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EU-NGO Human Rights Forum

21.12.2021

The 23rd edition of the EU-NGO Human Rights Forum on 7-8 December 2021 brought together hundreds of human rights defenders (HRDs), UN experts, EU staff and MEPs to discuss the most pressing human rights issues of our time. Held virtually, the forum comprised 13 sessions with 105 speakers who discussed a human rights-based recovery from the pandemic under the banner “Rebuilding Better” and made specific recommendations to policy makers. As in previous years, the Forum was co-organised by the EEAS, DG INTPA, and the Human Rights and Democracy Network.

 

At a moment when the COVID-19 pandemic still has a very significant epidemiologic and socio-economic impact around the world, the Forum gathered participants from all continents to identify the impact of the pandemic on the full enjoyment of human rights. Discussions aimed at identifying key actions to be taken by the EU and the international community to ensure a human rights-based recovery from the pandemic. The forum addressed three main themes:

  1. Ending states of emergency and restrictions on fundamental freedoms; 
  2. Equal access to health care: addressing marginalisation and vulnerability;
  3. Reinforcing economic, social and labour rights, corporate accountability, the decent work agenda and social protection in the post-COVID world. 

In his opening remarks, High Representative Borrell paid tribute to the work of human rights defenders, highlighting particular cases in China, Colombia or Burundi, and emphasised recent actions taken by the EU regarding Belarus, Afghanistan and Ethiopia. The HRVP stressed that “we are not only aware of your challenges, but we are taking action” and referred, among other, to the sanctions imposed by the EU under the new Global Human Rights Sanction Regime.

Commissioner for International Partnership Jutta Urpilainen highlighted the continued solidarity of the EU with human rights defenders and civil society organisations, and the concrete support afforded. The day after the Forum, on December 9th, High Representative Borrell and Commissioner Urpilainen announced the allocation of 1.5 billion euros for the period 2021-2027 to advance human rights and democracy globally.

Front Line Defenders Director Andrew Anderson highlighted that: When reflecting on how to “build back better” there needs to be a strong focus on standing up to populist authoritarians, including within the EU’s own borders, standing firmly alongside independent civil society & human rights defenders”.

Other prominent speakers included EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore, Deputy UN High-Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor, Vice-President of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala, Chair of the European Parliament Human Rights Subcommittee Maria Arena, and WHO Director of the Universal Health Coverage/ Healthier Population Adelheid Werimo.

Across the different sessions, human rights defenders from all continents took the floor to highlight how the pandemic has accelerated the shrinking space for civil society around the world. Pre-existing threats such as legislative initiatives on “foreign agents” or counter-terrorism laws that unduly targeted the independence of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have been exacerbated by COVID-19. For instance, as part of the work of HRDs is now online, they are more subject to arbitrary online surveillance, and too many States have imposed non-proportional measures through “States of Emergency” acts to restrict freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly.

The pandemic has also shown the need to guarantee an affordable access to healthcare to everybody. Some takeaways from the thematic session on health highlighted the need to guarantee equal access to vaccines and to ensure that persons in marginisalised situations have access to healthcare services, as well as the need to fight disinformation against the pandemic and to work collectively to present evidence-based data. Besides the mere pandemic response and preparedness, experts agreed that COVID-19 has been a strong wake-up call to address other long term issues such as HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls, and mental health. States were called upon to ensure consistent funding for the development of medicines and vaccines as well as for the deployment of modern medical equipment and facilities. Speakers insisted that the pandemic should be taken as an opportunity to equip public health systems worldwide to face new pandemics and at the same time maintain their routine function. EU representatives indicated that, under the programming for 2021-2027, a significant amount will be allocated to healthcare. The EEAS also committed to discuss access to health in its human rights dialogues.

In the discussions on economic, social and labour rights, participants highlighted the negative impact of the pandemic on labour rights, social protection and the fight against child labour (according to the International Labour Organisation, 9 million additional children will be subjected to child labour by the end of 2022). The role of civil society organisations and human rights defenders in identifying human rights abuses related to business activities and in facilitating access to remedy for the victims was underlined. At the same time, those defenders are particularly targeted by attacks and reprisals. Strong calls were made to the EU to keep protecting those most at risk; to reinforce human rights due diligence rules; and to ensure that across the world social protection nets for workers and their families are reinforced. Many participants praised the EU for leading the way on responsible business conduct with the upcoming legislation on due diligence. The EU renewed its commitment to continue providing emergency support to HRDs at risk, including to those working on environmental and land rights.

Outlook

The discussions at the EU NGO Forum will not be a “one-off”, it will set the ground and created the necessary contacts for rebuilding back better. The co-organisers will carefully examine the main recommendations made during the different sessions with a view to ensure a human rightsbased recovery from the pandemic.

Moreover, in the margins of the Forum, several workshops took place to provide the necessary information to civil society actors on EU instruments to protect human rights defenders.

Recordings of all the sessions are available here while you can see some interviews of prominent HRDs here.

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