Analytics and Interview

On 16 January 2015 late in the evening the website of the Ministry of Justice published a statement that the NGO Committee Against Torture had been added to the register of non-profit organizations designated as ‘foreign agents’.
Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch and Honorary Participant of International Youth Human Rights Movement: As the crisis in Ukraine escalated this spring, the Kremlin’s vicious crackdown on civil society also escalated. Space for independent civic activity in Russia is shrinking dramatically, but international policymakers and the media have been understandably too distracted to do much about it. Since early spring, it seems as though every week brings a new pernicious law or legislative proposal.
Earlier this year, the correspondent of Youth Human Rights Movement from Germany Jakob Stürmann interviewed Konstantin Baranov, member of the Coordination Council of the International Youth Human Rights Movement. They discussed so called “law against homosexual propaganda” and the overall situation of LGBT in Russia.  

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Oleg Sentsov, Olexander Kolchenko, Hennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy have been held in Russian jails for two years already under fabricated charges of ‘terrorism’. We consider it being necessary to express solidarity with those who are persecuted due to their pro-Ukrainian views, civic stand and desire for freedom in Russia-annexed Crimea.
Helsinki Committee of Armenia has published “Human Rights in Armenia 2014” Annual Report. The report reflects on the Right to Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, Political Persecutions, Freedom of Conscience and Religion, The Rights of the Child, Protection of Labor Rights.
«We have a few questions for you,» a border guard told Sinaver Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar activist, at the Armyansk checkpoint in northern Crimea on Jan. 23. Kadyrov was on his way to Kherson, in southern Ukraine, to fly to Turkey for medical treatment. It was the beginning of an ordeal that ended with a local court expelling him from Crimea, his home of almost 25 years.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority It is time to sit back and reflect.

Mark Twain


Youth Human Rights Movement

A Gathering of Human Rights Activists


On 22-23 of September the Moscow Helsinki Group held a conference for its regional partners. Moscow human rights activists were, naturally, also invited. This type of general meeting was necessary because the working conditions for human rights activists are changing dramatically, as incidentally are the circumstances in the country as a whole. Of course our colleagues in the regions are following events and are aware of the new laws, but if it is difficult for us in Moscow to fully understand how they will affect us all, it must be even more difficult for them to get to grips with. That was why the conference was organised, so that specialists could explain the essence of the new laws (on rallies, defamation, NGOs, and others), answer the questions which our colleagues undoubtedly have and to put our heads together to figure out how we can work in these new conditions.


I opened the conference with these words:

“Of course you all know about these laws and understand what they are about. You understand that there are difficult times ahead for us. This is the general direction of government policy towards civil society. This is their response to the fact that over the last six months it has clearly been gaining momentum.

The authorities faced a choice: to acknowledge the changes that are happening in the country, to start a dialogue with the awakening society, to agree to the overwhelming demand for honesty, respect towards people and consideration for their needs and wishes. They chose another way – to crack down. They chose the solution that is most familiar to them, the one that is easiest for them.

It is up to us to decide how we are going to deal with these challenges. We will not lose heart – if we are united then we are invincible.

The topic of the discussion for today and tomorrow is about the specific challenges we face, and how we are going to fight to overcome them, both together and on an individual level."

There were few speeches made. It was mainly a question of listening to the experts and asking them questions. On the second day we discussed the law that was most directly targeted against our organisations, the law on NGOs. Our colleagues spoke, and came up with several proposals on how to keep human rights organisations going under the new circumstances. The fact is that many human rights organisations do not have even the most basic funding for their activities; many of them work on a voluntary basis. But those that do manage to get funding for their projects receive their money from abroad, not from Russian funds. The reason is clear: human rights activists protect the rights of Russian citizens, whose rights are being violated by the state or by its officials. For obvious reasons our state is not going to fund these activities. There are businesspeople who would like to help the human rights campaigners, because they too are suffering under the absolute power of government officials and the security forces, but we do not have independent business in this country and anyone who risks helping a human rights organisation is putting their business at risk, as well as possibly their own freedom. That is why the strongest human rights organisations, those with funding for their projects, receive their money from foreign sources and should, according to the law on NGOs, register as “foreign agents” by the end of November.

