Hicks: How to Support the HR Movement in Russia

Supporting the Independent Human Rights Movement in Russia

Remarks of Neil Hicks, Director of the Human Rights Defenders Program, Human Rights First, Finnish-Russian Civic Forum 2007, Helsinki, July 3, 2007.

The independent Russian human rights movement is anathema to an increasingly intolerant and authoritarian central authority in two ways: because of what it says and does, and also because of what it is. Consequently, in recent years it has become increasingly an explicit target of state repression.

The human rights movement inevitably challenges some of the core legitimizing premises that the Putin government has used to justify its destruction of checks on its authority. Perhaps the key myth that is challenged by the human rights movement is that erosion of basic liberties and undermining the rule of law will result in enhanced public security.

Neill HicksThe approach of the human rights movement is diametrically opposed to this core legitimizing pretext for authoritarianism in Russia – a pretext with which we have become familiar in the years since September 2001 as governments of all types and in all regions of the world have stepped up their efforts to combat the threat of terrorism.[1] In contrast to this all too accommodating state construct, the human rights movement asserts that respect for human rights and scrupulous adherence to the law is the best way to safeguard security and to combat terrorism. There is, in fact, a remarkably broad international consensus around this rights respecting approach to global threats, and notably to terrorism,[2] and yet it is a consensus that many governments seem anxious to deny and resist.

There is a telling difference in the approach of the U.S. government and its western allies, who have departed from the rule of law and engaged in human rights violations including torture and sometimes even tried to justify such violations, and that of the Russian government, which not only unapologetically violates rights and disregards law in the name of counterterrorism, but also seeks to undermine, discredit and deny the right of existence itself to independent human rights organizations that expose and object to such violations.

This is an important distinction that reflects the difference between an authoritarian government and a democratic one that may commit serious violations, but will not systematically destroy the essential counterbalancing repositories of influence and power in society, of which the human rights movement is one.

Challenging International Support for Human Rights Defenders and Democratization

A particular aspect of the Russian government’s attack on human rights organizations has been a focus on delegitimizing organizations that receive financial support from international sources. President Putin has been forthright in explaining his position. For example, at the Munich Security Conference in February, he stated that, “These organizations are formally independent, but they are purposefully financed and therefore under control.”[3] What he means is that they are not under his control and therefore they do not accord with the government’s vision of a centrally controlled not for profit sector. President Putin has accused such NGOs of “working for foreign puppet masters,” and he used a speech to the FSB security agency to demand that it “protect society from any attempts by foreign states to use these organizations for interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.”[4]

He has been assisted in this characterization of independent NGOs as being agents in foreign conspiracies by a quiescent media that defames independent NGO activists and organizations. Perhaps the most notorious incident was the January 2006 television documentary that falsely accused four leading human rights organizations of receiving secret funds from British secret service agents with whom they communicated by way of a recording device disguised as a rock in Red Square. While these allegations were transparently preposterous, the activists concerned had no access to the mass media to refute them, and these and similar allegations and slurs are often repeated. Inevitably the public image of independent Russian human rights defenders suffers.

It is worth emphasizing the special difficulties faced by human rights NGOs, as opposed to NGOs working on issues that provoke less confrontation with the authorities. While state and state approved funding for NGOs in general is increasing in Russia, human rights organizations that criticize government policies with respect to counterterrorism policies, or the conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus are unlikely to receive such funding. Moreover the harsh treatment meted out to Yukos and the Open Russia Foundation has effectively deterred the business sector from providing support to independent human rights organizations. In the circumstances, with little or no access to private or public Russian funds, human rights organizations are left with no alternative but to seek support from international sources.

This vulnerability has, in turn, been exploited by the government. The fact that human rights organizations are funded from abroad is portrayed as evidence in itself that their activities do not serve Russian interests (this charge makes no reference to the fact that the government has purposefully created the conditions that impede the ability of human rights activists to raise funds domestically); the government commonly associates international human rights and democracy support programs as linked to espionage, subversion and other hostile conspiracies. There is a prevalent official narrative that the legitimate non-violent activities of human rights activists are evidence of an international conspiracy to destabilize the government and weaken the country.

President Putin and other Russian leaders may or may not believe the tissue of wild allegations made against Russian human rights organizations, but there is no denying that the government has created an effective construct with which to frustrate international and domestic efforts to promote human rights and democracy in Russia. Inter-governmental efforts to support such activities are under increasingly strident attack. For example, in Munich President Putin referred to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe as “a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries,” for example. Russia is increasingly hostile to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, an animosity that will only increase as the number of judgments against Russia continues to mount. There are troubling reports of witnesses in such cases being targets of state retribution, and of lawyers and organizations that bring such cases becoming the victims of threats and official harassment.

