Don’t forget Russian civil society, activists plead at UN side event

News 07.03.2022

The international community must continue to pay attention to and speak out against the crackdown on Russian civil society, whose protest against Russia’s war on Ukraine is being brutally silenced, civil society activists and a UN expert said Thursday during an event organised by Right Livelihood.

The virtual panel discussion held as a side event of the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council focused in particular on the impact of Russia’s Foreign Agents Law, which has been used to suppress and eliminate Russian civil society for a decade.

After Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the panellists highlighted the link between the crackdown on civil society at home and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine.

“​​It’s a very terrible time for us all thinking about the utterly unnecessary brutality, bloodshed and trauma that is being inflicted on innocent people as we speak,” said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders.

“It’s important to remember that the regime so ruthlessly attacking Ukraine now is one that has moved slowly, but surely, to stamp out human rights activism in Russia over the last decade.”

That crackdown became especially visible in December 2021, when Russian courts decided to liquidate Russia’s largest human rights organisation, 2004 Right Livelihood Laureate Memorial International, along with its member organisation Memorial Human Rights Center.

The organisations were shut down because they were found to be in violation of Russia’s Foreign Agents Law, which requires all non-governmental organisations receiving foreign funding and carrying out “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” with the government. The label comes with increased scrutiny and administrative hurdles, damage to organisations’ finances and reputation, and, as evident from these cases, even the risk of liquidation.

“I’m the Executive Director of the organisation which is soon to be dissolved by the judgement of the Russian court,” said Anna Dobrovolskaya, Executive Director of Memorial Human Rights Center.

“Being an Executive Director of a foreign agent organisation, frankly speaking, I miss the time when I was just a foreign agent and didn’t have to deal with what has happened in the last week, because these events are completely horrible.”

She noted that the liquidation of Memorial Human Rights Center, along with Memorial International, and the ongoing war on Ukraine might seem to be “quite coincidental.”

However, Dobrovolskaya added, “We do not really believe in coincidence.”

“I think the future development in Russia, of Russian civil society, will only depend on what is happening now in Ukraine,” she said.

It might be too late to avoid the full impact of the Foreign Agents Law, as many organisations targeted by it did not have the resources to continue their work, Dobrovolskaya noted.

“It was a civil society death if we can say it like that,” she said.

Russian environmentalist and 2021 Right Livelihood Laureate Vladimir Slivyak agreed. He noted that his organisation Ecodefense was the first environmental group listed as a foreign agent in 2014 under the law. Since then, he has seen hundreds of other environmental groups added to the list, many of which eventually shut down either due to or to avoid the designation.

“That was, I think, the biggest blow to the environmental movement since the time when the Soviet Union collapsed,” Slivyak said.

He added that Ecodefense was able to continue its operations because the organisation was able to relocate parts of its operations to Europe, where his coworkers could continue to work safely.

“The whole campaign against civil society was actually started in a way to prepare for war and to silence those people who can organise others, who can be voices that can attract other people to go and protest,” Slivyak said. “This is why the Russian government decided to actually get rid of civil society.”

In fact, the crackdown on protesters and civil society has only intensified since the war on Ukraine began.

In the first week after the invasion, more than 7,500 people had been detained, including 100 minors, for protesting the war in Russia, said Daniel Beilinson, co-founder of OVD-Info, an independent human rights project that monitors civil and political rights and provides legal assistance to victims.

“They spent hours at police stations, police exceeded statutory limits, hundreds were kept overnight in the police stations, and a lot of people spent time in really inhuman conditions through those nights,” Beilinson said.

Oftentimes, protesters were denied access to legal representation. Police have also started threatening them with unlocking their phones and going through their personal data to uncover activist networks.

“[Police] also force activists to give fingerprints and DNA, which are also completely unlawfully,” Beilinson added.

In the face of such intense pressure on civil society, Lawlor called on the international community to continue focusing on Russian activists also, besides people in Ukraine.

“I would like to draw your attention to the crackdown on Russian human rights defenders who are advocating against the war now, because to be honest, I think that’s the best I can do at the moment because Russia is not listening,” Lawlor said.

“They hate information about what they’re actually doing getting out. And I think the more we can get out information and make sure that everybody is aware of what’s happening in Russia currently, the better it will be.”

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