There is no need to explain what a “foreign agent” means in Russian, which is why an alternative was discussed (a non-existent one as it turns out). Refusing to voluntarily register, as required by this law, means putting the organisation at risk of being shut down. So maybe it would be better to register as “a foreign agent” after all? But this too, even putting aside the shameful and unjust stigma attached, will still result in the organisation having to cease operations. No government official is going to deal with an organisation that has decided to label itself as a foreign agent. Many of our citizens will also shy away from having anything to do with such an organisation – after all, for years now our TV stations have been relentlessly expounding on how all other countries are against us, how everyone wants to see Russia’s downfall. So what real alternatives are there? This law is designed to destroy the human rights movement.

How can we exist under these conditions? The conference participants were handed a statement by the Human Rights Council, the membership of which is made up of Moscow’s main human rights organisations.

Statement by the Human Rights Council of Russia

Supported by the majority of the participants of the All-Russian Conference of Human Rights Organisations
Supported by the VI Congress of the All-Russian Movement “For Human Rights”

The recently adopted law “On the Introduction of Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in Regulating the Activities of NGOs Acting as Foreign Agents” is anti-legal in nature and violates the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

This law does not improve state control over the activities of non-governmental, non-commercial organisations who receive financial support from abroad. Even before the adoption of this law the work of these organisations was already completely transparent both to the authorities and to the public. How, in what amounts and for what purposes non-governmental non-commercial organisations spent money allocated to them by their sponsors has always been under the constant scrutiny of the regulatory government bodies.

This law is designed for one purpose – to give the government of our country the opportunity to arbitrarily humiliate and discredit any non-governmental organisation it finds objectionable. It is no coincidence that this law is targeted at precisely those NGOs for whom it is virtually impossible to find financial support, either from the state or from a Russian business community paralysed by fear of the state apparatus.

The main point of this law is to get non-commercial organisations whose activities are either wholly or partly financed by sources from abroad to declare themselves as organisations “carrying out the functions of a foreign agent.” There is another condition – such an organisation should be involved in political campaigns “aimed at influencing the decision-making of state bodies with the aim of changing the government policy they draw up, and also in the formation of public opinion for the above purposes.” The vague and unclear wording of the law opens up the widest possible opportunity for arbitrary decisions to be made. Based on a host of laws that have already been in force in this country for a number of years, we can see that these types of “flexible” rules are selectively “stretched” by the authorities to apply to those individuals and organisations who are inconvenient or make life unpleasant for them, or who come across as hostile. That is exactly what is going to happen with this law.

This law distorts the principles of the activities of non-commercial organisations who receive financial support from abroad. In Russian the word “agent” means a person (either an individual or a legal entity) who is acting on behalf of or in the interests of someone else, and also a secret or regular member of the intelligence service. Our organisations have never carried out the orders of anybody outside the organisation, including our sponsors. If any sponsor ever tried to give us any such orders, it would lead to an instant breaking off of our relationship.

Our organisations have always acted in the interests of the citizens of this country. It is precisely in pursuit of these interests that members of Russian non-commercial, non-governmental organisations seek to bring to justice those who torture people in police stations, give testimony in court against corrupt officials, try to block the destruction of the natural environment by state and private corporations, help out in children’s education, etc.

It is precisely in pursuit of these interests that our representatives defend the interests of Russian citizens against infringements of them by the Russian state in the European Court of Human Rights. It is precisely in pursuit of these interests that we take part in election monitoring and participate in mass protests against election fraud.

However, the new law states that organisations which engage in these types of activities and which are funded by foreign sponsors are obliged to declare themselves as foreign agents. If an organisation does not consider itself to be such an agent and therefore does not declare itself as such, it makes no difference – government officials who believe the organisation is a foreign agent will bring either administrative or even criminal charges against the organisation and its members. In this way the key factor, in determining whether the organisation is classified as a foreign agent, is not established by the courts, but is at the arbitrary discretion of employees of the executive authorities.

