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Human rights defenders and diplomatic speak

28.06.2007    source:
Oleg Orlov
The following interview with Oleg Orlov paints a worrying picture of increasingly empty dialogue between Russian officials and the EU over human rights issues, and demonstrates the need for NGO involvement to ensure that human rights issues are properly addressed

The Head of the Council of the Human Rights Centre “Memorial” and member of the board of the International “Memorial” Society Oleg Orlov discusses the dialogue on human rights between Russia and the European Union and the place for Russian nongovernmental organizations in this process.

People talk a lot at the moment about relations between Russia and the European Union. More than a month ago, in May, representatives of a number of Russian human rights organizations, on the eve of consultations between Russian and the EU on human rights, met with an EU delegation. Yet human rights groups did not make public any information about the meeting or about the consultations. Why not?  Surely in present conditions this is an important subject.

Well, in general there was nothing to say. Over the last year the nature of such events has become clear – the languid dialogue of parties not particularly burning with desire to seriously discuss the issues.

But still, what are these consultations, how long have they been going on, where do they take place?

They take place within the framework of the dialogue between Russia and the European Union. This was the fifth round of consultations already.

Since March 2005 they’ve been twice a year – in spring and in autumn. They look at issues, both general (for example, the situation with freedom of speech) and on specific violations of human rights. We’re talking here of the situation both in Russia, and in EU countries.  

Normally at such meetings you have representatives of the country holding the EU Presidency, the country which is to take over the President and the European Commission (the executive body of the EU). At the last meeting for the first time the heads of the human rights departments of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of some European countries took part, those who were going to hold the Presidency in the near future, and also some European MPs.

There are definitely people there who are professionally dealing with human rights.

The Russian side is, unfortunately, only represented by people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MID].  Yet it’s obvious that such dialogue on human rights should not only be attended by diplomats. They can’t give sensible answers to many questions, and are sometimes most definitely incapable of putting questions.

And “diplomatic speak” is by its nature such that it’s hard to talk about human rights at a specific level. Therefore, as well as diplomats, there need to also be Ombudspersons, personal of the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement agencies and various experts at such meetings. The EU Delegation actually made such a request to the Russian side. But nothing like it is happening and the dialogue continue to be run by diplomats.

Incidentally both sides could be inviting representatives of nongovernmental organizations as specialists. For example, the Russian Delegation could have invited representatives of NGOs of the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia.

Up till now the consultations have taken place in capitals of EU member states. Suggestions that they be held in the Russian capital have been firmly rejected. There may be several explanations for this. Firstly, the authorities here are scared of signs of activity in Moscow from human rights defenders and the opposition. Secondly, in Moscow it would be very difficult to refuse to invite people from the prosecutor’s office, etc to the consultations. That means it would be harder to avoid a substantive discussion.

Do NGOs play any role in preparing for these consultations?

We need to go back in time a bit here. For example, the first round of consultations took place in March 2005 in Luxemburg. At that time we, that is, representatives of a number of nongovernmental organizations, were in Geneva at the session of the UN Committee on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council). That was a forum where the human rights situation was publicly discussed.

Of course, a great deal had been discussed in advance behind the scenes, however the result was the submission for public airing of draft documents on the human rights situation in this or that country or region, or on some issues common to many regions.

Then, in 2005, we spoke with representatives of the European Union about the need to again raise the issue of the situation with human rights in the Chechen Republic since this had been raised in previous years already. For example, in 2000 and 2001 the UN Commission passed resolutions condemning wide-scale human rights abuse in Chechnya.

These were extremely important public documents, a signal to Russia and a reference point for the world community. However it proved impossible in subsequent years to pass such resolutions. Russia began making behind-the-scene deals with China, Zimbabwe, Cuba and with other similar countries on the principle: we don’t condemn you, and you don’t touch us.

As a result all important resolutions on the situation in those countries, where human rights are violated systematically and on a mass scale were stymied.

Nonetheless, the European Union has continued to put forward its position for public discussion and have consistently stressed the importance of such steps. However in spring 2005, representatives of EU countries told us that they no longer planned to submit for discussion draft resolutions on the situation in Chechnya due to the total lack of prospects for success.  In response to our objections that it wasn’t’ right to not even attempt to use such a specialized international mechanism, totally aimed at defending human rights, we were told that now another great possibility was emerging in the European Union for having impact on the human rights situation in Russia. There was a dialogue between the European Union and Russia and within this framework consultations on human rights were being held.

It was specifically within the framework of these consultations that the European Union could fully present its position. And it would be marvellous if Russian NGOs could fit into that process.

