Human Rights, Freedom, Justice: A Conference In Memory of Yury Schmidt

May 30, 2018

On May 18-19 in Berlin, the leading experts on human rights in Russia met in Berlin, Germany to discuss the current state and future prospects for human rights in Russia, as well as what can be done by the international community to defend Russian citizens from persistent attempts to abolish their individual rights.  Here is a translation of the Conference resolution, which can be read in the original Russian here


Human Rights Without Borders

 As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, Russia remains among the few countries in Europe where the protection of human rights has been declared, but is not observed.  The Russian Constitution, being a wholly contemporary and humanistic legal foundation, guarantees citizens the right to life, personal liberty, dignity, justice, freedom of speech, thought and assembly, as well as other fundamental human rights and freedoms in accordance with the generally accepted principles and norms of international law.

However, between the declarations of the country’s Constitution and its enforcement in practice there exists a considerable precipice.  Unresolved murders like the killing of Boris Nemtsov, complex psychological and physical pressure against political opposition, as in the cases of Oleg Sentsov or Alexey Malobrodsky, the presence of a large number of political prisoners (177 people according to the Memorial Human Rights Center) has become commonplace.

As regards civil activists and opposition leaders, political repression is taking place on an increasingly massive scale.  Repressive legislation is also under constant development and is steadily encroaching further into the everyday lives of citizens.

The use of censorship is widely practiced in Russia today, which consists not only in establishing a ban on the discussion of certain topics and people in the state-run mass media, but also in economically and legally strangling the independent media.  In fact, the only sphere of information not totally under the Kremlin’s control is the internet.

Nevertheless, there is still a clear tendency to crack down on the internet: threats of criminal and administrative punishment are issued for circulating information, websites are blocked extrajudicially and an army of state-sponsored bots hinder the right to freedom of speech and access to information.

In the law enforcement and judicial system an accusatory bias prevails which, against the backdrop of general legislative regulation, makes any citizen into a potential offender or criminal.  The lack of accountability to society, the impunity and corruption of the security services combined with the repressive and dependent nature of the judiciary mean that the vast majority of the Russian population do not have access to a genuine justice system.  At the same time trust towards the judicial system and the law in general is dropping catastrophically.

In the event of mass human rights violations perpetrated by the state and its officials, the absence of an independent judiciary and hindrance of the work of independent media have significantly amplified the need for human rights activity.  In many cases human rights defenders are the last, and sometimes only hope for a person who has fallen into the nightmare of state repression.

Human rights activity in Russia is the object of close attention and opposition from the side of the authorities.  The lack of state financing and the obstacles set up for receiving private financing, as well as the legislation against so-called ‘foreign agents’ and slanderous propaganda campaigns in the state-run mass media, make it increasingly difficult for human rights organisations and activists to operate.  Threats of physical violence have turned human rights activity into a dangerous job.

Under such conditions, international cooperation and support are extremely important.  Violations of fundamental human rights cannot simply be a matter of internal affairs for any state, especially if this state has taken on international obligations to protect human rights and freedoms, as Russia indeed has.

Governments of European countries should do everything possible to facilitate exchanges between civil society institutions in Russia, and their corresponding institutions in Europe, as well as to oppose the policy of isolation that is currently being pursued by Russia’s leadership.  This should include an agreement for visa-free travel, scholarship programmes for students, scientists, cultural workers and journalists, as well as support for cooperation between independent non-governmental organisations and their western partners.  Laws that are aimed at preventing this cooperation should be abolished.  This is particularly important in the wake of the rise of authoritarianism in Europe itself.

In dealing with contacts from the Russian authorities, European governments must insist on respecting accepted principles of security and cooperation in Europe.  These include the European Court of Human Rights, the Helsinki Accords and the Paris Charter.  It is vital to pay attention to violations of human rights and demand respect for democratic norms.  As a member of the Council of Europe, Russia is obliged to implement the adopted conventions and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

In dealing with contacts within the Russian government and parliament, European governments should demand the release of political prisoners as well as to improve the conditions in Russian detention centres.

Participants of the conference have been following with great concern the life-threatening situation concerning imprisoned Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov and demand his release.

We call on Amnesty International to recognise Alexey Pichugin as a prisoner of conscience and demand his immediate release.

The press is under increasing threat in Russia.  Since 1991, 360 journalists have been killed.  We expect western governments to speak out in defence of freedom of speech and information as well as the freedom of journalists to criticise the actions of the Russian authorities.

Freedom of information and the internet, as well as the protection of private life from state control, should be a subject for discussion in Russian-European relations.  Here it is necessary to set out binding rules within the framework of the Council of Europe.

We urge western foundations and public organisations not to cease their activities in Russia under pressure of repressive practices, but rather look for ways to continue exchanging and cooperating with a democratic civil society in Russia.

We call on politicians, activists and journalists around the world to cooperate, collaborate and support the Russian human rights community at a time when human rights activism is practically the only weapon available in the struggle for human rights in Russia.

We call on all political forces to pay more attention to violations of human rights in Russia and to use all available legals means to rectify the situation.

We call on all journalists to pay more attention to human rights issues in relation to Russia.  Maximum publicity remains the most powerful, and almost the only remaining weapon that human rights activists can wield today.

Taking into account the growing number of political refugees from Russia, we call on human rights defenders to systematically provide information on human rights violations as well as the lack of guarantee for such rights in Russia.  In order to achieve this it is necessary to create the right platforms.

We call on western human rights organisations to continue to support their Russian counterparts and to coordinate their work closely in terms of providing assistance to Russian citizens outside of Russia.

We propose to create an international group of experts to monitor the implementation of ECHR decisions made in relation to Russia, as well as to review the results of the monitoring process as they become available, within the framework of the Council of Europe.

We call on the Council of Europe not to exclude Russia, while at the same time not agreeing to lower the standards of human rights, and not to give the Kremlin carte blanche for even more severe repression and imposition of the death penalty.  Violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Security System must be met with punishment, but the door to European integration of Russia must not be closed indefinitely.

There are no borders to human rights.