OSCE says global human rights remain under threat – Russia is a case in point

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Moscow-based environmental group Ecodefense.

Publish date: January 12, 2009

MOSCOW - A recent report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) gives a disturbing highlight to the threats that human rights advocates across the world encounter in their activities. This, no doubt, is a signal to look closer at Russia, where human rights abuses and the attempts by government agencies to stifle civil society initiatives are still very much an ongoing concern.

The report, which details the development of human rights causes in OSCE member states in the period of between April 2007 and April 2008, was prepared by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and presented last month in Vienna at an OSCE event marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

ODIHR, an OSCE entity based in Warsaw, Poland, is active throughout the OSCE area in the fields of election observation, democratic development, human rights, tolerance and non-discrimination, and rule of law.

“At least three defenders were killed… A number of human rights activists were ill-treated in custody, attacked, and injured. Many received death threats or were otherwise harassed and intimidated. Family members of human rights defenders were also targeted,” said a press statement accompanying the release of the report.

“In several cases, defenders were arbitrarily detained, arrested, and fined. The premises of several human rights organizations were subject to raids and attacks. Peaceful assemblies were dispersed violently or not sufficiently protected,” the press release went on to say.

Russia: Activists, NGOs under fire

In Russia, as state bullying goes, it is not always a case of overt repressions that immediately make media headlines and draw criticism from human rights observers. Public advocacy and environmental activism in the post-Soviet era are in a lot of instances a sure way to attract under-the-carpet scare tactics by the authorities: Troubles at work, the risk of getting fired, or pressure exerted on loved ones. These cases are not always something that becomes public knowledge.

What still does, however, is police raids undertaken against environmental and human rights NGOs, sanctioned and unsanctioned searches, confiscations of working materials, and so on – a now established pattern that many view to be a legally masked form of reprisal against the activities these NGOs perform.

The newest victims of this practice are the nationally known Russian environmental organisation Dront in Nizhny Novgorod, Planet of Hopes in the Urals town of Ozersk, and the human rights organisation Memorial in St. Petersburg.

Dront’s offices in Nizhny Novgorod were raided in September 2008, when Russia’s economic crime unit and the Federal Security Service (FSB) removed financial documents, topographical maps, and computers from Dront’s biodiversity preservation laboratory. The office was accused of under-reporting on its tax return. But circumstances suggested that the real motives were not tax-related, but rather that Dront is an extremely active organisation that is vociferous in its opposition to a gamut of environmentally dangerous projects that are close to the heart of the local administration and its business cronies.

A month later, an unsanctioned search, likewise, in relation to alleged tax arrears, was conducted at Planet of Hopes, a prominent Russian human rights organisation in the Southern Urals – an incident the organisation’s director said was the authorities’ retaliation for a suit it helped file against the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights. Operating in Ozersk, the closed nuclear city that hosts the notorious Mayak Chemical Combine, the organisation has been instrumental, among other things, in seeking justice – namely compensation and benefits – for so-called “in utero liquidators,” pregnant women who were sent to clean up the 1957 Kyshtym disaster at Mayak. The children of these mothers and the mothers themselves were as a result profoundly affected by severe radiation exposure. Planet of Hopes director Nadezhda Kutepova also complained about continuous harassment such as unexplained unofficial visits from police and the FSB.

The following month, a search warrant was executed at the offices of the human rights advocacy group Memorial in St. Petersburg. The warrant specified that the search was to be conducted in connection to investigating a criminal case against a controversial local publication called Novy Peterburg. Both employees at Memorial – an organisation engaged in historical research and publicising documents detailing Soviet repressions, as well as other human rights causes – and Novy Peterburg management made it clear, however, that the two entities have no kind of relations whatsoever.

One would hope that these recent cases will make the ODIHR’s next report. Whether they do so or not, the Russian state is unlikely to give a willing ear to the OSCE’s admonitions. Russia has not taken lightly any criticism the OSCE has levelled against its human rights record in the past.

The pressure is mounting
More proof of how unabashedly Moscow is pursuing its course of smothering any shoots of dissent in the country are the latest amendments suggested by the government to the Russian Criminal Code. These changes broaden the definitions of high treason and espionage to a point that makes them open to unlimited interpretation and arbitrary prosecution of high-profile criminal charges. The adoption of these amendments may give the state another tool to exert pressure against independent non-profit organisations in Russia, and harassment practices by law enforcement agencies may only be expected to escalate further.

In a new bill placed before legislators last month, the government submitted that the language in Articles 275 and 276 of the Criminal Code, on high treason and espionage, respectively, be altered to criminalise any “actions directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, sovereignty, (and) territorial integrity and that of the state.” This has caused a wave of concern on the part of Russian human rights organisations.

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“Some of the report’s findings are alarming. The threats human rights defenders still face in many OSCE countries are unacceptable in a democratic society,” said ODIHR director Janez Lenarcic in the December press statement.

“On the other hand, we also see a number of positive steps taken by governments to recognise and support the work of human rights defenders, and to ensure their protection from threats and attacks. This, too, is highlighted in the report.”

As one encouraging example, the report’s authors underscore the fact that in most OSCE countries, no official sanction is required to conduct peaceful assemblies – one only need inform the relevant authority of the intent to organise one.

Unfortunately for Russian activists, whereas the same regulation exists in the legislation currently in effect in Russia, everyday practice shows no rallies, marches, or meetings can take place without an express permission from the authorities – something that is in many cases extremely difficult to obtain either for politically or environmentally related public actions.

In order to realise their constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble freely, Russian citizens organise civil actions in spite of the many obstacles placed before them by the authorities, which often subjects them to unwarranted shows of force on the part of law enforcement agencies. One of the latest examples is the widely publicised Marches of the Dissenters – a broad movement organised by world chess champion Garry Kasparov and like-minded Kremlin challengers in opposition to the Russian political regime.

Another is the recent protests by St. Petersburg car-owners seeking to defend their rights in the face of the city administration’s blatant pursuit of the so-called Western High-Speed Diameter construction project: Many parking garages happened to be in the area claimed by project developers for the new high-speed city beltway.

Examples of a constructive dialogue between civil activists and powers that be in Russia are few and far between: One would hardly classify as such the creation of all the sham “public councils” or “public chambers” that Russian human rights defenders call “dummies of civil society.” They refer, in part, to the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, a state institution with 126 members created on a presidential initiative in 2005 to analyze draft legislation and monitor the activities of the parliament and the executive power. Said to give Russian citizens a forum to debate state policies, this advisory panel has been criticised by many as a governmental puppet.

But even in today’s Russia, well-planned activities to defend public interests sometimes yield effective results, such as in the cases of the protests that brought enough pressure on the construction project of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline to shift the prospective pipeline route away from Lake Baikal; the country-wide campaign against the import of nuclear waste; or the recent decision by local authorities in the Moscow district of Khimki to finally backtrack on their own earlier directive which would have allowed a Moscow-St. Petersburg highway under development to cut through a local forest, a conservation area that residents have been trying to save.

One hopes Russia will yet show it is capable of not only raids, searches, arrests, or threats against its more politically or publicly active citizens. As well, interference from the European Court of Human Rights, the OSCE, human rights and environmental entities within the UN structures, and other such organisations may prove helpful for Russian activists and NGOs in dealing with governmental pressure and intimidation.

Andrei Ozharovsky, a nuclear physicist and activist with Ecodefence, is a frequent contributor to Bellona Web.