The draft law on civil society in Russia

Publish date: November 25, 2005

The Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre
Postboks 8114 Dep.
0032 OSLO

Dear Minister,

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and The Bellona Foundation are seriously concerned about what we consider an attack on the freedom of association in the Russian Federation. On November 23, Russia’s State Duma, approved (“with 370 ”for”, 18 – ”against”, 3 – ”neutral”) a first reading a draft law entitled ”On introducing Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation”. The draft law is particularly aimed at restricting the activities of non-governmental organsations (NGOs) working in Russia.

The law would, if it enters into force, require that several hundred thousand Russian NGOs would have to re-register under a new and stricter regime. Moreover, the representative offices of international NGO’s, foundations, groups providing social services and others, would have to re-register as purely Russian membership organisations with headquarters in Russia or face liquidation. The law would impose restrictions on their ability to receive foreign donations or hire foreigners to their offices. Only citizens of the Russian federation or non-citizens with a permanent residence permit will be allowed to represent the organisation. The authorities that will implement the registration processes under the new law will be authorized to make decisions under such unclear criteria as “extremist activities” or “(providing) help to legalise illegal assets”. The Russian authorities will also be given wide powers to make inspections of the organisations under unclear pretexts.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and The Bellona Foundation has observed the political situation and the diminishing respect for fundamental human rights in Russia over the last years. For this reason, we are seriously concerned about the present draft law. We have witnessed how the checks and balances on the executive power gradually have been demolished under president Putin’s regime. The independent media has been almost eradicated, parliamentary opposition has become marginalised and the popular election of the governors has been abolished. Perceived opponents among businessmen, environmentalists and scientists are jailed or forced into exile. Now, the Russian administration has shifted its focus to another sector of civil society, the non-governmental organisations.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and The Bellona Foundation would like to underline that non-governmental organisations, both national and international, make a huge and positive contribution to the development of Russian society.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and The Bellona Foundation seriously fear that the background for the draft law is a critical attitude towards human rights NGOs, in particular those criticizing the government policy in the Chechen Republic. In The Norwegian Helsinki Committee report “The Silencing of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya and Ingushetia”, published by The International Federation for Human Rights, we have documented the pressure under which human rights defenders and representatives of human rights NGOs live.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and The Bellona Foundation oppose the draft law on NGOs. The law would curtail plurality in Russian society and reduce the contact between Russian and foreign society. The law in its current form interferes with basic norms and principles of the international law, i.e. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the freedom of association in particular.

A strong and independent civil society is an important factor in guaranteeing the functions of democratic state. Apart from the negative consequences for domestic NGOs, there are important international organisations, including Norwegian ones, which successfully operate in Russia risk being refused to continue their work. We hope that the Norwegian authorities will express support for the work of the civil society in Russia, and condemn the present draft law “On introducing Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation”.

Copies to:
Minister of International Development, Erik Solheim, The Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Ulrich Fischer, President of The International Helsinki Federation

Yours sincerely,

Bjørn Engesland
Secretary General, The Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Frederic Hauge
Director, The Bellona Foundation