In recent years, an active campaign against civil organizations has been developing in Bulgaria. Various public speakers (some of them - also civil organizations), media and even representatives of public institutions call the representatives of the NGO sector with various epithets caring negative context - "Sorosoids", "grant workers", "genders", etc. BHC and other larger organizations have been the targets of smear campaigns, and in 2020, one of the ruling parties at the time even demanded the termination of the human rights organization's registration. Activists working in NGOs are in some cases exposed to physical and verbal attacks, harassment and intimidation. Such incidents happen both online and offline.
All these attacks and campaigns are an attempt to unlawfully restrict freedom of association.
Freedom of association is a fundamental human right. It is the possibility of all people to voluntarily organize themselves into collectives - to form associations, societies, unions, clubs of professional or amateur interests, social, political and non-political organizations with or without an ideal goal, for private benefit or for socially beneficial activity. This right ensures every person to assemble with others and together to express, promote, pursue and defend their ideas.
This right provides citizens the freedom to form various organizations where they can express themselves, encourage each other, and pursue and defend their ideas. The right to freedom of association goes hand in hand with citizens’ freedom to create and participate in political parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), religious organizations, trade unions, and other organizations.
Like the freedom of expression and the freedom to peacefully assemble, the right to freedom of association is subject to certain restrictions
. According to Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), these restrictions must be established by law and are necessary in a democracy society for preserving national or public safety, preventing disorder and crime, protecting health and morale, and defending the freedoms of others. Restrictions must therefore be imposed in response to pressing public need and must be proportional to the severity of the situation. The European Court of Human Rights has identified numerous violations of the right to freedom of association, including in Bulgaria, as a result of disproportionately restrictive measures. On the other hand, in the 2013 case Vona v. Hungaria
, the Court ruled that when the activities of an association consist of disseminating racist threats against a certain group, it may legally be prohibited without contradicting the ECHR.
Civic organizations play a key role in the advancement of our fundamental rights and thus contribute to the functioning of democratic society. They give people the opportunity to express their views on subjects that are important to them, help citizens whose human rights have been violated, monitor the activities of the government, advise policy-making bodies, and hold government entities accountable for their actions.
The scope of these organizations’ activities should be interpreted more broadly in legislation. They must be free to determine their goals and make decisions without state interference. Subsequently, they must be free to express their opinions, disseminate information, engage the public, and lobby governmental and international organizations. In practice, however, the courts have refused to register certain ethnic minority organizations under the justification that they express “political goals.” This reasoning is based on a restrictive interpretation of the law, claiming that organizations cannot be allowed to publicly express political views. As a result, Bulgaria has already been sued several times for violating the right to freedom of association as it is established by the ECHR.
BHC fights for:
- Respect for citizens’ right to freely associate in accordance with the provisions set by international human rights law;
- Registering ethnic minority associations without imposing restrictive requirements regarding their goals nor any perceived threat they pose to national security;
- Removal of discriminatory restrictions on political association for ethnic and religious groups;
- Removal of repressive provisions from the Criminal Code that criminalize the formation of political parties on the basis of religion;
- Effective protection of activities from nongovernmental organizations from threats, abuse, and torment;
BHC has helped complainants in numerous ECHR cases with free legal aid in instances where the Bulgarian authorities have refused to register their organizations or in cases where other restrictive measures have been imposed.