How Can Human Rights Defenders Cope with Legal Constraints and High Risk in Russia?

Authored by: Freek van der Vet & Laura Lyytikäinen

Defending human rights in Russia can be perilous. One only needs to recall the killings of human rights defenders, investigative journalists and lawyers like Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova or Memorial activist Natalia Estemirova. Opposition activists also face physical danger. In February 2015 Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader and former first deputy prime minister during Yeltsin’s second presidency, was shot dead near the Kremlin in Moscow. Moreover, some organisers and participants of demonstrations have faced prosecution and imprisonment. Since 2005, the Russian authorities have implemented legislation isolating the political opposition and curtailing the funding of HRDs. These laws have included restrictions in the activities of the foreign organisations, increased fines for organising and participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. They also modified existing laws on treason and recriminalised libel. These laws affect the whole spectrum of civil, cultural, and human rights associations. 

The situation for Russian HRDs escalated quickly since the State Duma passed a federal law in 2012 on “foreign agents”. The law requires any NGO that engage in political activities and receive funding from foreign sponsors to register as a foreign agent with the Ministry of Justice. Many organizations now face administrative and civil lawsuits for failing to register as a foreign agent. In 2015 President Vladimir Putin signed a law that enables authorities to expel any foreign organization from Russian territory. The  MacArthur Foundation, which funds many Russian NGOs, chose to withdraw from Russia after it found itself on a blacklist of undesired organizations. In November 2015 the prominent human rights organization “Memorial” was forced to register as a foreign agent and accused of planning to overthrow the political regime.

How do HRDs choose to interact with police, courts and government officials under these legal constraints? Our article “Violence and human rights in Russia: how human rights defenders develop their tactics in the face of danger, 2005–2013” in the Special Issue of The International Journal of Human Rights explores two groups of HRDs: young protest leaders in Moscow and an international network of human rights lawyers that provides free legal aid to victims of grave atrocities in the Northern Caucasus. By comparing these two apparently separate groups of HRDs, we highlight how HRDs working under high risk often reinvent their tactics to counter curtailing legislation.

We found that these groups’ have comparable responses to the challenges of high-risk activism in Russia. We studied how HRD’s in Russia (a) organise advocacy and protest in risky situations, (b) manage risk and fear, and (c) use domestic and international legal mechanisms in a repressive state. We argue that those activists at high risk are not just victims of state legislation, but actively experiment with new security measures, seek the boundaries of police violence as a tool to show their own vulnerability to a wider audience, and manage the fear of fellow activists through teaching legal literacy. We found that the Moscow protesters adapted to and routinised the arrests during public demonstrations, while a group of HRDs minimalized individual threats by adopting a mobile working group that changes its members (the Joint Mobile Group) to give legal aid in post-conflict Chechnya. Both groups engaged in managing the fear of their fellow activist or their clients by building legal literacy and managing the possible dangers of applying to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Both groups also used legal mechanisms against the state by demonstrating police violence during protests and exploring and testing legal alternatives in Chechnya. We argue that an analysis of state restraints and violence contributes to our understanding of how HRDs choose to reinvent their human rights practices in response to dangerous circumstances and legal restraints. While they certainly limit the activity of HRDs, constraints to human rights work can also be an opportunity for the innovation of new tactics.

Russian HRDs balance between a constant pressure to reinvent their tactics to challenge the state within the boundaries of the domestic legal mechanisms and the hazards of using tactics that might further jeopardise the activist and his or her cause. The Russian NGO legislation has changed often and rapidly within the last decade; this has forced NGOs to find the legal resources to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Most NGOs that face listing as a foreign agent turn to a handful of liberal lawyers to represent them before court. In this changeable environment, HRDs need to continuously evaluate and develop their tactics to maintain their activities and avoid criminal prosecution or administrative lawsuits. Consequently, at this point human rights protection programs could better aid HRDs in Russia by supporting domestic lawyers that protect them within their own legal system and support their already existing ability to creatively reinvent their local tactics. In the New Tactics Community Conversation on ‘Evaluating the Human Rights Defender Protection Regime’ from 16 – 20 November 2015 we will further discuss how HRDs at risk can develop their tactics and manage legal constraints.