Role of NGOs discussed at world’s first G20 Civil Summit in Moscow

ingressimage_civil20.jpg Photo: Source: civil20.org

This year, Russia holds the presidency of the Group of Twenty – the high-level forum of the world’s 20 major economies as represented by their finance ministers and central bank governors – and will host the 2013 G20 leaders’ summit in St. Petersburg in September. The Civil 20 Summit, according to the description of the event on the official website of Russia’s G20 Presidency, is the “concluding event of the Civil Track of Russia’s G20 Presidency.”

“Russia is the first presiding country to organize the civil society consultations process in this format, and at such level. Its main goal is to promote fruitful dialogue between global civil society, politicians and decision-makers focusing around the priorities set out in the official G20 agenda for 2013,” the description says. “The Civil 20 recommendations are expected to influence the G20 Summit agenda and Leaders’ final Communiqué.”

The final recommendations were prepared by the Civil 20’s working groups and were arranged in sections focusing on International Financial Architecture, Environmental Sustainability and Energy, Anti-Corruption, Jobs and Employment, Food Security, and Financial Inclusion and Financial Education. The Civil 20’s Address to the G20 Leaders, a civil communiqué containing the prepared recommendations, is planned to be handed to the leaders of the G20 states in September 2013, according to information about the recommendations on the Civil 20 website.

The G20 Civil Summit was opened by Ksenia Yudaeva, Chief of the Presidential Experts’ Directorate and the Russian G20 Sherpa; Mikhail Fedotov, Chairman of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights; and Michel Sidibé, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Ksenia Yudaeva read Russian President Vladimir Putin’s welcoming address to the Civil 20 summit.

“It is encouraging to see how the constructive dialogue between the G20 and civil society is expanding and shifting to the new dimension, bringing together a wide range of experts, representatives of non-governmental organizations, public figures and concerned citizens to discuss current global challenges,” the president’s address read in part.

“We see the key goal of the dialogue with civil society in making sure that the anti-crisis measures taken by the G20 and the leading international financial institutions were transparent and inclusive, and thereby winning the confidence of the people,” the president’s address also said. “It is important to use the practical experience of civil society organizations to work out a balanced strategy for global development.”

Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich ready to back amendments to ‘foreign agent’ law

The very first question from the audience during the first plenary meeting, which focused on a discussion of economic growth and how it is linked with the level of development of civil society, was regarding the pressure that has been applied to Russian non-governmental organizations as authorities set about implementing the provisions of last year’s law on so-called “foreign agents.” The question was addressed to the only speaker representing the Russian government at the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich.

The question, reads a news report by the Agency for Social Information (ASI)  posted on the official Civil 20 website, came from a representative of the “Dobryi Zhest” (Goodwill Gesture) charitable foundation. “Why am I a foreign agent? We are engaged in charity work in the Volga region, working with deaf people. As it turns out, if we get external funding for our charitable programs, we have no opportunity to cooperate with the state. This is really strange to me,” the story quoted the questioner as saying.

Dvorkovich said in response that now, “on the basis of this legislation’s practical application amendments should be discussed; formulated and, apparently, adopted,” according to the ASI report.

When the new law on “foreign agents” came into force in November, requiring Russian NGOs to register as such if they receive funding from abroad and engage in what is vaguely defined as “political activity,” NGOs boycotted registering themselves under the moniker – which for many implies a strong Stalin-era “spy” connotation – with the Russian Ministry of Justice. President Putin then charged prosecutors throughout Russia’s regions with ensuring enforcement of the law. This came in unexpected ways. In March, prosecutors, coupled with representatives of Russia’s fire and health inspectorates, tax inspectorates, and other unrelated agencies began unannounced sweeps on NGOs with the aim of revealing violations of various civil codes and assessing fines.

Some 600 NGOs – human rights, ecological, sociological, and even charitable organizations that depend on financial support from foreign sources – were targeted in these sweeps, widely seen as another hammer-blow in the campaign to stifle Russian civil society that has marked much of Putin’s rule, both during his last two terms and the beginning of his third. Among these NGOs was Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch, the Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, which is currently awaiting decisions on fines related to alleged violations of the fire code. Hundreds of other NGOs are also currently awaiting fines resulting from unannounced prosecutorial raids. So far, however, only two NGOs in Russia have had fines levied against them for not registering as foreign agents.

