For D&I practitioners, the societal climate and political environment are essential context factors. Both have direct impact on what organisations are doing in regards to diversity, equal opportunities or integration. A first of its kind report shows how societal and political dynamics relating to D&I have been changing in recent years – to the point that some equality laws might disappear.
Many non-governmental organisations and civil society institutions cover topics that are central to Diversity Management. Hence, their observation that it has become harder for them to contribute to the protection of societal groups or to promote and fulfil their missions is relevant for D&I. It is actually a key result of the latest report of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) of the EU. It reveals, focusing on 2011 – 2017,
- Disadvantageous changes in legislation or inadequate implementation of laws
- Hurdles to accessing financial resources and ensuring their sustainability
- Difficulties in accessing decision-makers or feeding into law and policy-making
- Attacks on and harassment of people or organisations supporting Diversity & Inclusion.
While the report focuses on the wider areas of civil society actors, it includes a number of important trends, some alarming ones and a few encouraging. It is interesting to see how some topics intersect with some areas of the report as shown by the headlines below.
For companies, the information is essential to note especially with regard to private-public-partnerships or to investment decisions.
Gender politics and funding of NGOs
Due to the more fundamental human rights approach, the report does not focus a lot on associations or work in the gender area. However, it gives two strong examples:
- In Hungary organisations involved in litigation and advocacy in the fields of domestic violence, women’s rights and gender equality did not receive any direct government funding other than the 1 % contributions from personal income tax (2011 – 2017)
- In Poland authorities raided offices of women’s organisations (in 4 cities) which help victims of domestic violence and which participated in anti-government protests (2017)
Regarding funding of Civic Society Organisations (CSOs), the report describes a trend that in an increasing number of EU Member States, CSOs benefit from lottery revenues (Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland and Hungary). However, in Croatia, a 2016 governmental decision resulted that funding available from such revenues dropped significantly – from 14.21 % to 6.88 % – and was put back to 11.18 % after protests. In Slovenia, funding obtained by NGOs grew until 2011 and has been decreasing since 2012.
Disability, accessibility and involvement
Organisations representing persons with disabilities at EU level and in the Member States have limited financial resources and are not always able to fulfil their roles. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), for example, obliges states to closely consult with and involve persons with disabilities and their representative organisations in all decisions that are relevant to them. The EU and 27 of the 28 EU Member States have ratified this convention. In practice, however, there is often a lack of measures to ensure full accessibility to websites, and to offer information in adequately accessible formats. According to the European Disability Forum, the resulting lack of information can impede full involvement by persons with disabilities and organisations that represent them. In Luxembourg, NGOs working for the rights of persons with disabilities have expressed disappointment that the government has not enabled a serious and regular dialogue with civil society.
In other countries, a formal approach to Inclusion is taken. In Malta, for example, the Committee for a Right Society, which is composed of persons with disabilities and their relatives, representatives of persons with disabilities and other experts, designed the first National Disability Policy for Malta (2014). The Maltese Parliament also passed the Sign Language Act (2015), which makes sign language an official language for the Republic of Malta. In Portugal, disability NGOs participate in the definition of policies and laws for the rehabilitation and integration of people with disabilities.
LGBTI* and freedom of assembly
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has noted reports that in Hungary, demonstrations by activists promoting LGBTI or Roma rights are held in a climate of fear and are strictly controlled for ‘safety reasons’. The general situation for assemblies, however, seems to have gradually improved in some Member States. For example, civil society actors report that policing of the annual pride parade in Cyprus ran smoothly (with police making efforts to ensure participants felt safe). The report mentions improved policies to protect freedom of assembly and expression of LGBTI persons in Latvia and in Slovakia (as measured by pride events taking place without incidents).
On the other side, in the Czech Republic, a website hosted abroad and run by ‘Slovak white supremacists’, listed the names and addresses of many Czech LGBTI persons as well as Romani activists and advocates.
Roma and negative public discourse (or smear campaigns)
Hostile public discourse, especially when supported or led by state officials or politicians, has severe negative impact on the societal climate around Diversity & Inclusion. Related to NGOs, it can undermine public trust in the respective organisation and lead to decreasing support or credibility. In Italy, a Roma women’s network reported that widespread anti-Roma attitudes manifest themselves in public hate speech, street harassment, and smear campaigns against Roma people in the media, which populist politicians reportedly tacitly encourage, according to the FRA report. As a result, Roma human rights defenders and CSOs reported lacking the resources to challenge commonplace ‘antiziganism’.
Stigmatisation is another phenomenon the report describes in a few countries. In July 2014, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights firmly condemned the stigmatisation by the Hungarian authorities of NGOs promoting human rights and democratic values (some were called “paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests”).
Ethnicity and consultation in the policy-making process
In many EU member states, consultation procedures form part of the policy-making process, e.g. for ethnic minorities or migrant populations. However, in two countries, the structures that had been created to support this, were removed.
- In Poland, the Council on Preventing Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (established in 2013 as coordination body, e.g. to combat hate speech) was abolished.
- In the Netherlands, the Minorities Consultation Act was repealed in 2013. Since 1997 it had regulated consultations between some organisations representing the interests of ethnic groups as dialogue partners of the national government.
The FRA report also describes examples where existing regulations, such as timeframes, for consultations were not respected. This was reported for Denmark or Germany, where organisations were offered very short time periods – varying between ‘a few hours’, 30 hours and one week – to comment on ministerial draft bills (with profound consequences for migrants or refugees).
On the other hand, a number of EU Member States, including Bulgaria, Finland, Greece, Malta, Romania and Slovenia have created special websites as one-stop-shops for information on upcoming and ongoing consultations.
How the UK could lose its Equality Act
Some of the changes mentioned might look marginal compared to what media have reported in relation to Brexit legislation. The Trade Bill, currently discussed in Parliament, would give Ministers unfettered power to amend ‘retained EU law’, it said – including the Equality Act and Modern Slavery Act. Under the new law, government would be able to pass regulations they consider appropriate ‘for the purpose of implementing an international trade agreement’ including ‘modifying primary legislation that is retained EU law’. Brexit ministers say the Bill was required to ‘give the Government maximum flexibility when implementing trade deals’. Civil rights groups, including Liberty, have protested that it contained no safeguards to protect rights.
The Equality Act, passed by Labour in 2010, brought together existing and partly confusing anti-discrimination laws to guarantee access to employment and services without any discrimination based on age, gender, disability, race, religion or sexual orientation. The Trade Bill “presents a significant threat to rights” unless the Commons stands firm and requires it to be rewritten, “it allows them to change laws that originated from the EU without consulting MPs or the public,” a Liberty spokesman told The Independent.
The need to be alert – and ensure data is available
The FRA report and the anecdotal example from the UK show that many of the D&I achievements of the past decades cannot be taken for granted – not even legal protection that is in place. The FRA also flags out a notable lack of (independent) comparative research covering the situation across all EU Member States, including on gender-, disability-, age- or ethnicity related aspects. Hence, it continues to be critical for all D&I stakeholders to disseminate (and seek!) relevant information from a variety of sources in order to keep up to date on changes in their work context.