Democracy & Justice

Civil Society in 2022: NGOs Still Left Out in the Cold

Liberties’ Rule Of law Report 2023 shows that civil society continues to be given the cold shoulder by EU governments in 2022. This hostility feeds negative public perceptions of activists and contributes to the increasing dangers they face.

by Eleanor Brooks

Liberties’ Rule of Law Report 2023 is the fourth edition of our annual report and contributes to the European Commission’s (EC) stakeholder consultation for its Rule of Law Report, due to be published later this year. Our shadow report is the most comprehensive report compiled by an NGO-network, covering 18 European countries and written in conjunction with 45 member and partner organisations.

Civic space is a key theme in our report. Civil society actors, such as NGOs, watchdogs, citizens’ initiatives or human rights activists play an invaluable role defending and strengthening the rule of law. When people are free to organise and mobilise through associations, it is more likely that our elected representatives will pay attention to our concerns. However, the findings of our report suggest that EU governments do not sufficiently recognise the importance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and, in some cases, even attack them to silence criticism and prevent people from coming together to demand change.

Freedom of association squeezed

Several of our member and partner organisations report that freedom of association is being squeezed in their country.

New rules governing civil society create a climate of uncertainty and fear. In the Netherlands, for example, concerns are being raised about a new bill that would allow for NGOs to be dissolved on grounds of public order. This has already become a reality in France, where a law on republican values led to the dissolution of NGOs campaigning to counteract anti-Muslim hate.

Elsewhere, no steps were taken to address long-standing problems hindering the work of CSOs in Germany and Ireland, inadequate and outdated rules causing legal uncertainty are still forcing CSOs to restrict their efforts advocating on human rights issues.

CSOs and activists being sidelined or silenced

European governments appear to be actively shunning their responsibility to foster civic engagement. Unsurprisingly, CSOs feel left out in the cold when it comes to participation in policymaking. Our partner organisations in Croatia, Italy and Slovakia report that the contributions of civil society are simply not considered relevant by the state. Slovenia provides a rare positive outlook, where the new centre-left government is increasing dialogue with CSOs. Positive developments can also be seen in the Czech Republic, where the government adopted a strategy that aims at better involving CSOs in policymaking.

The trend of restricting the right to protest, originally stemming from Covid-19 related health concerns, continues to persist, despite large public gatherings no longer posing a danger. Climate protestors in particular came under fire and are facing disproportionate restrictions in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. In Belgium, mayors have been granted the power to impose a preventative ban on protests from those considered “troublemakers”. The new right-wing government in Italy sent shockwaves through civil society when it announced its ‘anti-rave bill’, causing fears it could be used to curtail the right to protest.

Rights defenders often become the target of SLAPPs, bogus lawsuits brought with the sole intent of silencing them. In Croatia, for example, SLAPPs are becoming a common tactic to intimidate environmental activists.

Hostile government attitudes contribute to unsafe environment for activists

Belgian authorities might be the only ones to say the quiet part out loud, but their description of activists as “troublemakers” appears to reflect the attitudes of several other EU governments. In Italy, Slovenia and Sweden, smear campaigns have been launched by politicians against CSOs to undermine their credibility. Some governments actively hamper the work of civil society, with our members describing human rights activists being harassed, criminalised and prosecuted for their work, most notably climate activists or NGOs that assist migrants.

The discrediting of civil society by political actors is feeding the negative perception of civil society, creating a dangerous working environment for rights defenders both online and offline. Numerous countries report that attacks, including physical violence, against activists, journalists and rights defenders remain an ongoing danger, with LGBTQI+ activists particularly targeted. On a positive note, Belgium responded to the rise in hate speech and hate crimes by presenting a new plan to protect the LGBTQI+ community, as well as an anti-racism plan. Regrettably, digital violence and online harassment, as reported by our member and partner organisations in Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Romania and Slovenia, aren’t being tackled with the same urgency.

Human rights abuses persist as calls of civil society go unanswered

Many of these issues were raised in last year's report. However, rather than addressing the concerns raised by civil society or following through on the EC’s country recommendations, most EU governments have not taken adequate measures to improve the situation, and, in some cases, they appear set on continuing in a downward trajectory.

When politicians don’t listen to the concerns of ordinary people, it weakens our ability to shape society to meet our needs. According to Liberties’ contributing partners, little to no progress has been made to address the calls by civil society to address the decline in human rights protection occurring during the pandemic, which disproportionately impacted vulnerable groups and exacerbated existing inequalities. Discrimination, racial profiling, and police brutality continue to go unchecked, while migrants and asylum seekers have been subject to illegal, often times violent, pushback on European borders.

Given the many challenges that lie ahead, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to climate change, it is vital that governments pay attention to the needs and concerns of their citizens to ensure that human rights are respected. Rather than viewing CSOs as the enemy, governments should lean in by supporting their work and acknowledging civil society’s role in maintaining democracy. The EU should be leading by example, however the misplaced scrutiny placed on CSOs in the wake of Qatargate is a worrying step in the wrong direction. Civil society builds a bridge between the people and the state, making it possible for citizens to voice their opinions and shape decision-making. But it’s up to governments to listen.


Download the full report here.

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Country reports 2023

The Report presents findings from 18 EU Member States by 45 human rights organizations, namely:

  • League of Human Rights (Belgium),
  • Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (Bulgaria),
  • Centre for Peace Studies (Croatia),
  • League of Human Rights, Glopolis (Czech Republic),
  • Human Rights Center (Estonia),
  • Vox Public (France),
  • the Society for Civil Rights, FragDenStaat, LobbyControl (Germany),
  • the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (Hungary),
  • the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Trinity College Dublin School of Law, The Immigrant Council of Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Intersex Ireland, Community Law and Mediation, Justice for Shane, Mercy Law Resource Centre, Irish Penal Reform Trust, The National Union of Journalists, Age Action Ireland, The Irish Network Against Racism, Outhouse, Irish Traveller Movement, Pavee Point, FLAC-Free Legal Advice Centres, Mental Health Reform (Ireland),
  • Antigone Association, Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD), A Buon Diritto Onlus, Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration or ASGI,Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT) (Italy),
  • Human Rights Monitoring Institute (Lithuania),
  • Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Free Press Unlimited, Transparency International Nederlands (Netherlands),
  • the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland),
  • Apador-CH (Romania),
  • Via Iuris (Slovakia),
  • Peace Institute (Slovenia),
  • Rights International Spain (Spain),
  • Civil Rights Defenders, International Commission of Jurists (Sweden).

Previous years' rule of law reports

2022 2021 2020

The making of this Report was funded by the European Union.

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