According to the ASI report, the former Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin, now Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University, also supported the initiative of Russian NGO representatives to discuss the law during the summit and to develop their own recommendations. In response, Dvorkovich proposed to send him a complete package of amendments to the law on “foreign agents,” the Civil 20 website reported.

“I’m prepared to hand them over to the Government for consideration and support them as a citizen,” the news report quoted Dvorkovich as saying.

Meeting with Putin

Russian President Putin did not make a personal appearance to meet with all the Civil 20 Summit participants, but a meeting with the president did take place on the second day of the summit within a smaller circle of working group co-chairs. At the meeting, each of the participants presented their part of the Civil20 Address to the G20 Leaders.  

The meeting was attended by delegates from Russia, Mexico, and Australia, the three countries that currently make up the G20’s official governing group, which comprises the current, previous, and upcoming presiding countries, according to a news release on the event on Russia’s G20 Presidency website, which includes a transcript of Putin’s remarks. Representatives of Turkey, which will follow Australia as the G20 presiding country, also took part in the meeting, the release said.

Speaking about civil society representatives’ contribution to the upcoming G20 discussions, President Putin again stressed the importance of the expertise brought to the table by civil society organizations, saying, in part, during his opening remarks:

“[…] no matter how well prepared the experts who plan and work on these sorts of events […], officials and organizations dealing with official business always face some professional limits, which at times make it hard for them to see beyond the horizons of their own professional interests. This is why I think that this kind of work with civil society organizations and their representatives is needed too, and I hope it will become a regular feature at future events of this kind.”

Putin again mentioned non-governmental organizations’ input when speaking about environmental challenges:

“Environmental standards is one of the most pressing issues of our time that is always raised, regardless of the venue and format of our meetings. I fully agree that we must continue our efforts in this area. […] I will not go into detail but I want to stress that the participation of non-governmental organizations is exceptionally important here for several reasons,” Putin said, according to the transcript.

Putin on ‘foreign agent’ law: I agree about ‘certain problems’

During the meeting with Putin, the Reverend Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia and chair of the Australian C20 Steering Group, raised the issue of working out unified standards for the activities of civil society, including non-governmental non-profit organizations in all G20 countries. The Civil 20 tried to push the thorny issue of the “foreign agent” law beyond just the Russian borders, by drawing the G20 leaders’ attention to the subject and stating that it will also be discussed at the next Civil 20 summit, in Australia.

According to the Reverend Costello, Australia, which will assume the G20 presidency next year, will carry on the Civil 20 summit practice established in Moscow, and plans to gather the next summit have already been officially approved in Australia.

The Reverend Costello, according to another ASI report published on the Civil 20 website, called President Putin’s attention to the transnational scope of the present-day NGO activities. Social organizations receive support from international and foreign sources, both governmental and private, the report said. For instance, World Vision Australia receives $10 million a year from the government and dozens of millions more from numerous donors in and outside the country, according to the report.

During the meeting, Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Chairman Fedotov presented the Civil Communiqué – the C20’s address to the G20 leaders – to the president, the ASI report said. The Civil 20’s address to the leaders says, in part: “Civil society is transboundary and depends not only on local and national interests. This is precisely why it can and should become an important part of the global political dialogue. Transboundary financial support of civil society organizations is a common practice. When the activity of NCOs is legal and transparent, international financial support and participation in international cooperation should not be grounds for doubting their legitimacy.”

The ASI report cited President Putin as saying during the discussion that he did not think the law was limiting NGO activity.

Putin pointed out that in Russia, foreign organizations are allowed to engage in political activities. “[…] Only those organizations that receive money to engage in domestic political activity must register,” he said, according to the transcript of his remarks on the Russian G20 Presidency website. “That’s it; their activity is not prohibited. I want to emphasize this and for you all to know it.”

“However, I agree with our colleagues, including my adviser, about certain problems,” Putin said, according to the transcript. “We need to examine how things are enforced in practice, and reflect on how to improve the legislation, so that it doesn’t disturb anyone’s work, so that the government’s suspicions are not aroused by specific organizations, and so that these organizations are not disturbed.”

