HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS CHOOSE A DIFFERENT FORMAT

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Russian human rights organizations make some political demands

The Moscow Helsinki Group, the Memorial Society, the Center for Developing Democracy and Human Rights, the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, and some other organizations held a conference entitled “Human rights in Russia in its year of chairing the G8 and the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers.”


Russia’s most influential human rights organizations have prepared an appeal to G8 summit participants, with some unprecedentedly harsh criticism of the human rights situation in Russia. The human rights defenders say that “democratic institutions are experiencing a system-wide crisis” – and for the first time, they present consolidated political demands to the authorities. Kremlin-loyalist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) held a forum on July 4; their leaders have responded to the new human rights appeal by declaring that there is no human rights crisis in Russia, only a “permanently bad situation.”

Human rights defenders from the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Memorial Society, the Center for Developing Democracy and Human Rights, the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, and some other organizations held a conference in Moscow on July 5, entitled “Human rights in Russia in its year of chairing the G8 and the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers.” These groups have joined forces for the first time in order to express their views as strongly as possible about the whole range of civil society problems in Russia – from the new law on NGOs to “state terrorism in the North Caucasus” – thus confirming that they are in radical opposition to the state.

Conference coordinator Yuri Dzhibladze, head of the Center for Developing Democracy and Human Rights, said: “We must take advantage of the G8 summit to point out that Russia is chairing this association of democracies at a time when an authoritarian regime is growing stronger in Russia itself.”

“I’ll be the mildest speaker of the lot: I’ll be talking about the decay of our legal system,” said Human Rights Institute executive director Valentin Gefter, setting the tone for the conference. He wasn’t wrong. With regard to observance of human rights in Russia, the other speakers at the conference tended to use terms like “lawlessness,” “stagnation,” “repressions,” and “crisis.”

It’s worth noting that a day earlier, many of these same human rights defenders attended Civil G8, a forum of loyalist NGOs (we reported yesterday on President Vladimir Putin’s speech at this forum). There, however, they were far less critical. When we asked why, Mr. Dzhibladze replied that the Civil G8 forum’s format didn’t permit harsh criticism. “Everyone understands that Civil G8 was a Kremlin project,” he said. “What’s more, we do have some diplomatic skills – we realize that if you use a word like ‘lawlessness’ in talking to the head of state, the conversation won’t be successful.”

For the first time in their period of confrontation with the authorities, the human rights defenders have presented some consolidated political demands. In effect, they insist on the repeal of most of the key changes made to electoral legislation during President Putin’s second term in office. The human rights conference’s appeal to G8 leaders says: “We consider it necessary to reduce minimal membership requirements for political parties to 10,000 people, restore the right to form electoral blocs, bring back direct elections for regional leaders, and prevent the passage of a law that would permit candidates to be barred from elections on ideological grounds (linked to accusations of ‘extremism’).” The appeal also expresses concern about the condition of Russia’s judicial and penitentiary systems, “political persecution,” crime in the Armed Forces, and restrictions on freedom of speech.

After expressing their grievances against the authorities, the human rights defenders turned to the question of defending themselves. According to them, now that they have drawn the international community’s attention to human rights in Russia, they need to establish an inter-regional rapid response and legal aid system for NGOs in the event of conflicts with the state. Conference participants once again called on the authorities to repeal the “unconstitutional” law on NGOs, which “cannot be fixed by any amendments,” and declared that they will repair the damage done to their reputations by the authorities. Mr. Dzhibladze said: “Senior state officials, including the head of state, have repeatedly permitted themselves to use hostile rhetoric against us. As a result, the whole country is aware of us – but only in a bad light.”

Ella Pamfilova, chairwoman of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, commented on these statements as follows: “They wouldn’t be real human rights defenders if they sang the praises of the authorities. No one would say that all is well with human rights in Russia. Still, this isn’t a crisis – it’s just a permanently bad situation.” In Pamfilova’s view, the human right conference won’t have any substantial influence on the G8 summit.

The human rights defenders disagree. “Our conference is an excellent way of drawing the attention of world leaders to problems in Russia,” said Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights movement.

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