In an interview for the Legal Dialogue, Balázs Dénes, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, talks about the need for a single, Europe-wide human rights watchdog.
What is the idea behind Liberties?
The idea is really simple—we saw a need for a European civil liberties organization. A few years ago we realized that there is a lack of one strong visible Europe-wide human rights watchdog. Of course there are international global organizations covering the EU and some networks that are working at the EU level. And in most EU countries, especially in Central European countries, you find well budgeted organizations and well-staffed watchdogs. On a national level they do a good job, but if it’s about the EU and lobbying in Brussels they don’t really know how to do it. So they are missing important opportunities. Our idea is to develop a service-oriented organization with the aim of helping these national level watchdogs with European advocacy. On the popular front, at the moment we are lacking a strong, organized human rights constituency in Europe. The populists are on the rise, in some countries they are in opposition, in Poland and in Hungary they are in power. Human rights have become a toxic brand in many European countries. But we still believe there is a constituency out there, that there are people who believe in the EU as a protector of rights and liberties, who are pro-Europe and also pro-human rights. We would like to empower these folks, give them tools both on- and offline, and build a big membership organization. The American Civil Liberties Union is a good example—when president Trump got elected, people knew where to turn to if they want to find an organization able to effectively fight bad policies and abusive anti human rights agendas.
One of the biggest strengths of the ACLU are its members. They used to number 500,000, now it’s more than 1 million people. These numbers give huge credibility, legitimacy and power to any human rights organization. And that is missing in Europe in the moment. It’s not like Europeans don’t give to charity—they do, millions of Europeans give to Médecins sans Frontières, Greenpeace, Amnesty International. But when the issues are within the EU and about human rights—it’s less attractive. No one is really trying to organize people around those issues. So this is what we are doing—with the help of national level human rights watchdogs, European advocacy efforts and public education, we are trying to establish a new voice in the European human rights advocacy. We would like to build a membership of supporters who are not only supporting us financially but take part in our campaigns when we try to pressure the EU to do certain things.
Which issues are you working on? The EU is facing so many problems, it can’t be exactly called united these days…
We have 11 members in 11 different EU countries, and we are working on several core issues: privacy and surveillance, freedom of expression and freedom of media, rights protection by the EU, as well as the shrinking space for civil society. We use a wide range of tools. We react to consultations called together by the EU (for example, about the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive) and submit expert opinions to running consultations. We also produce public education materials—videos, animation, and so on. For example, we played an important role in the European Parliament’s resolution about the Hungarian LEX CEU/LEX NGO. We organized a petition, wrote letters to the EU parliament—we were the first who openly and publicly called for a strong resolution by the EU parliament on this issue.
On the shrinking space of civil society, our long-term goal is to see public mobilization and some kind of new legislation by the EU. I don’t think it would be a directive but it could be another legal tool to protect the rights of NGOs. It’s not just Russia and Hungary. There are a hundred of countries who have adopted some kind of legislation to limit the rights of NGO’s over the last 20 years. I think it’s time for the EU to show that this political union is different from the rest of the world and that here, the freedom of congregation is not an empty word—NGOs and social watchdogs should enjoy certain rights here in the EU.
So you think it’s possible to unite the EU around such civil rights issues?
That’s the million dollar question. The EU was started as a peace project. Human rights always played a very important role. At the same time, the EU was never known as a protector of human rights or a protector of the rule of law. There are other institutions, the Council of Europe and different UN bodies, that play an important role in protecting human rights. But the truth is that these organizations, however noble their intentions, have limited influence on the national level. At the same time, the EU has a tremendous influence on its member states not only because of how funding is structured, but also because of how its politics work. So we would like to see the EU wake up; democracy will not protect itself. Outside pressure is not enough, but it is important for the EU to send the right kind of messages. In other words, we would like to see an EU that protects the rule of law in its member states—this is a union of 28 countries. Оf course, the EU is facing many issues, Brexit, just to name one, or the potential banking crisis in Italy, or the question of Greece. But I still believe that the important players of the EU can agree on certain values. Of course there is always an election in one of the countries, but if EU can’t protect important democratic values, checks and balances in the member states—it won’t be able to raise its voice and the future of the union will not be secure. It’s time to agree on some basic principles. I do believe it’s possible.
You said that tools are important. What did you mean?
Look at the European Citizens’ Initiative—it’s a tool provided by the EU. A group of citizens forms a so-called citizens committee, and submits a question or issue to the EU Commission. Once this question gets approved, this committee starts organizing signatures. If it collects more than a million signatures in more than 7 countries within a year then the EU Commission has to deal with it. It’s like an online referendum. It’s progressive and cost-effective, a good tool for civil society to make its voice heard. Yet we have never seen any progressive issues collect a million signatures. We’ve seen conservative issues like the right to life and the right of the fetus to collect more than 2 million signatures by the deadline, huge numbers were coming—the church was involved. We have seen one petition on water and against vivisection and about experiments on animals—I wouldn’t call these conservative but those are not progressive human rights issues either. Can we accept that there is not a million people who agree on progressive issue among the 500 million citizens of the EU and the several hundred million that actually have voting rights? Clearly we do have people out there who will be happy to step up and protect human rights and relevant institutions, but no one is really asking them to—and we will. It’s not rocket science, it’s not like we have to develop brand new tools—of course, we have a range of online potential actions and online tools on our website, the usual stuff any NGO has these days—petitions, signings, different open letters, but that’s not the greatest innovation. The greatest innovation is to combine political participation and find those folks out there who are pro human rights and who are eager to get involved.
