The National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House present this statement of international concern to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation inside Russia and to demonstrate widespread support for Russian civil society.
In recent months, the Russian Federal Duma has passed several pieces of legislation that restrict human rights and the activities of civil society organizations and their ability to receive support from abroad. Other restrictive measures include recriminalizing libel, introducing further measures to curtail freedom of speech on the internet, and placing additional restrictions on freedom of assembly. Changes to Russia’s NGO legislation will soon require civil society organizations receiving foreign funds to choose between registering as “foreign agents” or facing significant financial penalties and potential criminal charges. A recent amendment to Russia’s penal code expands the definitions of “treason” and “espionage” that could allow for sweeping application against any critics and government opponents, including for such activities as consulting for foreign firms or conducting human rights reporting.
Attempts by the few remaining independent voices in the Federal Duma to amend or delay this legislation have been met with repression, including the expulsion of Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov. Following an expose on state-controlled NTV, three members of the opposition Left Front party were arrested on charges of colluding with Georgian authorities to disrupt public order, with one activist apparently abducted by Russian security services from Kyiv, Ukraine.
These measures sow fear in the population, violate international standards and Russia’s own constitution, and threaten to make Russia substantially less free. Our goal is to add the support of the international community to those Russians calling for repeal of the restrictive legislation and for Russian government to honor its commitments to international agreements protecting human rights.
Open Letter: Statement of International Concern
We, the undersigned, express our deep concern over the recent passage of laws in Russia that introduce harsh new restrictions on freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Such measures, which violate international norms, will isolate Russia from the community of nations that respects universal rights.
Of particular concern is the law requiring civic organizations working on human rights and advocacy that receive funds from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and submit to additional requirements and restrictions. The law’s vague language defines as a “foreign agent” any organization that seeks to influence public opinion or policy and receives money from foreign sources. By applying the term “political” to these non-partisan groups, the law opens up further opportunities to impose restrictions on their activities, adding to several such moves against civil society organizations introduced in the past decade.
The law has been criticized by legal experts and civil society leaders in Russia, including the head of the Kremlin’s own human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov. Legal analysis conducted by the President of the Russian Federation’s Council on Human Rights has found the law to be discriminatory and in contradiction to the Russian constitution. Moreover, the term “foreign agent” is a pejorative, Soviet-era phrase that connotes espionage and is utterly inappropriate to describe these civil society organizations. We share their concern that the label “foreign agent” is aimed primarily at discrediting organizations and choking off their funding, rather than encouraging transparency, as has been asserted. These restrictions are a special affront to many of Russia’s renowned human rights defenders who began their struggle for human rights under the Soviet Union and continue that struggle today. They intend to challenge this law in Russian courts and internationally.
In Russia like elsewhere, civil society organizations play a critical role in organizing and mobilizing citizens behind causes that concern them and are an expression of a people’s diversity, strengths, and desires. Receiving support from abroad to carry out an organization’s mission does not mean that an organization is operating on behalf of a foreign principal. Indeed, most Russian civil society organizations are supported from a diversity of sources. Due to severe funding constraints in Russia and the low level of private donations to groups of any type, civil society organizations often receive support from foreign organizations to carry out their work. Without such assistance, many of them would have to cease their activities.
Contrary to claims by the government in Moscow, this Russian law does not bear any similarity to legislation in Europe or the United States designed to register “lobbyists” – i.e., those who work on behalf of a foreign principal. Unlike European and U.S. laws, the Russian law targets exclusively civil society organizations.
Instead, with the passage of the “foreign agent” law, Russia is rejecting commitments it made to protect fundamental human rights. The European Convention of Human Rights, the Helsinki Accords, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights all obligate Russia to allow civil society organizations to operate with minimal restrictions. When it acceded to the Helsinki Accords, the Soviet Union acknowledged the importance of protecting human rights. By taking over those commitments, Russia agreed that human rights within the country are a legitimate international concern. Upon signing on to the European Convention of Human Rights, Russia further acknowledged its place in the European community of democracies, agreeing to submit to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which has supported the spirit of all international laws in regard to civil society organizations by reaffirming guarantees to implement human rights and freedom of association.
We call on Russia to live up to the standards and commitments reflected in the European Convention of Human Rights, the Helsinki Accords, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Toward that end, we respectfully urge Russia to repeal the recent legislation on civil society organizations and other laws that would constrict fundamental freedoms and human rights.
Fernando Maura Barandiaran
Member of Australian House of Representatives
Member of the Australian Senate, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, and representative of the Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband
Member of the Australian Senate, Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Economics
Vice President of the Italian Senate, former European Commissioner, and Founder of No Peace Without Justice
Member of the Australian Senate, Member of the Parliamentary Join Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, and Member of Human Rights Sub-Committee
Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in the Australian House of Representatives
Member of the Australian Senate
Former Member of Australian House of Representatives
President of the National Endowment for Democracy
French philosopher and author
Member of the European Parliament
Director of Research at Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI), and Lecturer in International Relations at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris and at the European Center of Johns Hopkins University in Bologna
David J. Kramer
President of Freedom House
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff
Vice-Chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Leader of the Free Democratic Party in the European Parliament
Member of Australian parliament, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences
Vice-President of the European Parliament for Democracy and Human Rights
Member of European Parliament, former Foreign Minister of Estonia
Former Foreign Minister of Spain, Former Vice President of the World Bank
Author, historian, and winner of the National Humanities Medal, Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom, Brigham-Kanner Prize and Bene Merito Medal
Founder and Director of the Development and Justice Consortium, Steering Committee member of the World Movement for Democracy
Member of Australian House of Representatives, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer
George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Council on Foreign Relations, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University, and Member of the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy
Economist, Member of Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy
Former Foreign Affairs Minister of Ukraine, Member of International Honorary Council of the European Academy of Diplomacy
Member of Australian Parliament, Committee of the Parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee
Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament, former Prime Minister of Belgium
Member of the Australian Senate
Courtesy of: The Freedom House