Foreign agents in Russia and abroad

Putin also compared the recent Russian practice with that in other G20 countries, including the United States, pointing out that Russian legislation is “much more liberal,” according to the transcript: “[…] in the United States, any public organization receiving money from abroad and working in the environment, with mothers and children, in any field, must register as a foreign agent. In our country this concerns only those organizations engaged in domestic politics.”

As the “foreign agent” bill was being introduced, references were made by the law proponents – and repeated numerous times later – to what they presented as analogous legislation in the United States, which in 1938 passed a law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). “The purpose of FARA, the FAQ section on the bill reads, “is to insure that the U.S. Government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws. In 1938, FARA was Congress’ response to the large number of German propaganda agents in the pre-WWII U.S..”

But, according to Bellona’s analysis of the FARA legislation, the 75-year-old law has since been changed several times and targets individuals, not organizations. Additionally, organizations under FARA are not required to publicly declare themselves to be “foreign agents” – they just have to register with the U.S. Justice Department. And such organizations are hardly subject to any government prejudice – a risk that has been more than obvious for Russian NGOs since the Russian law went into effect last year.

The late Yury Shmidt, the prominent Russian jurist and ERC Bellona board member, said in an interview last October: “[…] the initiators of that ‘marvelous’ law that requires non-profit organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ cite a 1938 bill that was adopted in the United States, and where almost everything is different: The background, the circumstances, the goals, the people, finally, the definition of ‘agent’ itself. In Russian, the word means either a physical person or a legal entity ‘acting on behalf of, in the interests of someone, as well as of a covert or staff employee of a secret service.’ What do Russian non-profit organizations have to do with this definition?”

According to the ASI report, President Putin is willing to discuss the law’s practical application and whatever amendments that may be found necessary. The ASI report said that Putin’s meeting with Fedotov on this topic is scheduled for August.

“However, I agree with Mr. Fedotov,” Putin continued, according to the transcript, “that the practice of the law must not go beyond the scope of decisions made, should be unencumbered, and should not interfere with anyone’s work. We’ll certainly reflect on this, including with civil society.”

The ecological part of the address to the G20 leaders was presented by Evgeny Shvarts, Director of Conservation Policy at World Wild Fund and co-chair of the Civil 20’s Environmental Sustainability Issues working group.

Civil 20’s recommendations: Environmental Sustainability and Energy

The summit’s final recommendations concerning environmental sustainability and energy were formulated in a series of items encompassing a broad range of issues, including: greenhouse gas emissions and emissions reduction goals; green growth requirements for infrastructure projects, with a recommended exclusion of large dam hydropower, nuclear, coal, and oil projects from infrastructure projects in developing countries and an emphasis on decentralized energy grids and renewable energy infrastructure; phase-out of developed countries’ subsidies for fossil fuels, large hydro using dams, and nuclear energy; the need to recognize the environmental challenges posed by exploitation of the Arctic shelf oil reserves and the environmental and social challenges posed by all new large hydro using dams, projects that increase the level of existing hydroelectric plants’ reservoirs, and new nuclear power stations, prioritizing power generation development based on renewable sources of energy; recommended restrictions on transboundary transportation of radioactive waste resulting from nuclear industry, including a ban on transboundary transportation of spent nuclear fuel; the need to define the environmentally dangerous and unsustainable features of large dam hydroelectric and nuclear energy as contradictory to green growth; the need to elaborate and implement new international norms on specific energy consumption in industries with the highest energy consumption, with a recommendation, in particular, to introduce harmonized international minimal standards for specified fuel consumption for newly manufactured automobiles and make provisions for its further decrease.

A special section in the working group’s recommendations, entitled Protection of Marine Ecosystems During Industrial Development on the Continental Shelf, identified the priority areas for protecting marine environment, in particular: adopting ecosystem-based approaches to the management of marine areas as key principles of human activities regulation in marine areas; stimulating the identification of ecologically and biologically significant and sensitive areas and granting these areas appropriate use and management regimes, with the most significant and sensitive areas protected from use regimes with potential environmental harm, such as extraction of mineral nonrenewable resources or intensive transportation; stimulating the development of national and trans-boundary marine management plans in order to regulate, optimize, and minimize the anthropogenic impact on marine ecosystems.

The full text of the Environmental Sustainability and Energy working group’s recommendations, as well as recommendations by the other working groups, is available in the Civil20 Working Groups Recommendations to the G20.

With additional reporting by Charles Digges.

Ksenia Vakhrusheva