How did you unite NGOs in different countries around that idea?
From 2013 to 2016, I was preparing the launch of this organization in my work for the Open Society Foundations (OSF). Previously Liberties ran under they the name of the European Liberties Platform—it existed as an informal unregistered platform for two years. That gave us the time to learn how to work together, to understand the needs of these organizations, what exactly everyone wants. Liberties can be called an Open Society spin-off but it is not based on it. We got a grant from OSF but we are totally independent from that institution and do our own fundraising now. And what’s important—we don’t want to build a wide network. Geographically speaking, it is limited, its focus is the EU. It takes very different measures to protect rights and liberties in Slovakia than it does in Russia or Azerbaijan. We work with one organization per country—these are independent multi-issue civil liberties organizations. We don’t want to exist for the sake of networking alone, we don’t think that building a large membership is the way to justify our existence. Instead we would like to help and play a useful role in the life of these organizations.
The discussion about privacy is usually linked to antiterrorist measures, so it manipulates people’s fears. How do you plan to educate the public?
Advocacy plays a huge role in what we are doing. Then there is legal work—we don’t litigate in our own name, but help our member organizations to litigate and take issues to international courts. We also write expert opinions—there are many ways you can do legal work without litigating. But the most important part is actually informing the public —this is where most of human rights organizations need the biggest help, probably because it presents the greatest challenges. NGOs are notorious for producing documents and papers for their bookshelves, for themselves. These are often very important publications. But I have the feeling that not that many people read them, at least from the public. This is clearly something Liberties wants to try to change. Have a look at what we publish in ‘Me and My Rights’ series on our website, and other, similar documents—these are the type of publications we think will be accessible to people. Explaining difficult legal terms and issues in plain simple language is one of the keys. You can’t expect people to get mobilized if they don’t understand the issue, how do you expect them to understand serious issues if your language is legal lingo full of professional terminology? Public education and communication will play a very important role in what we are doing, using infographics, videos, and social media. Now, having said that, I can also see the limitations of this approach. The first thing is to accept that, however popular we might be, this is still a human rights organization. And human rights these days are not exactly the most popular topic in any country. But even if you look at the 1.2 million members of ACLU in the USA, a country of 300 million—that is only a bit more than 0.3 percent of the population. It is huge from the perspective of an organization, it gives it tremendous credibility and financial security. At the same time, it’s not a popular mass movement in any sense. These are controversial issues and we can’t expect the majority of the population to support us. We would like to empower and find pro-human rights constituencies and groups interested in what we are doing.
So that’s one thing. The second thing is that it is a controversial task to make people understand that human rights are not only for the rights of the marginalized, foreigners, prisoners, refugees, or LGBT. For decades, people in Western Europe grew accustomed to the fact that human rights are there to protect the rights of those who are not in the center of the attention, who are marginalized, who did something wrong, who are in an unfortunate situation desperately running away from a war. For a Dutch, German, French citizens, it was about rights of others. Now with the rise of populism, the world is changing, there is a different crisis everywhere. I think it is time to recognize that human rights are there to protect the rights of everyone. When you protect the rights of journalists to write the truth or to discover corruption and wrongdoings—you are protecting the rights of every single citizen and taxpayer. When you talk about privacy it is really not about the private sphere of criminals or terrorists, it is about the rights of every single citizen who uses Google, has a Facebook account, and who could be the target of government attention. That is a very challenging task—to make people realize that rights and liberties are not only there to protect some poor people in another country or continent. Very deliberately, we chose the name Civil Liberties Union for Europe—not only because what we are doing but partly because of this. Political freedoms and civil liberties could be understood broadly; they are about everyone.
You’ve worked in civil liberties organizations for a long time. What has changed?
This won’t strike a positive note. I have a feeling that what we are seeing today is probably the default mode of civil liberties work. Our experience between 1990 and the early 2000s was probably the exception. Those euphoric years—Glasnost, Perestroika, the fall of the Iron Curtain, all the political changes made us believe it would be a stable change from now on. But now we know that a financial crisis or any major development could stop all that. Clever decision making, innovative civil society players, responsible politicians could change this status quo.
Regardless what we think about refugees and mass migration, it is a fact. Political, environmental and economic issues will force more and more people in the world to leave their countries. We need to develop new narratives, at least start a new discourse about where we see the future of EU. Without further integration and closer cooperation between the EU member states the EU simply won’t be able to adapt to new realities. There should be meaningful channels for people to participate not just every 4 years or 5 years but on an everyday basis. Of course I also see the limits of clicktivism; you sign a petition, you donate 5 euros and you are gone; your conscience is clear. There is clearly a lack of tools to ask for people’s opinion. There are tremendous amounts of information out there, and every single voter has a smartphone. Yet we see very few experiments and efforts not only to inform them but to ask for their cooperation. The need for positive feedback and actual victories is definitive. We need to show it is possible to win.
Balázs Dénes is a Hungarian lawyer and a human rights activist. Since early 2017, he has served as the first Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, a new European human rights watchdog. In 1997, he joined the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), a leading civil liberties watchdog NGO, and after holding various positions he served as its Executive Director from 2004 to 2012. From 2013 till 2016, he worked as the Director of the European Civil Liberties Project at the Open Society Foundation. He is a founding member of several Hungarian NGOs, and serves on the board of the Common Sense for Drug Policy Foundation.