Empowering people to use the legal system to exert their rights

Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint Petersburg educates conscripts, army recruits and family members of Russian soldiers about their legal rights so that they can effectively exercise them.

In Russia all young men are required to serve in the military. While a 1993 law exempts men for reasons of poor health or hardship (e.g. their parents are retired or ill, or they are still in school), inscription commissions regu­larly violate this law. Soldiers’ Mothers has documented cases in which young men with physical or psychological problems that should have exempted them from military service have been forced to serve. Inscription commis­sions have even been known to conduct round-ups with the cooperation of police, on the street, in schools and in dormitories, even going house to house. Once in the military, the young men are subject to terrible conditions, including degrading and substandard living conditions, nightly beatings and torture.

At the school for human rights run by Soldiers’ Mothers, known as “Let Us Protect Our Sons,” students are taught how to make use of the laws that protect their rights. They are also encouraged to trust that the law can protect them and to support each other and help each other deal with their fears.

Training sessions are held once a week and last three hours. They include specific instruction on how to write statements to the authorities, as well as role-playing and discussions about the law and human rights. A guide­book is also published annually.

Most people are able to obtain documentation from civilian physicians to present to the military physicians. Sol­diers’ Mothers, with a staff of ten as well as many Russian and foreign volunteers, follows up with participants through questionnaires and keeps a file for each person and district. Participants who succeed in their petitions for exemption are asked to speak to later groups. About 120,000 people have participated in the training sessions over 12 years, and 90,000 have protected their legal right not to serve in the army. Approximately 5,000 people who were tortured in the army have successfully petitioned not to return to their units.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Constitutional guarantees of certain rights are often not protected by law or implemented in reality. Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg gives people the information and skills they need to claim their constitutional right not to serve in the military or to return to units in which they have suffered ill-treatment.

While, in theory, constitutional protections do exist in Russia for young men who fear abuse or who have been abused in the military, lack of information and fear of using the legal system (a system that has not been commonly used by individuals) keeps them from taking advantage of those rights. Soldiers’ Mothers provides information about those rights, skills such as letter-writing, and guidance through the legal system.