Hollande, Putin, and the ‘Democratic Imperative’

February 27, 2013

An open letter signed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights League, and Russie-Libertés was published in the French newspaper Libération ahead of President François Hollande’s visit to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin. A full translation is below:

Monsieur Hollande, when you’re meeting with Vladimir Putin, don’t forget about the “democratic imperative”!

On 25 December 2011, François Hollande, then a candidate for the French Presidency, called on Vladimir Putin to “appreciate the full scope of the democratic imperative” being demanded of the Russian authorities by the tens of thousands of demonstrators who had come out and marched,  despite the cold and the regime in Moscow.  On that occasion, he declared:  “Russia must therefore take its rightful place in the European balance and in the building of an international community based on the principles of respect for human rights, civil liberties, independence of the media and rule of law to which it has subscribed.”

We hope that the exchanges between the two men this week will not push aside the necessary “democratic imperative” that Mr. Hollande  cited in 2001.

The situation in Russia has unfortunately not improved since the last meeting between Mr. Hollande and Mr. Putin in June 2012 in Paris.  Quite the contrary, several independent NGOs have pointed to a significant decline – in terms of civil liberties and political freedoms – in human rights and freedom of expression.  The arrests of political opponents, followed by unfair trials and unjust convictions, have multiplied throughout the year.  Several demonstrations have been prohibited or severely limited.  Pressure has increased on the media with several changes in the management teams of various newspapers.

Several laws passed in 2012 go against the principles of respect for human rights, civil liberties, independence of the media, and rule of law that François Hollande talked about at the end of 2011.  Indeed, the Duma has passed an emergency law limiting demonstrations, a law on NGOs – introducing the term “foreign agent” for NGOs receiving funding from outside (the country) – as well as a law on censorship of the internet.  To this list must be added the so-called “anti-orphans” law (passed in response to the Magnitsky Act adopted in late 2012 in the United States), which prohibits American citizens from adopting Russian orphans and Russian NGOs engaged in “political activities” from receiving any financial assistance from the United States.

To underscore these significant setbacks in terms of freedom and respect for human rights in Russia, we can also mention the adoption, at first reading, of the “law prohibiting propaganda of homosexuality to minors”.  The democratic imperative also requires us not to close our eyes to the deplorable situation in the republics of the North Caucasus, where – under the pretext of counter-terrorism – kidnappings, forced disappearances, torture and harassment and even assassinations of human rights activists are perpetuated by the security forces with total impunity.

We know that trade with the Russian regime is crucial for the economic, commercial and diplomatic relations of France and of the European Union.  However, we ask you not to forget the “democratic imperative” that the President of the Republic holds dear.  It is extremely important to make the power that is in place in Russia understand that it is urgent to release political prisoners languishing in prisons and camps throughout Russia such as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, Leonid Razvozzhayev, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and others as well.  It is also imperative to show Putin that France and the international community are firm in their positions when they demand respect for fundamental freedoms in Russia.  This necessarily involves fighting against the impunity that those who are guilty of human rights violations in that country too often enjoy.

As their free space is being reduced to a trickle, civil society and human rights activists in Russia are waiting for François Hollande to stand up courageously to Vladimir Putin.  We are waiting for him not to pass up the opportunity to remind the Russian regime of the “democratic imperative”.

Signed By Souhayr Belhassen, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Pierre Tartakowski, President of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme [the Human Rights League], Jean-Marie Fardeau, Director of the Paris Office of Human Rights Watch, Geneviève Garrigos, President of Amnesty International- France, Alexis Prokopiev, President of the Russie-Libertés Association