Evelyne Paradis, Executive Director of ILGA-Europe
Check your calendars. Infringements of fundamental rights, like freedom of expression, association, and assembly inside the European Union’s borders in 2015 – surely there is some mistake?
No, unfortunately, that is not a misprint.
LGBTI activists and human rights NGOs are being increasingly impeded in their daily work and the European Union needs to take action before it is too late.
Over the next two days, LGBTI activists from Hungary, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria are gathering in Brussels for intensive meetings with numerous European Commission cabinets, political groups, and MEPs.
They are bringing the day-to-day reality of LGBTI people in their respective countries straight to the desks of the EC policy makers.
These organisations are facing serious challenges in protecting the fundamental rights of LGBTI people. They are looking to the European Commission and European Parliament for support and leadership.
In addition to the hostility and lack of legal protection that LGBTI people face in all four countries, civil society organisations have been affected by the phenomenon often referred to as “shrinking space”.
While this term might sound like a harmless piece of civil society jargon, the practice has a grave impact on the work of human rights groups.
Simply put, shrinking space is the phrase used to describe the process that deprives civil society groups, independent watchdogs, and critical journalists of the oxygen they need to survive.
This space can be shrunk in several ways.
In Hungary for example, the government launched administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs. According to our Hungarian members, investigations have been instigated by the government audit office against every LGBTI organisation operating there.
The organisations singled out for audits have received very limited information on the process or findings, despite requests to hand over personal records and sensitive data.
In Lithuania, the Law on Protection of Minors against Detrimental Effects of Public Information has been applied since 2013.
The law does not specifically target NGOs but, in effect, it is a Russian-style anti-propaganda law and censors LGBTI-related public information. One of our own member organisations faced a broadcasting restriction on two videos they produced, ultimately resulting in a complaint to the European Commission.
In other instances, funding sources have been redirected or cut off completely for some NGOs. Human rights groups have also been excluded from policy-making processes and individual activists are often harassed and intimidated.
Our Romanian member organisations have spoken recently about an LGBTI film screening that was disrupted by violent protestors without any police intervention. Bulgarian activists have also experienced barriers, saying the procedure for organising LGBTI-friendly events can be “chaotic”.
Not only is shrinking space a problem for LGBTI organisations like our members, it is also a threat to wider civil society and the very foundations of democracy.
European Equality Gala
The activists visiting Brussels this week have experienced this infringement on the work of civil society first hand. That is why it is vitally important for our members to come face to face with EU policy makers.
The voices of activists, who understand the real impact that shrinking space for NGOs can have on a country’s people, need to be heard by all in the institutions.
ILGA-Europe will always do our best to act as a support for our activists and be a microphone for their concerns – whether that is through celebrating their achievements at events like our European Equality Gala on Wednesday (24 June) or by providing help with study visits, such as the one taking place right now.
Human rights violations are happening in Europe, both inside and outside the Union’s borders.
The EU needs to show coherence by pushing its member states to respect and promote the rights of LGBTI people in the same manner as it already does for accession and neighbourhood countries, as well as in its external relations.
This is why the EU urgently needs to introduce a comprehensive LGBTI strategy.
Just as ILGA-Europe strive to put our mission statement into action, the European Union must work just as hard to protect the values of democracy, the rule of law and human rights on which it was founded.