Seven years of children’s powerlessness

Children’s rights issues have been trending in Russian media and on social networks after yet another scandalous statement by child rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov – this time, swiftly followed by his resignation. Astakhov had already made sensationally boorish remarks about “wrinkled 27 year-old women” whist expressing his support for the underage marriage of a Chechnyan girl. This latest controversy saw him ask “So, did you swim well?” to children who miraculously survived a deadly storm on a lake that claimed the lives of many of their peers. Hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition for Astakhov’s resignation. He was widely viewed as a cynical and heartless choice as commissioner for children’s rights and criticisms of him have been longstanding, not least for his role in preventing the international adoption of Russian orphans (the infamous “Dima Yakovlev law”).

After studying reports and criticisms of the outgoing children’s ombudsman and his work, one cannot shake the feeling that for the duration of his tenure prevailing discourse has concerned anything but child rights. For seven long years the protection of children’s rights at the federal level in Russia has simply been a pantomime. Instead of talking about real injustices inflicted upon real children (including violations of the right to protection from discrimination, restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, and institutionalized violence in children’s penitentiary colonies and prisons), most commentators were busy discussing scandalous remarks or sudden questionable spotchecks on children’s institutions – a practice referred to by Astakhov as “paratrooping for children”. The cynicism and lack of care shown for orphans by both Astakhov, and the Russian state are just two manifestations of a common problem: a pervasive lack of care about children and a widespread ignorance of child rights and how they differ from all other types of regulation.

The tragic deaths of numerous children during a boat trip on a stormy lake has recently seen a wave of shock and remorse sweep public sentiment. Pushkin’s classic “I too could have been among them” seems the foundation for our solidarity with the parents of the deceased. It is no surprise that the pain and anger of citizens spilled out in their blogs, while their indignation with the indifference of the state official “in charge of children” took the form of a petition demanding his resignation – a motion that gathered mass support. One might also however find oneself in the place of the instructors and counsellors attendant on the trip. These individuals are now subject to scrutiny in the wake of these events in a bid to sooth the universal despair with some semblance of accountability (as ever, somebody somewhere must be pronounced guilty before closure can be achieved). Revenge suppresses emotion, sometimes even leading to the jubilation of those who sought it. For my part, I feel sorry for the instructors. I can only imagine how it feels to try to save a drowning child in the cold waves and fail. These instructors, who are young people, now find it very difficult to live with this experience, even without the additional burden of criminal prosecution. One should not reproach them in a traditional Soviet way (“Why are you alive when others have died?”). It is absurd and despicable. It is clear that those who were stronger managed to survive, and that the adults must have been fighting for their own lives, as well as those of the children for whom they were responsible.

Neither the arrest of coordinators for malpractice at the children’s camp (those who sent children and student instructors on this outing), nor the resignation of the scandalously tactless children’s ombudsman will bring these children back. Personal responsibility for the lives of the children entrusted to the instructors will always be with every adult. This is not a child rights issue, but about the responsibilities of adults. It is a pity that this explosion of solidarity and collective expression of pain and anger did not arise after the publication of information on the abuse of teenagers in children’s penitentiary colonies, including death of a Ukranian boy in Belorechenskaya penitentiary colony for minors, or during the promulgation of the new law reducing the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years. Even without investigative journalistic reports, it is clear that children are beaten, raped, humiliated and tortured in penal colonies. In stark contrast to the tragic drowning event, however, it is difficult for us to imagine ourselves as the parents of these children.

It is equally difficult for us to imagine ourselves as the parents of child victims of sex trafficking to Russia from Africa and Asia. We have known those responsible for preventing this type of activity but have failed to demand the resignations of those who have done nothing to stop these crimes against vulnerable children from rogue states. The rights of the child concern every child, including outcasts. Indeed, the latter are those for whom such rights are the most significant, because nothing and no one, except the law, can protect these children. This is why the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child had long sought Russia’s signature of the optional protocol on the on the sale of children,

child prostitution and child pornography. At the next session of the Committee, the Russian report on the implementation of the provisions of this protocol will be considered.

What do we learn from this report by government agencies on their activities to uphold children’s rights? It turns out that instead of tackling child sex trafficking the main Russian advance in protecting the sexual integrity of children has been the very law “On protection of children from harmful information” that has outlawed LGBT “propaganda”, introduced the ban on all discussions about suicide in the public sphere (which only creates a further obstacle to preventing suicide) and introduced discrimination against children on important educational projects, which were labeled “18+”.

From the same report we learned that there were just a few dozen criminal cases for the entire reporting period opened for prosecution of persons who forced children into sexual activity (cases of forced early marriages and the organization of sexual abuse as a means of pacification in the penitentiary colonies and military institutions should have been included here). Convictions on charges of sexual exploitation of children and the use of children in pornography are also rare, though our country proudly reports blocking a large number of websites (as if this were a real deterrent). Meanwhile, Russia remains among the top countries of the world in terms of pornography available to children and –worse – pornography exploiting children. Even worse is the fact that whilst thousands of children (mostly from abroad) find themselves being sexually exploited, saving them is almost impossible. As explained by experts working in this field, “all the existing big brothels exist with the protection of the Ministry of Interior or the Federal Security Service (FSB), they simply cannot exist without that strong “protector”, and if the police turn up, they will simply be quickly recalled after a phone call”.

Boys and girls, some as young as 3 years, are taken to Russia from Vietnam, Cameroon, Nigeria, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. One expert explains: “There is a notion of the exotic, children are more expensive [compared to adults], the most expensive being virgin boys and girls, so it is profitable to bring those”.

What did Astakhov do during his seven years in office working for “the children’s rights” for these particular children? In his report the commissioner reports that he actively worked to improve the law “in order to protect children from sexual assault and sexual exploitation”. This reportedly includes a bill that excludes “the recognition of pornographic materials (subjects), containing the image or description of the sexual parts of a child if they have special historical, artistic or cultural value”. I wish someone could explain to me how the depiction or description of sexual organs can have “historic value”? But Astakhov worked on this nonsense for seven years. Meanwhile, children that were supposed to be afforded his protection were raped and killed.

Stefania Kulaeva

First published on the website of Radio Liberty