Human Rights, Freedom and Justice

May 17, 2017

On Saturday May 13 Open Russia held its Human Rights, Freedom and Justice conference in Berlin in memory of renowned human rights lawyer Yury Schmidt.

The conference consisted of three roundtable discussions: “Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly as the foundation stone of any political freedom”, “Defence of minority rights: the balance between observing the rights of minority groups and society as a whole”, and “Mutual cooperation with the government – legitimisation or instrument?”

The panel of experts consisted of renowned lawyers, human rights activists and journalists including Svetlana Gannushkina (Civic Assistance), Zoya Svetova (Open Russia), Lev Ponomarev (For Human Rights) and Elena Lukyanova (Lawyer), and Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Here are some of the highlights from the panel’s wide-ranging discussions.

The life of Yury Schmidt is a clear example of the fact that the defence of human rights in Russia is not simply a lawyer’s pursuit; it is a struggle in which results can only be achieved through extraordinary talent and human resolve.

The conference consisted of three roundtable discussions: “Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly as the foundation stone of any political freedom”, “Defence of minority rights: the balance between observing the rights of minority groups and society as a whole”, and “Mutual cooperation with the government – legitimisation or instrument?”

It’s impossible to claim that at any point in Russian history the state has been occupied with defending human rights across all layers of society; many centuries of serfdom were replaced by wars and massive repression, yet from the wreckage of the former Soviet Union a new county was born.  However, this new country quickly succumbed to usurpation by a very narrow and privileged group of people.

Nevertheless, people such as Yury Schmidt became a shining example that the culture of human rights existed even under such conditions, not imposed from above, but rather born contrary to government policy.

In contemporary Russia there are thousands of human rights NGOs which are funded by private investors, public fundraisers and volunteers, in spite of a legal framework that makes it increasingly difficult for such organisations to operate.

The origins of the human rights movement in Russia

The theory of human rights is difficult to reconcile with a collectivist state in which the official priority of the public interest takes precedence over the interests of the individual.

The sovereign and conciliar nature of pre-revolutionary Russia, in dealing with land distribution between itself and the Russian Orthodox Church, was a very hostile and unproductive environment  for the development in both theory and practice of the idea of human rights and the priority of the rights and freedoms of the individual.

Historically in the Russian constitution the chapters on civil rights and freedoms were often located towards the end and appeared as a set of separate provisions.  According to the law, socio-economic factors would take precedence over individual and political rights in the absence of a working system of guarantees.

Nevertheless, from the middle of the 20th century in the Soviet Union human rights movements arose in order to pressure the state in to fulfilling its own constitutional obligations towards the population.

Most human rights activity during this period was forced underground due to open political repression.  Many lawyers were dissuaded from undertaking genuine human rights activity for this reason, however Yury Schmidt was among the heroes of this time.

It was only during the final decade of the 20th century that human rights activists came out from the dark, and the theory of human rights, as pioneered by Yury Schmidt, began its official implementation.

Where do human rights stand in today’s Russia?  

The current Russian Constitution contains all the fundamental principles of human rights as they have been developed by the international community over the past 100 years.  At the very end of the 20th century Russia became a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, thus recognising the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

The struggle for the observance of human rights in Russia has been going on now for a quarter of a century.  The past ten years has seen a steady withdrawal of the state from the accepted conventions on human rights which Russia signed up to protect at the end of the 20th century.  This is fundamentally connected with the usurpation of power and the desire to hold on to it through any means necessary — legal or illegal.

Therefore, in contemporary Russia the violation of human rights is commonplace and unavoidable.  By this time the human rights movement in Russia had become aware of the dangers involved in the government’s u-turn on human rights.  In the final years of his life Yury Schmidt became a leader of this movement, and served as an example of professional honesty, and uncompromising spirit in his struggle with the authorities.

Today, many of these groups are now considered “foreign agents” under the government’s controversial new laws that have been implemented in recent years.  This substantially affects external support and funding, and has drawn an aura of suspicion over any human rights activity, linking it to the politics of the opposition.

Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are fundamental principles without which it is impossible to introduce in to the public consciousness the theory and practice of human rights and their supremacy in the system of human values.

Human rights should become an integral part of society, the guarantor of which should be the state.  Therefore, under any circumstances, interaction with the state is necessary.  After all, it is one of the main goals of human rights activists to ensure that the state fulfils its commitment to defending the rights and freedoms of the individual.

Where do we go from here?

The panel came to the conclusion that contemporary Russia, as a result of the unchangeability of the ruling elite and a lack of political competition, is undergoing a very detrimental historical period where practically all state instruments are being directed at pressuring civil freedoms.

During the discussion it was stated that the situation that has been created in the country in which a handful of corrupt officials have seized power and will go to any lengths in order not to lose it, thus undermining the supremacy of the rule of law, as well as equality before the law.

The panel called for the unification of all human rights activists, lawyers, and civil society activists, as well as all those who are interested in defending civil rights regardless of their political opinions and personal convictions.

This process of unification is vital in contemporary Russia in order to overcome the catastrophe, on the edge of which the country is currently standing.  The memory of Yury Schmidt, who defended even those with whose opinions he did not share, is also an important part in understanding how such a unification could work.

The main criteria for a professional activist should be one simple question: have the citizen’s rights been violated or not?  That’s the key to what Schmidt believed in.

The conference closed with an appeal to Russian and international universities in order to found a Yury Schmidt scholarship fund which will be awarded to authors of the best student research in the field of defence of human rights and freedom.