We followed that advice. During the last two years both representatives of international nongovernmental organizations and Russian human rights defenders have been trying to get NGOs involved in these consultations. Here there is some movement forward.

In autumn 2005 Russian and international human rights organizations held their own hearings in parallel to the official consultations in Brussels on observance of human rights in Russia. By spring 2006 already, human rights groups had been invited to Vienna to a meeting with the European Union delegation on the eve of an official round of EU-Russian consultations.

We turned in advance to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a request to hold joint meetings with the participation of representatives of Russia, the EU and also international, European and Russian nongovernmental organizations to discuss the human rights situation in Europe and in Russia.

We felt that this would be of interest to all parties. However, to our great regret, Russian government representatives emphatically rejected such dialogue. They even refuse to meet with us on the eve of official negotiations,

Did you send official letters asking for meetings?

We did. Furthermore, last time we flew on the same plane as the official Russian delegation and spoke with its members. We again suggested meeting, invited them to come along to our meeting with the European delegation. The answer was no, we can always meet you separately in Moscow.  Of course it would be possible to organize official briefings in Moscow on the eve of such European meetings, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and human rights organizations could exchange views on the issues to be discussed at the consultations. Yet they refuse that as well.

That means that during these two years representatives of our government at the consultations try to prevent any participation of civic society in the dialogue between Russia and the European Union on human rights.  We, on the contrary, aim to show that participation of nongovernmental organizations – and not only Russian ones – at least as observers would be extremely useful.

We put forward our proposals in an open letter addressed to government of EU member states, the government of the Russian Federation and the RF Federal Assembly, as well as to the European Parliament and European Commission. The letter was signed by 75 human rights organizations from many Russian regions. Whereas the Europeans agree to this, the Russian side is unyielding in insisting that the dialogue is between governments and that the regulations do not envisage participation by nongovernmental organizations in such consultations. Yet why not make changes to the regulations? After all there are plenty of inter-governmental forums (OSCE, various UN structures and so forth) in which nongovernmental organizations take an active part. In fact the Russian side, you would think, could actually get some benefit from this, inviting, for example, some of the loyal members of the Russian Public Chamber to these consultations as experts. Although it’s clear why they’re digging their heels in – participation of representatives of the public will in any case make this dialogue more public, will give it impulse, will force its participants to discuss the real issues. And their aim, on the contrary, is to make the process as anodyne as possible, an empty ritual.

That means that for the moment participation by human rights NGOs in these consultations are confined to meetings on the eve of each round of consultations with the delegation from the other side, the European Union?  And how do they go, who takes part in them?

They’ve already been three such meetings. They were attended by representatives of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Memorial, the Civic Assistance Committee, the “Demos” Centre, the Centre of the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, the Glashnost Fund, the “Sova” Centre, the All-Russian movement “For Human Rights”, the Union of Committees of Russian Soldiers’ Mothers, the Committee against Torture, the “Public Verdict” Fund, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau and the Russia-Chechnya Friendship Society. That’s from Russian civic society.

Of international organizations, there were representatives from Amnesty International, the International Helsinki Federation, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights, the Russian-German Exchange. Normally it’s organizations who are properly involved in at least one of the issues which the European Union plans to raise at the next consultations. The organization has to be ready to prepare in advance a brief report on that issue.

In fact, on the eve of consultations we also propose topics which we think are important to discuss during consultations. There are no particular disagreements with the EU delegation over this. We also send the EU delegation in advance a file with accounts of specific individual cases of human rights abuse. These are either the most flagrant or publicly important cases, or ones that typify a system of human rights violations. We ask them to put forward questions about such cases during the consultations.

What topics were discussed at the last meetings between NGOs and the EU delegation?

Firstly, freedom of peaceful assembly with this topic obviously called for over the recent cases where “marches of those in dissent” [“Marsh nyesoglashnykh”] were violently dispersed.  But we didn’t only speak of those marches, but about systematic violations in our country over recent years of the right to hold political rallies, demonstrations, pickets and the preparation by the authorities of lists of “unreliable” individuals, and about mass-scale illegal detentions of such “unreliable” people throughout Russia on the eve of protest actions.

Was the topic suggested by the European Union or did you put it forward?

The suggestion came from the EU delegation and entirely coincided with our plans.

Other topics discussed were freedom of association (and in the first instance, the situation with Russian NGOs), freedom of expression, racism and xenophobia. As part of the latter, we raised the issue as well of abused by the authorities of anti-extremist legislation. Obviously the struggle against racism and xenophobia involves fighting extremism, but in Russian conditions anti-extremist legislation is, unfortunately, often used by the authorities to fight nongovernmental organizations not to their liking. Extremism is given a much too wide interpretation by the authorities here.