The particular challenge of promoting human rights and democracy in Russia is that conventional efforts to mobilize international support for activists at risk or suffering persecution are distorted through the inverting lens of official propaganda to be portrayed as evidence of the subversiveness and inauthenticity of such groups.

This presents a dilemma to foreign governments and international organizations who wish to support independent Russian human rights defenders. If they decide that strong foreign support of human rights defenders is counterproductive because it plays into defamatory official narratives portraying such activists as in the service of foreign powers, then they risk weakening the very support that is essential to beleaguered local activists.

It is worth mentioning that internally, exploitation of the fear of terrorism has facilitated the labeling of increasing numbers of non-violent critics as “extremists” or terrorist sympathizers even to the extent of prosecuting and convicting such activists under the law against extremism, and then using such convictions to further discredit organizations with which these activists are associated. The authorities have apparently compiled a “list of extremists” including human rights defenders and other non-violent government critics, who are kept under surveillance and whose movements within Russia have been obstructed. The media is also a reliable ally of the government in persistent defamation of human rights activists.

The government’s tactics present particular obstacles to generating support for Russian human rights defenders inside Russia, and to the effective deployment of international support for Russian activists.

How to Promote Human Rights and Democracy: Outflanking the Siege

From the above analysis, my major conclusion is that in the current situation it is vitally important to generate the maximum support possible for Russian human rights defenders from non-governmental sources, and not just from human rights organizations and established human rights donor organizations.

The goal of international support must be to outflank the official siege that has been placed around independent Russian human rights defenders. One way to do that is to build an international coalition of support for Russian human rights defenders that mobilizes prominent individuals from the worlds of politics, academia, the arts and even sport and popular culture – people who will not be ignored by the international and even the Russian media, and who will reach an audience in Russia beyond the small constituency that is already associated with human rights and democracy.

In its efforts to resist the closure order imposed on it and to continue to function the Russian Chechen Friendship Society in Nizhny Novgorod has provided one example of how this can be done. Through inviting prominent individuals to become “supportive members” of the RCFS it has attracted public support from a number of leading European parliamentarians, as well as from internationally recognized intellectual figures like Francis Fukuyama, Andre Glucksman and Moises Naim. Such figures, and others like them, can command an audience in Russia and cannot be ignored or swept aside by the authorities.

The creation of this group of supportive members has become the inspiration for a proposed multifaceted event in Nizhny Novgorod to demonstrate support and solidarity for human rights and democracy in Russia, to be held immediately prior to the first anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, involving prominent Russian and international personalities.

The point of such initiatives, if they are to be different from what has gone before, is that they should be innovative, they should involve new constituencies, they should adopt a positive tone: emphasizing in the face of official hostility and apparent popular indifference that human rights are inclusive, universal values that are good for Russia. As many such events as possible should take place inside Russia, with the expectation that the involvement of prominent international figures, and the adoption of a message that is first and foremost pro-human rights, not anti-Putin, should provide some protection from the type of repression that has faced activities like the marches of dissent. It is also vital that international interest, support and participation in events must be sustained until such a time as the level of threat against the independent Russian human rights movement diminishes.

I hasten to add that conventional efforts to promote human rights and democracy in Russia should not be abandoned. By this, I mean the political pressure on the Russian government to abide by its international obligations in the human rights field from other governments and from international organizations, as well as the monitoring and exposure of violations and campaigning against injustices carried out by local and international non-governmental organizations. We have to recognize, however, that such conventional pressure alone has not been sufficient to bring about the desired change in the behavior of the Russian authorities.

It is vital that a sophisticated official response to international human rights pressure should not be seen to deter such pressure in the case of Russia. Repressive governments around the world seek to undermine and discredit their critics using some of the same methods. If Russia is able to get away with it, because it is a large influential country, then this would be a setback for the international human rights movement not only in Russia, but also globally.

My answer to the question of this panel on how to promote human rights and democracy in Russia is that we need a new international people’s movement of solidarity with independent Russian human rights activists. The institutions for exerting pressure on the Russian government to improve its human rights practices exist and we should make use of them, but the time has come for a new approach that can reach a new constituency in Russia that is sympathetic to human rights and democracy, but which has been placed beyond the reach of conventional human rights mechanisms and organizations.



[1] See, Neil Hicks, The Impact of Counter Terror on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights: A Global Perspective, in Human Rights in the ‘War on Terror’ Richard Ashby Wilson, Ed., New York, 2005, Cambridge University Press. pp. 209- 224.

[2] See, for example, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, United Nations, New York, 2004., especially Chapter VI pp. 47-51. http://www.un.org/secureworld/report2.pdf

[3] The text of President Putin’s speech is at: http://www.securityconference.de/konferenzen/rede.php?menu_2007=&menu_konferenzen=&sprache=en&id=179&

[4] See, Human Rights First, Russia’s New Direction, New York, June 2006. http://www.humanrightsfirst.info/pdf/06622-hrd-russia-update-web.pdf.

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