The offence in this case is not collaborating with a foreign organisation but the fact of not recognizing this collaboration. Such a practice, of being punished not for the crime but for the refusal to admit one’s guilt in carrying out the functions of a foreign agent, is a total violation of the rule of law. A non-governmental organisation and citizens who are members of it in this situation are not equal subjects in the eyes of the law, but irrational objects of persecution by all-knowing officials. In this way the new law forces a significant proportion of Russian NGOs to publicly declare something about themselves that is untrue.

All organisations responsible for accounting for their own funds have to register with the Russian Ministry of Justice. The fact they are registered means that the state does not believe the organisation's goals and tasks pose a risk to the interests of the citizens of Russia or of the country. Accounts of the activities of NGOs in the prescribed format are sent annually to the Ministry of Justice and are posted on the Justice Ministry website by the organisations themselves. These reports are freely available to anyone who wants to read them. However, the new law discriminates against some organisations that are not prohibited, and whose activities therefore are not considered to pose a danger to the public.

Why does the new law not apply to organisations that are trying to "influence the decision-making of state bodies with the aim of changing the government policy they draw up" in science and culture, but does apply to organisations that are doing the same thing in the fields of education and human rights monitoring? Moreover, those who refuse to comply with the requirements of this law are threatened with heavy sanctions, including criminal prosecution and even imprisonment.

It is clear that in their zealousness to protect, the authors of the law forgot about Article 13 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, since according to part 4 of this article "public organisations are equal in the eyes of the law," and this means the law has no right to discriminate against any of them.

All of the aforementioned leaves us no other choice but to resolutely refuse to register as "NGOs carrying out the functions of a foreign agent." Complying with these types of anti-legal acts is not in the interests of the people, organisations, government officials or judges. On the contrary, complying with them may lead to punishment sooner or later. The history of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s serves as an example of this (even given the difference in scale of the illegality of the "lawmaking" there and in modern-day Russia). German judges bore criminal responsibility precisely for carrying out the anti-legal acts of Nazi laws.

Ludmila Alekseeva, Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Boris Altshuler, Director of the NGO Right of the Child, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Valery Borshchev, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Yuri Vdovin, member of the Human Rights Council of Russia, Deputy Chair of the human rights organisation Citizens Watch (St. Petersburg)
Svetlana Gannushkina, Chair of the Civil Assistance committee
Sergei Kovalev, Chairman of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Centre
Oleg Orlov, member of the council of the Memorial Human Rights Centre
Lev Ponomarev, Executive Director of the All-Russian movement For Human Rights, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group;
Lilia Shibanova, Chair of the GOLOS Association for the Protection of Voters' Rights

22 September 2012 Supported by the VI Session of the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights
23 September 2012 Supported by the majority of the participants of the All-Russian Conference of Human Rights Organisations

We did not hold a formal vote in support of this document in the sense of counting votes. We simply asked people in favour of this statement to raise their hands and those who did were in the majority.

I have one concern - to preserve our human rights community in these difficult times that lie ahead for us. It is possible that the leaders of some organisations will bow to the pressure and agree to register as "foreign agents." This would be a mistake, as it would make it impossible to preserve the organisation. However, they would be taking this erroneous step precisely in order to preserve the organisation, so it would be wrong to condemn them for doing so. The human rights community should not repudiate them. They will have enough to contend with as a result of taking this false step. I really do not want them to be subjected to the righteous anger of their colleagues.

Our community, which we can boldly call a brotherhood, was not created in a single year, and in being tested it should become stronger, and will not be destroyed. It is only through unity and mutual support that we will be able to survive these difficult times. The preservation of unity is for me the most important thing in these upcoming trials. This is what I talked about in my closing speech at the conference and I sincerely hope that my message was heard.

Ludmila Alekseeva lives in Moscow and is chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. 

Source: LiveJournal