In October 2018 Victim Support Europe conducted a round table “Victims of crime in Europe: a broader NGO perspective”. For the forth-consecutive time, Victim Support Europe provided a unique opportunity for NGOs’ representatives to share their good practices and discuss the challenges ahead in the field of victims’ rights. While the participating organisations operate independent of each other, the roundtable provides a forum to connect people that share a common commitment to victims of crime in Europe and identify ways for future partnerships between the EC and NGOs at both European and national levels.
“The current wave of restrictive actions curtailing civil society activity around the world (the problem is particularly acute in Eastern Europe and Central Asia) has affected the way NGOs operate by pushing rights advocacy to the background”, said VSE’s Executive Director Levent Altan. “For victims’ rights advocates these restrictive measures pose a threat in the sea of already existing challenges affecting their sustainability. Stronger national, regional and international collaborations aiming at protecting victims’ rights advocates are essential in order for them to continue their work”.
A dozen NGOs from a range of backgrounds attended the event hosted by DG Justice (European Commission): AMBER Alert Europe, AGE Platform Europe, End FGM European Network, Missing Children Europe, PICUM, FENVAC, European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ), European Women’s Lobby, Inclusion Europe and Victim Support Europe.
The day agenda featured sessions with the presentations of what each NGO is working on at the moment, alongside the examples of the governmental pressures places on NGOs, and steps towards bringing together the coalition to prepare for the European Parliament elections 2019 and to protect the capacity of NGOs and victims’ rights advocates to operate and speak out freely.
Actions to limit NGO viability and operations
In response to the current situation in which dozens of governments are imposing restrictions on NGOs, Asha Allen, Policy & Campaigns Officer at European Women’s Lobby, said that this is not a local phenomenon specifically linked to one country or region, it is a worldwide trend.
One organisation said that only a handful of their members are not experiencing issues, with NGOs under pressure in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, and Croatia. In Italy, organisations working with migrants and victims of trafficking are also under pressure.
Issues included increased conditions to access funding, the amalgamation of different funding streams which in effect results in less funding, and the increasing use of NGOs as symbolic participants, with their views not being taken on board in reality. Negative rhetoric against NGOs is linked to a much broader anti-EU and anti-human rights rhetoric. Part of this being driven by feelings of western interference, or interference by certain individuals such as Soros. In some countries, this has reached the point where there is concern for the safety of some NGOs e.g. in Bulgaria and Slovakia.
Restrictions on funding from foreign donors have had a significant impact on national civil society organisations. Attacks on freedom of association have often been coupled with clampdowns on freedom of expression and assembly, including through internet restrictions, laws undermining the right to protest and persecution of human rights activists.
NGOs throughout the regions continue to struggle to promote a positive public image. Citizens often have a limited understanding of the role of NGOs and NGOs themselves often have limited access to journalists as well as weak public relations skills. Negative perceptions of NGOs are being driven by certain politicians or political parties and NGOs are being opened up to abuse. Some have for example received unwanted packages in the post.
What can be done in these circumstances?
A discussion followed on what can be done in these circumstances. The European Women’s Lobby indicated that they are intending to create a coalition of NGOs from Central, Eastern Europe and Baltic countries to strengthen the force. The organisation is also conducting a research on a European Women’s fund for Gender-equality and women’s rights and also provide sub-granting.
Victim Support Europe said that it works on encouraging a direct contact between NGOs and governments, especially where it has good relations with government offices. The work on building relationships in the field of service delivery is being conducted in particular Hungary and in Croatia at the moment. Others point to the EU Commission’s
Most of NGOs are making attempts to diversify their funding sources, thinking of creative new ways to find resources using public support, trying to build up coalitions and to involve wider partnerships, to find ways to combat anti-NGO rhetoric on the ground by working on the improvement of communication tools to reclaim the debate and developing positive narratives on the subject (doing framing to alter the negative narrative). Joint actions have also taken places using petitions, tweet storms and talking directly to the public rather than to decision makers.
Preparations for European Parliament Elections
The participants of the roundtable shared their thoughts on the future steps regarding the preparation for the European Parliament Elections.
Preparations and ideas included:
- Create coalitions, engaging young people, creating a manifesto (ex. European week of action for girls)
- Address issues of framing, bringing together research on framing and messaging, especially in certain countries.
- Establish women in politics working group in all member states requesting that all countries have parity.
- Launch a tool kit to help members’ campaigns (to support victims, human rights, etc.)
- Launch a training session with the European investment bank on gender budgeting. Get it onto the manifestos of parties.
- Explore how can NGOs support their grassroots members on the field.
It was agreed that the group would continue these discussions in the near future and would meet regarding election preparations and how to reframe messages.