Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others temporarily halted by new Russian NGO law

rejected documents
Nils Boehmer/Bellona

Publish date: October 19, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

At least four prominent international human rights organisations have been forced to temporarily stop work in Russia for allegedly failing to comply with Moscow’s tough new guidelines governing the re-registration of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), representatives of the suspended NGOs said.

Moscow’s office of the international rights watchdog, the New York-based Human Rights Watch, had its activities officially stopped temporarily for failing to pass registration guidelines enacted by the Russian government as amendments to its law on NGOs. The amendments were signed into law last January and took effect in April.

Amnesty International has also been forced into temporary closure for what registration authorities said were “several mistakes,” which they would not specify during a telephone interview with Bellona Web, in the world-renowned human rights organisation’s re-registration documents.

The Danish Refugee Council – the only Western humanitarian agency working inside the breakaway region of Chechnya – also has to suspend work until its application for re-registration is cleared.

Medecins Sans Frontieres also saw two of its three arms working in Russia halted.

"We have taken the precaution of suspending our activities in Moscow and the Northern Caucasus," Emma Bell, a spokeswoman for Medecins Sans Frontieres said, Russian media reported. The acclaimed aid organisaton saw its Belgian and French divisions forced to suspend activity in Russia while its Dutch arm registered successfully with officials.

The count of foreign NGOs that have had their registration documents returned and their work suspended is still a matter of debate, even among the Russian officials handling thier cases. But the most consistent figure the Russian media was reporting by Thursday night was 77.

"We’re allowed to go into our offices to pay our electricity bills, but we can’t do anything concerning our work."

“Eliminating foreign NGOs has been part of the Kremlin’s policy all along,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an analyst with Novaya Gazeta, whose star reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, was gunned down earlier this month in a contract killing in connection, it is believed, to her scathing anti-Kremlin coverage of the war in Chechnya.

“This is what was predicted when the (amended NGO) law first came out,” said Pål Skedsmo, an analyst who studies Russia at Oslo’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute, during an interview with Bellona Web.

The letter of the law
The deadline for foreign NGOs and civil society organisations to register with the Ministry of Justice’s Federal Registration Service was Wednesday, October 18th – as stipulated by the new amendments to the Russian NGO law that were drafted by the Kremlin and passed by the Kremlin-friendly parliament last January.

It also requires an accounting of why a given organisation’s operations in Russia are beneficial to Russian society; detailed audits of financial records and sources of financing; down-to-the-penny accounting of how that funding will be spent; profiles of a given NGO’s founders – even if those founders are no longer with the NGO or are dead – and many other items including the onerous demand that copies of all press coverage of a given NGO’s activities be provided to registration officials.

Yet, all three organisations will now have to rework anew those sections of their applications that were denied for alleged filing violations that the Registration Service never indicated were possible, said a representative from one organisation.

But Registration Service Director Sergei Movchan blamed the organisations themselves, accusing them on the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy of “sluggishness” – a foundation for refusal that Movchan said was “objective.”

“We’ve had around 400 visitors,” she said. According to her figures as of Thursday, 95 foreign organisations had been approved, 95 were pending approval and five – who she declined to name – had been refused.

“Carnegie is easy because it plays softball,” said Felgenhauer. “They are never openly critical like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, and they work to foster good relations by inviting (Russian) military officials to speak.” But even the prestigious US-based think tank had to produce a notarised death certificate of its founder, Andrew Carnegie – who died in 1919 – in order to have its papers stamped.

Suspended organisations not allowed to speak –but have plenty to say

Under the new law, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the Danish Refugee Council will have to prepare afresh and resubmit those parts of their applications that were turned down by registration officials. After that, they will simply have to wait for the green light from the Registration Service.

Also speaking on the radio station was Sergei Nikitin, director of Russia’s operation of Amnesty International, who confirmed the temporary closure of their offices for supposedly failing to follow registration specifications. As of today, he said, “our public work has ceased” and several campaigns the organisation had planned before the end of October have been postponed.

“We come to work and deal with our obligations (and) we are waiting for an answer from the Federal Registration Service – when they say that our documents have either been accepted and we are included on the (Registration Service’s) list, or that we need to redo them in some way or another.”

Amnesty’s spokeswoman for the organisation’s head office in London, Lydia Aroyo, took a stronger tack.

"Obviously we are not happy that we had to suspend our work. We are seeking clarification. We will continue researching human rights violations in Russia out of London," she said.

"The new law has no clear implementation guidelines. It is very cumbersome. It’s given us lots of trouble."