UNITED Against Racism Conference Rallies Activists

In April and May of 2015, UNITED held several events at once aimed at strengthening the work of this network of non-commercial organizations fighting any manifestation of nationalism, racism, or fascism. The events focused specially on supporting refugees and migrants. For over 20 years, UNITED Against Racism has banded various European NCOs together into a single network that develops and realizes joint actions to fight discrimination.

The group’s April session “Take Action Online and Off for Equal Opportunity” was held in Strasbourg with the support of the Council of Europe. The program included a visit to the headquarters of the Council of Europe and several meetings with its staff members. One of the most interesting meetings was a presentation made by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), where the commission’s work procedures were explained. First, cases of discrimination are monitored in countries scheduled for review in the next reporting period. In parallel with this stage, the commission accepts reports from NCOs describing instances of discrimination in the countries under review. Next, the ECRI’s report is sent to the representatives of the country under review who are responsible for presenting their government’s report for the reporting period. If there are contradictions between the information laid out in the report and the position of the representative, this information is re-checked. Finally, the commission “harmonizes” its text with the representatives of the country under review and publishes its final report. For example, information about cases of discrimination in Russia will be collected in 2016-17 and the report will be reviewed in 2018-19.

Other presentations were about human rights education. For example, participants learned about the Council of Europe’s human rights educational program and the European Commission’s Culture City, which presently includes sixty cities. Various events are held in these cities to increase the level of the population’s knowledge and awareness of human rights. During this training session, presentations were also made on other successful practices that have been applied in the area of human rights education. These practices, it seems, are rarely used in Russia. The corresponding methodological literature, actively promoted by the Council of Europe, is not translated in Russia or adapted to the specific nature of the country or specific targeted groups, even though the approaches presented could be applied here.

The No Hate Speech Movement, initiated by the Council of Europe, was presented as an example of a successful online and offline campaign. Over the course of a year, participants from over 40 countries organized various actions as part of the fight against the language of hate under the slogan No Hate. Even after the campaign came to an official end, participants continued to make videos, disseminate news about the campaign, collect signatures for petitions to protect people from the language of hate, demand proper investigation of crimes previously committed, and draw attention to the problems suffered by victims of hate crimes.

Several program sessions were dedicated to the practical skills needed to conduct an online campaign. These skills include using tools to work quickly with photographs or videos, structuring online information in a convenient format, and maintaining blogs that vary from the usual formats (using photographs, maps, blogs with newsflashes every minute to describe the events of one to two days). The organizers of this session devoted particular attention to an important topic—online safety.

The program gave individual attention to the European Court for Human Rights. Since most of the participants did not have a legal education or experience with this court, basic theoretical mechanisms for appealing to this court were given along with the practical knowledge needed to determine which articles of the European Convention on Human Rights have been violated in a specific instance. Demonstrating how the norms of the Convention are applied in practice is an important element of training with the ECHR, because participants may use this institution themselves in the future to protect violated rights.

The events held by UNITED were accompanied by a “political café” where participants could determine which issues were of interest to them and organize discussions. During a training session in this café, the problems of civil society in Russia were discussed separately. Despite their involvement in activities to combat discrimination and human rights violations, representatives from many countries (and over 30 countries participated) knew almost nothing about events in Russia, even as the processes currently taking place there are clearly headed not just towards the restriction of human rights in the country, but also towards the infringement of the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association and pose a serious threat to the exercise of other rights enshrined in international and national law. Participants spoke of their fears of the likely destruction of Russian civil society in the near future. Particular note was made of the mass liquidation of NCOs and the impossibility of conducting any real project activity. Participants expressed their concern about the situation in the country and also reported that there is no objective information available about current events.

Several weeks later, in May, another UNITED conference on the topic of “Overcome all Borders: UNITED Against Intolerance” took place in Málaga. Participants from over 35 countries spent a week discussing matters of migration: facts and difficulties, European borders and migration flow, intolerance of migrants, hate crimes and language, ways to fight prejudice, and ideas for realizing more successful practices for integration and the creation of an inclusive society. The conference program included training sessions led by representatives from the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. These sessions were devoted to hate crimes. Not all of the conference participants appreciated the OSCE’s approach, pursuant to which people who are attacked by association are not always recognized as the victims of a hate crime. The OSCE recognizes crimes as hate crimes when the victim is visually the object of the attacker’s hate. If an attack is made against an activist protecting the rights of a category that is being discriminated against, anti-racists, or anti-fascists, then, according to OSCE standards, this will not be considered a hate crime. A crime committed against a human rights defender may be classified as a hate crime under certain circumstances. Many participants disagreed with this position, which gave rise to numerous discussions and disputes.

During both events, participants worked enthusiastically to plan the following international campaigns: Week of Actions Against Racism (beginning March 21), Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (May 17), Refugee Day (June 20), and Day Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism (November 9). Planners shared ideas for possible actions, banner designs, and leaflet texts, and created projects together to be realized simultaneously in different countries. For example, on the day before Refugee Day (June 19, 2015), a List of Deceased Migrants, compiled on the basis of data presented by UNITED, was unfurled across the central aisle of a church in Brussels. On June 20, actions took place in Berlin during which graves were dug in front of government buildings. These graves were meant to symbolize the death of refugees from strict border crossing rules and expulsion to countries where life for refugees can be deadly.

These UNITED events rallied representatives from different countries and gave them the opportunity to carry out joint activities outside of the conferences. The exchange of positive practices and experiences will help the participants be more successful in realizing projects and fighting discrimination.