Russia strangles international indigenous peoples organization as war on NGOs continues

ingressimage_nenetstundramen.jpg Photo: Courtesy of the Barents Observer: Thomas Nilsen

The organization, RAIPON, or the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East, plays a central role in international cooperation among indigenous peoples and other Arctic states, and is an important link in the United Nations toward advancing that end.

Last spring, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat signed an official cooperation agreement with RAIPON – an agreement that implied no financial support, but is one the Barents Secretariat told Bellona its hopes to renew in its continued work with RAIPON.

The 22-year-old organization represents the interests of 41 indigenous groups representing approximately 250,000 people and 34 regional and ethnic organizations. The peoples it represents are spread over some 60 percent of the territory of Russia from Murmansk to Kamchatka.

The group’s leaders have expressed in press reports their befuddlement as to why they have been singled out for closure by Russia’s Justice Ministry.

RAIPON’s leaders have also sent a letter of appeal to President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asking that they intervene and prevent their shutdow, the Artika-Info  Russian news agency reported.

Closing RAIPON not Russia’s decision

At both a workshop of the Arctic NGO Forum on Monday and Tuesday, and a meeting of the Arctic Council held Wednesday, the unilateral closure by Russia of RAIPON by Russia’s Justice Ministry was a topic of fierce discussion.

The intergovernmental Arctic Council is composed of Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States.

Sigurd Enge, an advisor with Bellona and a member of the Arctic NGO Forum, who attended the Forum’s workshop prior to the Arctic Council meeting, said that Russia does not have the right to unilaterally kick out or remove RAIPON, as its removal would require the consent of the Arctic Council’s seven other member states.

Arctic NGO Forum mounts protest of RAIPON’s closure.

The Arctic NGO Forum drafted a November 14 dated letter – obtained by Bellona – to the Arctic Council protesting the closure of RAIPON, saying,  “We are concerned to learn of the Russian Ministry of Justice’s recent suspension of the legal status of RAIPON […] the official organization representing Russia’s Arctic indigenous peoples. The letter itself is still in draft form, and its wording was heavily discussed during the forum. The official version of the letter has yet to be released, as all participants of the forum must agree on its final content, which they have not done yet.

“RAIPON has a long and respected history as a Permanent Participant in the Arctic Council,” continues the letter in its draft form.   

“RAIPON has earned the respect of Arctic Council member states, Permanent Participants and Observers as a highly professional organization that has consistently made valuable contributions to the Council’s work for a better future,” says the letter, adding that, “Consistent with the Council’s own rules of procedure, only a consensus decision of the Council may remove RAIPON’s Permanent Participant status.”

“We believe that the action of the Ministry of Justice to suspend RAIPON’s legal status may have the unintended consequence of threatening the integrity of the processes of the Arctic Council,” the letter concluds, in its current form.

Powerful international partners

Indeed, the organization’s international ties are powerful and formidable.  

RAIPON has a special consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council and is observer in the Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum of the United Nations Environment Program.

Many members of RAIPON’s presidium, further, are members of the Russian government’s Public Chamber, as well as of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on indigenous rights, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the UN Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations.

Enge said the Arctic NGO Forum’s letter has not yet officially been sent to the Arctic Council, as all forum members have yet to review and sign it, given that it was only drafted yesterday.

Bellona ‘very concerned’ for RAIPON’s fate

At present, Enge said that Bellona is “very concerned with the recent developments surrounding RAIPON,” and “hopes their legal status will be expeditiously resolved.”

Repeated phone calls to Russia’s Foreign Ministry from Bellona on RAIPON’s status went unanswered Thursday.

The move against RAIPON comes at a time when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin earlier this week promised his newly formed human rights council that he would review the controversial law on NGOs that receive foreign funding passed this summer at the beginning of his third term, requiring them to register as “foreign agents” with Russia’s Justice Ministry, and undergo biannual audits of their activities.

Many NGOs took Putin’s words as a hopeful signal, but Bellona’s Igor Kudrik dismissed Putin’s declarations as empty rhetoric.

Despite recent promises, Kremlin war on NGOs continues

The NGO law has severely tightened the screws on foreign funded nonprofits, even though it has yet to enter into legal force, and thus far has seen the ouster of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on October 1, which supported the work of dozens of civil society organizations in Russia.

RAIPON in Justice Ministry’s sights for two years

RAIPON, according to Bellona’s Enge, has for two years been the target of Justice Ministry efforts to shut it down as the Ministry tried to enforce many of the previous laws squeezing NGOs that took effect during Putin’s first two terms as president.

For it’s part, RAIPON has reportedly made several attempts bring its statutes into line with the Justice Ministry’s growing list of requirements for NGOs.

The attempts have not met with success, however, according to the Barents Observer news portal, because they did not receive sufficient authorization by RAIPON’s member organizations.

RAIPON has twice been to court, reported the news portal, to dispute ministry decisions to shut it down. RAIPON intends to appeal these verdicts, its deputy head, Pavel Sulyandzigi, said, according to the Barents Observer, and the organization is reaching out to its international partners for help.

This, said Enge, is hopefully where the draft letter from the Artic NGO Forum and its broad international support can be of help.

The Arctic NGO Forum’s roots

Initially established with funding from the European Commission Directorate General for the Environment,

in 2011, the Arctic NGO Forum’s mandate is to provide a consistent method for NGOs concerned with Arctic environmental issues to meet, exchange ideas and perspectives and provide advice to the global Arctic community.

The forum meets twice yearly. Its meeting earlier this week in Haparanda, northern Sweden, was to focus on petroleum activities in the Artic. The forum is coordinated by other powerful international bodies such as the United Nations Environmental Programs’s GRID Arendal.

Were did RAIPON’s relations to Moscow sour?

RAIPON deputy head Sulyandzigi told the Barents Observer that it remained a mystery to him as to why the organization has drawn criticism from Moscow.

He told the portal that its relationships with federal authorities had, from his perspective, always been good. Russia’s new Law on the Arctic, which is currently in the draft stage, is likewise expected to take great pains to highlight and enshrine the rights of indigenous peoples.

Anja Salo, and advisor on issues of indigenous peoples issues at the Norwegian Barents Secretariat said RAIPON’s closure will have serious negative impacts for indigenous peoples in the Barents area, said the Barents Observer.

“If Raipon as an organization is shut down, it will have serious impact on the indigenous peoples in the Barents Region,” she said, adding that the indigenous peoples of Russia “will lack a common political voice” to influence federal decisions that affect them. They will also be stymied their cooperation on an international level in the sphere of indigenous peoples affairs.

Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide expressed hope that the situation with RAIPON would ultimately will be resolved from the Russian side.

At the same time, he underscored that that the involvement of indigenous peoples is a key pillar in Arctic cooperation that is “impossible to remove.”

Charles Digges