Civil society and human rights


An active civil society capable of action is a prerequisite for constructive relations between government and society.

Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law
Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law© AA

Germany supports civil-society engagement and the work of human rights defenders and is committed to ensuring that scope is created and maintained for their activity. Civil society and human rights are mutually dependent: civil-society engagement plays a crucial role in protecting and promoting human rights, but equally, civil society can only flourish where human rights are comprehensively guaranteed. However, a robust legal framework that complies with international standards and effective access to justice are not in themselves enough: in order to make use of these major actors’ potential to effect transformation in our societies, there is also a need for a beneficial political climate, access to information, scope for participation in decision-making processes and long-term support in the form of (adequate) resources.

Civil society under threat

Germany is worried to see governments trying to restrict, in some cases considerably, NGOs’ scope for action, for example through rules on their registration, ways of working and funding (particularly funding from abroad), or through the adoption of security legislation requiring monitoring, excessive data collection and privacy restrictions. This phenomenon, often called “shrinking space”, has become a global trend to be found not only in authoritarian regimes.

Human Rights Report of the Federal Government 2016: Focus on civil society

In many countries, civil society representatives working for the realisation of human rights are exposed to particular attacks, ranging from harassment and obstruction to torture, kidnapping and murder, by both state and private actors. These human rights defenders, including doctors, journalists, lawyers, judges, academics, trade unionists and the staff of human rights organisations, often take huge risks upon themselves in their efforts to spread the word about human rights, to defend the rights of individuals or to ensure that those who have committed human rights violations are punished.

Germany protects human rights defenders

The Federal Government supports these courageous people. It enters into dialogue with them, helps with targeted support for specific projects, and uses diplomatic means to protect them. To this end, it keeps a constant close eye on the position of human rights defenders, sometimes with help from specialist non-governmental organisations. In doing so, Germany cooperates closely with other European Union member states. The basis for this cooperation is provided by the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, which were drawn up in order to effect a lasting improvement in the situation of human rights defenders worldwide.

What does the EU do to protect human rights defenders?

Germany regularly supports projects run by and for human rights defenders. Moreover, the Federal Government frequently intercedes with other governments in support of human rights defenders. In addition, the Federal Chancellor, the Foreign Minister and numerous other senior representatives of the Federal Republic frequently meet prominent activists, as well as previously unknown but commendable authors, lawyers or doctors, because assuring them of media attention is one of many ways to protect them. Protecting human rights defenders is an integral part of the Federal Government’s Action Plan on Human Rights, so it is still a top priority for German foreign policy.

A prize for human rights defenders: Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law

UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders of 1998 is the principal reference and policy document for efforts to protect human rights defenders not only of the United Nations but also, for example, the EU or the OSCE. According to the Declaration, a human rights defender is, in principle, anyone who seeks by peaceful means to promote and protect human rights. This means that not only human rights activists enjoy protection as human rights defenders, but also, for instance, journalists, lawyers, doctors, volunteers and women and men who campaign only occasionally for human rights.

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders – since 2014 Michel Forst from France – monitors implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. He reports regularly on specific issues or situations in individual countries, thus ensuring that threats against and intimidation of human rights defenders are not forgotten.
He also makes recommendations for the improved protection of human rights defenders.

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