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8 December 2021

Opening Remarks by Executive Director Andrew Anderson at the EU-NGO Forum 2021

  • Good afternoon, let me start by thanking the European Commission, the EEAS and the Human Rights and Democracy Network, for organising this Forum. Let me also thank High Representative Borrell and Commissioner Urpilainen for the important commitments they outlined in their opening remarks.

  • I speak to you as Director of Front Line Defenders, an international NGO based in Ireland, with an exclusive focus on the protection and support of human rights defenders at risk. For the first time ever we have delivered more than 1,000 protection grants to human rights defenders this year, those at risk because of their peaceful human rights work in more than 100 countries. In total we have provided more than 2.5 million Euros. In addition we are a partner in the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism.

  • This Forum takes place against a backdrop of rising authoritarianism, as repressive regimes crack down on civil society, and as governments adopt restrictive measures designed to limit the ability of HRDs and civil society to function well and safely.

  • Over the last decade Europe has been on the retreat in terms of the rule of law, democracy and human rights. 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, and standing more firmly alongside independent civil society and human rights defenders.

  • Globally we see HRDs continue to face targeted violence, surveillance, incarceration and legal persecution. The impact of each of these has been further impacted by COVID. It is a health crisis exacerbated by a crisis in governance.

  • Human rights defenders face reprisals for exposing corruption and holding governments accountable for their weak handling of the pandemic.

  • In 2021 criminalisation continued to be the most common reported violation used by states to undermine or stop the work of HRDs. Imprisoned defenders have been denied medical treatment, in spite of the impact of the pandemic. In July we mourned the death of Fr. Stan Swamy in India, an 84 year-old Jesuit priest and human rights defender who had spent 9 months unjustly in jail on fabricated charges under the country's anti-terror law. He was denied bail and medical care in jail, and only transferred to a hospital when his condition became critical. Fr. Swamy's death should be a wake-up call for the EU and its member states, in “building back better” the EU must act swiftly and consistently to press relevant authorities on cases of unjustly detained defenders.

  • Today, we understand High Representative Borrell will speak with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister. We ask that he publicly and privately press for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defender Idris Khattak who was sentenced last week to 14 years in jail on baseless charges by a military court.

  • I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Eamonn Gilmore, who will be speaking later, for all his efforts on behalf of human rights defenders in prison, including my friend and former colleague Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, an EU citizen, who is now approaching 11 years unjustly imprisoned in Bahrain.

  • In Afghanistan human rights defenders have always faced great personal risk to themselves and their families. however, with the Taliban takeover of the country, defenders, many of whom have been funded and encouraged for years by the EU and EU member states are now facing daily threats of violence and death.

  • Many defenders report feeling abandoned and betrayed by those who should have accepted the political and moral responsibility for those they had funded. Defenders speak of not being able to get their contacts on the phone, of emails unanswered. It was of course a chaotic situation, but it is hard to comprehend the scale of the failure of evacuation efforts. While some EU member states, including Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, have stepped up to provide some visas to defenders, the overall efforts and coordination by the EU has been extremely disappointing. The crisis is ongoing and the EU and its member states need to step up support both for defenders continuing to stay in the country and those forced to leave.

  • Last month FLD uncovered the use of Pegasus spyware to hack the devices of six Palestinian human rights defenders, coincidentally or not, all 6 working for some of the 6 Palestinian human rights organizations which had been falsely designated by the Israeli government as "terrorist organisations".

  • I hope that all of us gathered here can agree that the EU must be firm in its rejection of these false terrorism charges and make clear that EU funding for these organisations will continue. I have heard worrying reports that some EU funding is being frozen, and if this is true, it is a surrender to an outrageous attack on peaceful human rights work;

  • We also call on Targeted EU sanctions against NSO Group, under the EU’s new human rights sanctions regime. The EU and its member states should lead the way in supporting an immediate global moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology until an adequate human rights regulatory framework is in place.

  • In 2020, a record high of at least 228 human rights defenders working on land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights were murdered, many of them in the context of extractive industries and/or mega projects, which were linked to corruption and business operations prioritising profit over basic rights.

  • At the EU level, we welcome the process towards a binding legislative initiative on human rights and environmental due diligence for companies, which has the ability to positively affect the protection of HRDs. We are concerned to hear reports that the European Commission has once again postponed its proposal for this legislation although I welcome the comments of Commissioner Urpilainen this afternoon, and we welcome last week's announcement from the Netherlands that, due to the delays in Brussels, it will start drafting its own legislation. We call on the European Commission to move swiftly and propose an ambitious legislative initiative.

  • It is good that this Forum will give attention to equitable access to health care as a basic human right. Earlier this year Front Line Defenders launched the first ever investigation into targeted violence, threats and attacks against sex worker rights defenders, including denial of their rights to access health care. In line with the EU's Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, the EU must ensure visible support for this at risk group of defenders acknowledging the critical work they carry out in defending the basic human rights of communities that are among the most marginalised in all countries.

  • Despite the attacks, the ravages of COVID-19, the loss of employment, the restrictions on movement and the opportunistic imposition of restrictive legislation, the resilience shown by human rights defenders since the pandemic began has been a testament to their courage. This, combined with their crucial work, serves as a reminder of why facilitating an enabling environment for independent civil society and HRDs should be a key priority for the EU and its member states in “building back better”.