In many countries civil society seems to be under pressure. Collective citizens' efforts, especially when they have political salience, seem to be regarded with increasing suspicion and even to be actively countered in many states.

The Russian Federation has, since 2012, legally obliged foreign-funded civil society organisations engaged in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents”. Activists and organisations in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan have been verbally and physically attacked and even been criminalized for having allegedly received external funding.  These restrictions on foreign funding may have caught the public eye the most, because of their international dimension. But pressure on civil society has certainly not been limited to this issue. Independent media also face pressure. Public protests and demonstrations are increasingly caught in a net, woven of strands of disproportionate police reactions and formal bureaucratic rules.

Anti-NGO laws, arbitrary inspections and even harassment and criminalization all strike at the roots of civic space. Is this part of a trend of "reverse transitions", in which countries slide away from democracy? Or is this maybe an even wider trend, of which reflections can also be observed in more established democracies? What are the possible causes of this shrinking or closing civic space, how does the closing manifest itself, and what are the linkages to human rights?

This talk will focus on anti-NGO measures, particularly in Europe (but as part of a broader global trend) and on the possibilities to use the European Convention on Human rights as a lens to frame and address this phenomenon. It is part of a larger project on the issue, which will also encompass media freedom and public protest as two areas in which the same shrinking space phenomenon can be observed.


Antoine Buyse, is full professor of human rights in a multidisciplinary perspective and director of the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) at Utrecht University. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, member of the editorial board of the Dutch human rights review, and he hosts a weblog about the European Convention on Human Rights ( ). He is co-coordinator of the University's Focus Research Area 'Cultures, Citizenship and Human Rights' and is connected to the Montaigne Centre for Judicial Administration and Conflict Resolution and the University's strategic theme 'Institutions'. He is a member of the executive committee of the Association of Human Rights Institutes and organised the 2016 AHRI international research Conference in Utrecht.

Both a historian and legal scholar by training, he wrote his PhD at Leiden University on post-conflict housing restitution for refugees and displaced people, with a case study on Bosnia and Herzegovina. His special areas of expertise are the European Convention on Human Rights, human rights in post-conflict situations, and transitional justice. In the past years, he has worked on research investigating the linkages between the freedom of expression and violent conflict escalation. Currently, he is embarking on a project concerning reverse transitions from a human rights perspective, focusing on shrinking civic space, as evidence by restrictions on civil society organisations, the media, and public protest. He has received the Fruin Prize, the Max van der Stoel Prize, the Erasmus Study Prize and the Wiarda Prize for his academic work.

Antoine teaches on human rights in the human rights track of Utrecht University's LLM in Public International Law as well as in the MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights. Internationally, he teaches in the European MA in Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice. Together with Utrecht colleagues he has developed the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) 'Human Rights for Open Societies : An Introduction into the European Convention on Human Rights), available on the Coursera platform:

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