Other issues were also discussed: the situation in the North Caucuses; electoral rights and the independence of the judiciary. We also raised the issue of the Russian Federation’s fulfilment of its international commitments (including judgments of the European Court of Human Rights). That we believe is also a worrying and important area.

And yet again we put forward the issue of political prisoners in our country. We told them that over the last six months the situation has seriously deteriorated for political prisoners like Danilov, Sutyagin, Trepashkin, Talkhigov. The fact that they have been transferred to harsher regimes and that their state of health has suffered as a consequence is of great concern. The situation has also worsened with regard to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev due to the likelihood of new criminal proceedings against them.

We also briefly touched on how, in our view, these consultations between the EU and Russia could be improved. We obviously spoke in this context of the importance of NGO participation in the dialogue.

One other issue was discussed at our initiative. We expressed our concern over the events in Tallinn, our doubts as to whether the Estonian government had really needed to move the monument and the graves specifically on the eve of Victory Day. Our point of view is that such hasty decisions must inevitably lead to mass disturbances. They only create further division in Estonian society. Of particular concern are reports of excessive use of force against demonstrators.  We unequivocally condemn the pogroms and acts of vandalism which took place in Tallinn. However these disturbances cannot serve as justification for disproportionate use of force.

We called on the European Union to pay close attention to those events, study the situation and if there really were violations of international commitments, to indicate to Estonia as a member of the EU, that such actions are unacceptable. We pointed out at the same time that the information given in the Russian media about the events was inadequate and in most cases biased.

Where did the meeting take place? I’m asking in order to find out what the status was of the event. Was the choice of venue an indication of a higher status as compared with previous consultations or not?  And how long do such meetings last?

The meeting took place in the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The status had neither increased nor decreased since the first, in spring 2006. The meetings usually last more than three hours.

Who initiates them?

Both sides – the EU and representatives of nongovernmental organizations – emphasize their readiness for dialogue. Over this time a certain pattern of cooperation has emerged. In the run up to official meetings, we meet with representatives of the European Commission, as well as with representatives of EU member states’ embassies in Moscow. A key role here is played by the embassy of the country holding the Presidency of the European Union.

We talk with them about the topics which we see as burning at the present moment and which issues we would like to see raised during consultations. They work on how they envisage this, and then notify us of the time and place where the meeting with the EU delegation on the eve of the consultations is to take place. Clearly, it is not the European Union who covers our travel expenses. Each time we seek sponsors ourselves and those who will be delivering a paper go.

When you say “we”, who do you mean in this case?

By “we” I mean the group of Russian NGOs which began this process. The circle of members is constantly widening.  More representatives of NGOs from various regions of Russia need to be drawn into it.

Clearly human rights NGOs, both Russian and international, are actively trying to use this new international mechanism. Can one draw any conclusions?  How much of an impact are these official consultations having?

It is possible to have some impact. However on the whole the conclusions are not cheering. For me personally, and all participants from Russian NGOs, both the format of consultations and their results are hardly satisfactory. The parties issue press releases on the outcome of the consultations. But they’re written in such delicate diplomat speak that they’re more about concealing what took place, rather than clearly providing a summary.

In addition, for Russian NGOs taking part in preparations for the latest round of consultations, after it’s over, a special meeting is held in Moscow where the embassy of the country holding the Presidency of the EU describes the course and conclusions of the latest round.

I would again stress that it is not,unfortunately, the Russian delegation which informs us. The Russian delegation is absolutely unwilling to account to its own society. Let them at least report to the Public Chamber, yet they don’t even do that.

Our general impression is that there is a fairly languid dialogue between Russia and the European Union. One side says their bit, then the other – theirs. One side asks a question, the other somehow or other says something in response.  They then in turn ask a question and get some kind of answer. Then they go away to meet again a year later with the same result.

And with regard to specific questions which the Europeans, at our prompting, put, most often the Russian side answers either with general or meaningless phrases, or simply lies.

For example, at the last consultations, the Russian delegation was asked about the state of health of Mikhail Trepashkin, about whether he was being given medical care. The answer was as follows: his state of health is entirely satisfactory and he was examined by doctors in the penal colony who came to the conclusion that there was no need to hospitalize him. There is, meanwhile, extremely reliable information suggesting a serious deterioration in his condition.  Yet the European delegation politely and diplomatically chose to be content with the Russian delegation’s answer.

Or at the previous consultations, in response to a question about the illegal deportation from Russia to Uzbekistan of the refugee Rustam Muminov, the Russian delegation answered that he had been administratively deported on the basis of a court ruling since he was in Russia illegally. The European delegation, feeling pleased that they’d done their duty (after all they’d asked the question!), were satisfied with the response.

