Democracy & Justice

The Freedom of NGOs - Why We Have to Protect Our Protectors

Independent NGOs are as vital to our democracies as the free press or independent courts. But some governments want to silence these watchdogs. To protect fundamental freedoms, you have to protect the organisations that fight for them.

by Israel Butler
NGO stands for non-governmental organisation. Usually, the term NGO refers to an organisation that is independent from the government, not a business and works to promote the public interest. Sometimes other terms are used to refer to NGOs, such as a ‘not-for-profit’ or ‘non-profit’ or ‘civil society’ organisation.

Unfortunately, governments are making it more difficult for NGOs working on certain issues to carry out their work. Governments tend to target NGOs working on environmental protection, anti-corruption, equality for women, LGBTI persons, migrants and ethnic minorities, civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law. In many countries, politicians and the media attack NGOs and try to discredit them so that they no longer have the trust of the public, for example in Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania or Italy. Some governments, like in Hungary and Poland, have gone further than just smear campaigns and have also taken steps to make it more difficult for NGOs to receive public funds or donations. And other governments, like in Croatia and Spain, just make life harder for NGOs by swamping them with bureaucracy that takes time and resources away from their real work.

Why is it important for Liberties to work on this?

For a democracy to work properly, it’s not enough to simply elect representatives every five years. The public needs to be able to talk to their government day-to-day. To make sure that governments don’t break the law or don’t abuse their powers, it’s not enough for the rules to exist on paper. The courts need to be ready to judge cases of wrongdoing and the public need to be informed about what how their leaders are using public resources and powers. These are important jobs that NGOs perform. First, NGOs explain to the public what’s going on in current affairs so that they can take well-informed decisions. Second, NGOs give the public channels through which they can speak to government, by representing the views of the public, or by allowing the public to join a public protest or sign a petition. Third, NGOs monitor how the government uses its powers and often take governments to court if they have broken the law. NGOs, just like a free press media and independent courts, are key to ensuring that public power and resources are used in the public interest.


Because NGOs make such an important contribution to protecting rights and democracy, they are protected by a number of human rights listed in legally binding treaties that all EU governments are part of. These rights include the freedom of association and assembly and freedom of expression and information. These rights can be found in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and various UN human rights treaties.

What will Liberties work towards?

The EU does a lot to help NGOs outside its borders by providing them with funding, training and using political pressure to protect them. But inside the EU it’s a different story. The EU does give some financial support to NGOs, but usually this is for them to carry out particular projects like a piece of research or to provide a service like giving legal advice or providing training.

Liberties wants the EU to protect and support NGOs inside the Union that are working to promote rights, democracy and the rule of law, which are the EU’s fundamental values. We are asking the EU to take a number of steps. First, the EU should create a new fund to support these NGOs. This fund should make grants that contribute to NGOs’ basic running costs, rather than only funding for individual projects. The fund should also support NGOs to take cases to court and to monitor and react to government measures that violate the EU’s fundamental values. Second, the EU should offer training to NGOs to help them educate the public and build support for rights, democracy and the rule of law. Third, Liberties wants the European Commission to monitor restrictions on NGOs, make public statements in support of NGOs when they are targeted by governments and use diplomatic pressure to protect NGOs. Fourth, Liberties wants the EU to create minimum standards in EU law to protect the freedoms of NGOs.

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