Overcoming the obstacles created for civil society: response of the international community

Civil society faces various difficulties in many countries of the world: various states use a different means to complicate the work of NGOs and independent human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and experts. Sometimes the authorities act boldly and simply do not allow toestablish NGOs, as, for example, in Turkmenistan, which requires to have 500 persons in order to be able to establish a public organization. Those countries that are trying to “save their face” before the international community are forced to tolerate the existence of human rights defenders and NGOs, but they can use repression post factum. In the latter case, the means of the state can include restrictive legislation (the infamous law of the Russian Federation on “NGOs – foreign agents” is in fact not an original Russian invention) and tight control by the tax authorities, restrictions on certain activities and topics, which can be addressed by NGOs (for example, defense of the rights of vulnerable minorities is often banned, so the actual ban on LGBTI-related topics in Russia is also not unique).

As to the restrictions for NGOs to use foreign funding, some countries de facto completely prohibit this possibility (as is the case in Algeria, Belarus, Bahrain and Iran), others require special permission from government agencies (as in India or Egypt), yet other states fully supervise this and allow financing to be carried out only through state-owned banks (Uzbekistan). In Russia, as is well known, NGOs that receive funding from abroad are now stigmatized as “foreign agents” and are subject to repression.

International bodies and mechanisms such as the UN Committee on Human Rights or the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and protection of human rights, criticize the countries in which civil society is forced to operate within rigid restrictions, and, as a rule, these countries are far from being considered democratic. In this sense, recent developments in Russia are rather sad. One can quote various telltale signs, which bring Russia close to the same level of civil liberties as in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. These include the adoption of restrictive legislation (not only related to NGOs), destruction of independent media and the actual introduction of censorship, which increasingly prevents independent initiatives by threat of brutal repression of human rights’ and other activists.

One recent piece of evidence of the new round of persecution of civil society in Russia was the first criminal case opened for “willful violation” of the law on “foreign agents” against Valentina Cherevatenko, head of the “Union of Women of Don”. If earlier Russian NGOs, which had been labeled “foreign agents”, were repressed under the administrative proceedings (this included tiresome inspections, requirements to provide tons of securities, prescription of heavy fines), nowadays NGOs face searches of their offices, confiscation of documents and computers, and the risk of criminal penalties.

One cannot say that the persecution of NGOs and human rights defenders in various countries does not attract the attention of the international community, including human rights networks, and institutions such as the UNO, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe, which have all raised these issues on different occasions.

For example, this year Strasbourg hosted a conference of NGOs organized by the Council of Europe on June 6-7, which was devoted to the topics of “Civil society, money and political activity”. Discussion focused on the restrictions and repressions faced by NGOs, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and civil society activists in the countries represented in the Council of Europe. The European Parliament held hearings on July 13, 2016 devoted to the problems of restrictions on the activities of civil society and repression of human rights defenders, which was organized by the EP Development Committee and the Subcommittee on Human Rights. Speakers there discussed the situation with the rights to freedom of association and assembly, independent human rights work in different regions of the world, including China, Israel, Cambodia, Latin America, Russia and post-Soviet countries.

During these discussions, the representative of ADC “Memorial”, a member organization of FIDH, gave an overview of the situation in Russia and in the post-Soviet region, testifying that human rights activists, instead of doing their proper work, are forced to spend a lot of time, resources and effort on protecting themselves. Repressive legislation and practices applied in the Russian Federation now spread to a vast territory, politically and economically dependent on Russia, including the annexed Crimea, where the governing body of the Crimean Tatar people (Mejlis) had been banned, and Kyrgyzstan, where attempts are being made to adopt a law similar to the one in effect in Russia concerning NGOs and where human rights defenders are subjected to harassment, initiated by the head of state. Similar developments take place in unrecognized territories de facto controlled by Russia, where there is no possibility for independent human rights work (in Transnistria activists of PromoLex NGO faced a criminal case, and in the so-called Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics the public sphere was completely “cleansed”). More and more groups of civil society activists, journalists and lawyers are being engaged in this circle of repression.

One of the possible solutions for international lobbying aimed at protection of civil society from government repression is the attempt to propose the so-called “model law” for the protection of human rights defenders, which was made by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). ISHR invited various experts to develop such a law. These include employees of renowned international organizations (such as Amnesty International, World Organization Against Torture), former and current members of the UN Committees and the UN special rapporteurs, human rights activists from around the world who have specific experience of regional work (in particular, ADC “Memorial”, which has been involved not only because it was directly affected by the Russian law on “foreign agents”, but also because it operates in the region and is well aware of the situation of human rights defenders and NGOs in Russia and post-Soviet countries).

While developing the model law, legislation that exists in various countries was used (e.g., Mexico, Honduras, Indonesia, Côte d’Ivoire have laws for protection of human rights defenders, while Belgium, Burkina Faso, Congo consider such draft laws, and draft laws or programs are being prepared by NGOs in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Nepal). The model law is intended to provide additional protection to human rights defenders, especially in the countries where activists are threatened by illegal detention, assault, kidnapping and even murder.

The final version of the model law was submitted in June 2016 to the UN Council on Human Rights in order to further promote the adoption of this law in the countries belonging to the UNO. Although such attempts may seem somewhat idealistic, recognized experts in the field of human rights provided UNHRC with a tool that can further improve the situation of human rights defenders, and in some cases even to save their lives.