Yet they should have objected – the court ruling had not come into force, and indeed later, at cassation level, it was called in question. The deportation was carried out not only despite a special decision by the European Court of Human Rights*, but also in breach of Russian legislation. But no, the EU Delegation can’t afford to catch its Russian colleagues out lying.

What about if NGO representatives were at the consultations?

Even if the NGOs didn’t have the right to vote, both delegations would understand that there were specialists present on the subject. We would literally that day be commenting on the lies to the media. That’s exactly why they don’t want us there.

Does the Russian delegation in its turn put questions to the EU delegation at the consultations? And what kind of answers do they get?

Yes, for example, at the last consultations a question was posed about the events in Tallinn, about discrimination against the Russian-speaking part of the population, about the use there of excessive force by the law enforcement agencies. And I must say that the European side did not behave exactly like the Russian side, but in a similar manner. They began using general phases about framework conventions which define the rights of minorities in European countries. That there are some mechanisms and procedures, that in the European Union they pay a lot of attention to the rights of minorities, that there is always the possibility of defending ones rights in court. The conversation was thus moved away from specific examples into an area of entirely general arguments. It would appear that this entirely suited the Russian delegation. It did not at least insist on a clearer and more specific answer.

Dialogue between the deaf?

Something like that. The answer is almost unintelligible, but nobody pulls them up on it, nobody accuses them of being unintelligible, nobody demands clarity and elucidation. What do we have as a result?

 The priority on diplomatic etiquette, unwillingness to put too much pressure on Russia, fear that it will simply “slam the door shut”, reluctance because of human rights issues spoil relations with Russian in other directions – all of this is what is making dialogue between European countries and Russia so wishy-washy.

The European Union shifted the human rights situation in Russia away, first into Commissions and now the UN Human Rights Council.  We now have instead a languid, non-binding , virtually non-public and half behind-the-scenes EU-Russia dialogue. In fact, in private discussions we discover that the European Union representatives are also not happy with this situation.

What solution do you see to the situation?

At present a document, an agreement is being prepared between the European Union and Russia. There was an old agreement but it ran out. The conclusion of a new agreement was blocked by Poland over the ban Russia imposed on Polish meat imports. Sooner or later it will be signed. We believe that this agreement must definitely include a separate section on human rights issues.  This subject should not be simply mentioned as some kind of general background uniting Russia and the European Union as was the case in the old agreement.

Some form of specific outline of cooperation needs to be set out. One could, for example, give more official status to the consultations. Let them leave to some kind of specific outcome. Each side would have the right to demand detailed and specific answers to questions put.

‘We in no way envisage the European Union as a party controlling Russia, or as a structure permanently pointing its finger, oy, oy, oy, you’re in the wrong here! If we are talking about a dialogue between equals (and nobody is disputing this), then both sides must have the same rights and obligations.

If European Union delegations are asked questions about demonstrators being beaten or detained in Estonia, then the Russian delegation should not be given vague answers (like, “here in Europe there are certain legislation norms, conventions, and if you don’t like something, you can defend your rights wonderfully in the court”).  And if the Russian delegation gives specific names and details of detentions and asks whether it’s  true that so-and-so’s rights were violated, and wants to know how the officials who exceeded their authority were punished, and so forth, in that case representatives of the European Union will be obliged to give specific answers.

We think that if the Russian authorities are really concerned about the problem of Russian speakers in the Baltic Republics, or migrants in EU countries, then that would be a mechanism which would help resolve the given problems.

We are convinced that in the EU-RF agreement there needs to be a separate section setting out all these mechanisms. Perhaps – the optimum variant – would be mutual inspection, visits by inspection groups to meet with officials, representatives of the prosecutor’s office, and with members of the public. That would be fruitful cooperation.

And what real steps are being taken with preparing the new agreement?

Again, this process is going on behind the scenes and is totally non-transparent for the public. In personal conversations representatives of the European Union tell us that they are doing everything they can to ensure that the new agreement prescribes the issues of cooperation on human rights more specifically. However the negotiations are difficult.  And when we say that the draft agreement needs to be made available, they raise their hands in horror. As if, what are we saying, then everything will collapse.

I on the other hand, am afraid that such behaviour by EU structures responsible for dialogue with Russia are more likely to lead to the collapse of the dialogue. I would be pleased to be proven wrong.

The interview was taken by Alyona Malakhova

21 June 2007-


*  Four days before Muminov’s deportation in October 2006, the European Court of Human Rights applied rule No. 39, calling on the government of Russia to halt his deportation to Uzbekistan until further notice.  (translator)

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