Input to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association on developments in Croatia – report on the CSO access to resources

In February 2022, Human Rights House Zagreb (HRHZ) prepared a contribution to the call for inputs from the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for purposes of his thematic report to be presented at the 50th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC).  Thematic report to the HRC will be dedicated to the study of trends, developments, and challenges regarding the ability of civil society organizations to access resources, including foreign funding. The Special Rapporteur has emphasized that access to resources is crucial to the existence and operations of civil society organizations, as well as to the sustainability of their contributions to political, social, and economic development. In the light of that, Human Rights House Zagreb submitted main observations concerning access to resources for civil society organizations in Croatia that are based on our experience and continuous monitoring of the environment for work and development of civil society in Croatia. The following main observations and trends were noted: 

General conditions for work of civil society in Croatia have deteriorated in the past several years due to the combination of continuing issues and additional challenges that emerged in relation to the spread of Covid-19 pandemic. Access to adequate funding for CSOs is considerably aggravated due to the ongoing lack of public initiatives or policies for civil society development that would foster conditions for work of civil society in Croatia. The National Strategy for the Creation of an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development expired in 2016. The development of a new sectoral public policy on civic space has started but it has not yet been drafted or adopted. The National Program for Protection and Promotion of Human Rights expired in 2016 and a new one has also not been adopted for the fifth year in a row resulting in absence of policy measures for the support of civil society organizations active in protection and promotion of human rights.

Various obstacles and challenges in access to resources faced by civil society organizations in Croatia have been identified through research conducted in 2020 by Human Rights House Zagreb. 

  •  The research indicated a high level of distrust of Croatian CSOs towards domestic institutions that allocate funds from the state budget as well as European Structural and Investment (ESI) funds, as opposed to the EU programs in relation to which no similar problems were detected. The research also identified significant administrative barriers that increase the workload of CSOs. The application process for associations’ projects is often too demanding. The project application phase is also problematic due to the inconsistent implementation of the indicative calendar of public calls for proposals and tenders for ESI funds and the state budget. The same is not the case when applying for projects from the European Union Programs. The findings also point to the overly lengthy evaluation of projects within ESIF calls for proposals. In the case of projects financed from the state budget, associations consider the evaluation process to be non-transparent as they often do not receive an evaluation nor an explanation of awarded points. 
  • Due to the frequently lengthy evaluation process for reports and requests for reimbursement of project funds from ESI funds, many associations encounter liquidity problems in the implementation of these projects. Additionally, the implementation of projects financed from ESI funds is characterized by significant administrative demands that negatively affect the associations’ work with beneficiaries. The quality assessment method based on the order in which applications are received (the so-called ’fastest finger first’) favors associations that submitted projects earlier instead of considering the quality of the project proposal as the basic criterion for awarding funds. Short-term forms of financing for projects of civil society organizations negatively affect the work of organizations engaged in long-term advocacy and watchdog activities.
  • Due to the lack of systematic public funding, organizations that provide social services to vulnerable groups in vulnerable communities face difficulties in terms of the sustainability of their support programs. Certain existing problems in society and communities have not been recognised by domestic donors and as such are not included in the existing funding programs or the new programs that are being developed. 
  • The research concludes that administrative barriers are almost always used to refer to the quality of the relationship between civil society organizations and public authorities, which CSOs often described as non-partner. The analysis showed that civil society organizations have already developed capacities and often emphasize their wish to further develop capacities to continue working on combating certain social problems and developing additional social services to citizens. 

Finally, emergency measures adopted as a response to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic reflected on the work of CSOs. Due to restrictions on movement and assembly, it was impossible to carry out certain activities such as education, conferences, and other events. Campaigns and other advocacy activities were more difficult to implement since the information about coronavirus dominated the media space. In April 2020, the Croatian Government did not include the civil society sector in the recovery measures when it announced mitigation measures for the consequences of Covid-19 epidemic intended for beneficiaries of EU funds and the Decision on restricting the use of funds foreseen in the state budget. Moreover, some counties abolished or put on hold financing of CSOs from the local budget which negatively affected the work of CSOs on the local level.

HRHZ will continue to closely follow the work of the Special Rapporteur and the presentation of the above mentioned Report to the HRC and will make use of the findings and recommendations in domestic advocacy for better conditions of work for human rights defenders and their organizations. 

The whole submission is available at this link

Photo: Universal Rights Group

Project A NEW BEGINNING – Sectoral Innovations for a Proactive, Progressive and Influential Human Rights Civil Society is supported with €199,909.82 of financial support from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway under the EEA and Norway grants. Project is implemented by Human Rights House Zagreb, Center for Peace Studies, Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights – Osijek and Human Rights House Foundation.