Back to the Past

The next Supreme Court session concerning International Memorial is scheduled for December 14. Much has already been said about the fact that this suit insults the memory of the millions of people crushed by Stalin’s repressions and that this threat to Memorial’s existence and crucial work signals a major turnoff on the path to democracy that leads back into the past, into the murk of totalitarianism. It appears that the current assault on Memorial, its conception and the way it was carried out (from an attack by thugs and, under this pretext, the confiscation of computers before the suit on liquidation was filed) is yet another critical fork in the road for Russian history.

In addition to charging Memorial with violating the “foreign agents” law, the Prosecutor General also filed charges of violating international treaties, to wit, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Either out of legal nihilism or just plain ignorance, the Prosecutor General’s Office is somehow not aware that complying with international treaties is the obligation of the state on behalf of which the treaties and conventions were signed and not of non-governmental organizations, whose activities are in full compliance with the letter and the spirit of these documents. Moreover, the UN committees that monitor implementation of these conventions and covenants have repeatedly recommended that Russia repeal its law on “NGO foreign agents.”

In July 2012, before the notorious law on “foreign agents” entered into force, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, Navanethem Pillay, had already warned that “a number of amendments to Russian laws will have a major detrimental impact on the protection of human rights in the country.” She also called on the Russian government to “bring [its] laws in line with…national law and international obligations to protect human rights.” At the time, she noted with dismay that “laws are being adopted that limit the sphere of civil society’s activities in the place of laws that would help civil society promote and protect human rights.”

The law entered into force in December 2012 and was soon used for the first time – and retroactively no less – against organizations that were cooperating with UN human rights agencies. Providing information to the UN Committee Against Torture was deemed the very kind of “political activity” that, along with foreign financing, was what caused the Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial” to be designated a “foreign agent” after it sent a report titled “Roma. Migrants. Activists: Victims of Police Abuse” to this committee. But one of Russia’s international obligations is to ensure that civil society can share this kind of information.

In May 2013, the Committee Against Torture sent a letter to the Russian government that pedantically quoted Article 13 of the Convention Against Torture: “Each State Party shall ensure that any individual who alleges he has been subjected to torture in any territory under its jurisdiction has the right to complain to, and to have his case promptly and impartially examined by, its competent authorities.”

The committee also quoted the recommendations it made to Russia after reviewing its state report and alternative materials provided by human rights defenders: “The Committee recommends that the State Party…ensure that no individual or group of individuals shall be subjected to persecution for their connection with the Committee Against Torture…within its area of competence.” At the same time, UN special rapporteurs expressed concern that application of the law on “NGO foreign agents” and “the unprecedented scale of checks resulting in some cases in the initiation of administrative cases” have had the consequences of “hindering the activities of, intimidating, and stigmatizing” NGOs.

Soon other UN committees started to vigorously criticize the law on “foreign agents”: The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for its repeal in 2013, while the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Committee followed suit in 2014. Since then, this recommendation has been repeated by literally every single UN structure that reviews Russia’s compliance with one international treaty or another; in fact, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women recently repeated it. Russia has just as stubbornly refused to implement these recommendations.

The eyes of those who still fail to understand what connection the UN and the “foreign agents” who submit materials there have to life in the country should now open once and for all after the publication of terrible evidence of torture in Russian penal colonies, pretrial detention centers, and police precincts. This is what concerns everyone! “In Russia, you can be going about your business during the day and then find yourself handcuffed to a chair in a police precinct in the evening and confessing to a crime you didn’t commit the next morning,” said Yuri Dud in a conversation with Igor Kalyapin from the “foreign agent” NGO Committee Against Torture.

The connection is obvious: The stigmatization of NGOs leads to mythmaking instead of historical truths, which leads to the stifling of free speech, which leads to the inability to report on rights violations, torture, and violence, which leads to the license and impunity of the powers that be, which leads to dictatorship. And, as Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov put it, where there’s dictatorship, there’s war: “If we reject democracy, we agree to war.”

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda