well as societal perceptions of those incarcerated.”

Alongside this, the NHC also advocated for interventions in Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to mitigate the impact of the pandemic through the EU COVID-19 Solidarity Programme for Eastern Partnership, together with People in Need and AFEW International, and launched in Armenia a project aimed at creating essential conditions to modernise prison and probation, focused on making societies safer by reducing recidivism. Furthermore, the Probation and Alternative Sanctions in Ukraine project successfully developed the capacities of the Ukrainian Probation Service, making it fully operational. The NHC hopes to continue developing probation in Ukraine as soon as possible.

3) Human Rights Defense

Committed to defend fundamental freedoms and increasing the support of Human Rights, the NHC kept its support to human rights defenders in difficult contexts through a partnership with the ZMINA Human Rights Centre in Ukraine, which developed the Increasing the Role and Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Ukraine project, aimed at stimulating public demand for the defense of Human Rights in this country.

Lyudmyla Yankina Project Leader ZMINA Human Rights Center, on the project’s impact stated:

“With this project, and the help of the NHC, we started to have opportunities to provide comprehensive help. If a person came to us with a case, we can provide legal aid, physical protection, even national and international advocacy (…) Right now, every time a difficult case arrives, I think of all the different ways in which we can help. The role of the NHC in amplifying their voices and providing international advocacy is very important. When the issue is broadcasted internationally, you know someone outside is watching.”

As part of the activities funded by the Dutch Postcode Lottery, we launched the #BringHumanRightsHome campaign, in partnership with human rights organisations from across Europe, sharing personal stories of courageous people from eight different countries whose rights were severely violated. Hailing from Azerbaijan, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the Netherlands, they overcame opposition in court, personal threats, and financial hardship; stood up to actors much more powerful than themselves – yet never gave up. The NHC also continued to develop the Recharging Advocacy for Rights in Europe (RARE) project, which aimed to respond to the ever growing threats to EU values by launching a two-year capacity and alliance building programme.

4) Integrity and Accountability Programme

The NHC aims at increasing dialogue and collaboration between law enforcement, public service, civil society and media as a way to ensure integrity and accountability. In 2021, the NHC developed a series Rule of Law Trainings (MaTra ROLT programme), hosted ROLT alumni days and leadership courses, that tackled subjects related to advocating for the importance of Rule of Law in many aspects, such as detention and alternative sanctions, freedom of media and public finance procurement.

Eugeniu Ciubotaru, RoLT participant and judge from the Republic of Moldova shared his experience and takeaways from the Rule of Law Training and how it has impacted his practice:

“I really enjoyed the course a lot, I made many notes and I wrote many things that I want to implement immediately. I really enjoyed the Netherlands and looking at your systems, and I want to gain a deeper understanding of why some things work better in your system, and what we can do to adopt this in our home countries.”

Furthermore, as part of our mission to uphold rule of law and defend democracy, the NHC organized a series of Q&A sessions with Hungarian academics about the steady Rule of Law backsliding happening in Hungary. We also addressed matters of anti-corruption and effective sanctioning through our Trans-border Corruption project. Finally, we continued to advocate for freedom of expression in Serbia, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina by organizing partner meetings that allowed for the exchange of good practices between law enforcement, judicial authorities and journalists in the target countries, contributing to the construction of a safe environment for the journalistic practice.

5) Security and Human Rights Monitor

In 2021, the Security and Human Rights Monitor, the NHC’s oldest running activity, continued to develop products focused on the analysis and compliance of OSCE regulations, producing a series of news and opinion pieces, carrying out interviews and generating peer- reviewed articles.

If you are looking for more in-depth information about how the NHC is working to ensure human rights and security across Europe through all of its ongoing projects, read to full annual report:

[1] Name changed to protect identity