Dmitry Makarov: “I have met so many wonderful people in the human rights field who never fail to inspire me”

August 2020

Dmitry Makarov, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, talks to Inna Bondarenko, a first-year master’s student of Political Analysis and Public Policy at the Higher School of Economics and intern at the Moscow Helsinki Group, about his path to becoming a human rights defender, the state of human rights in Russia, and of the search for a balance between state interests and human rights.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group

Dmitry, when did you decide to become a human rights defender?

Everything started at university, when I encountered apathy and the corruption permeating everything in sight.  I wanted to study politics, but the Orel State University did not have such a programme, and I decided to study law, so that I would have the possibility of speaking with people “about life.”  At university I found like-minded friends with whom I could discuss the topics that upset us and try to realize various student initiatives — for example, founding an independent student union. On the other hand, I understood that it was difficult to realize one’s professional potential at a provincial university, and I started working at the Human Rights Advice Centre in Orel. Similar places existed in various cities with the support of the Moscow Helsinki Group. 

What were your responsibilities?

At the Centre, students gave initial consultations under the supervision of more experienced lawyers. Complaints and appeals began to go through me, and often they were connected, for example, with the violations of labour rights or the abuse of government power. In addition, many at the Centre were activists in the Youth Human Rights Movement—and it was pleasant to realize that we were all working for the same thing and were part of one network.  Another of my responsibilities at that time was for anti-fascist and anti-racist initiatives, which were especially topical for Orel in the 2000’s. 

Later I participated in various seminars on human rights, became a graduate student in Moscow, and came to the Moscow Helsinki Group because it was the only office I knew of where it was possible to work at a computer.  It turned out rather amusing: some young kid showed up, who at first no one noticed, to work at someone’s request—and in time he became one of the coordinators of various topics connected with freedom of assembly and association and with human rights defence.

And why did you decide to study law?

I always wanted to change the world (now a bit less)—I don’t know, maybe it’s a kind of neurosis.

I always clench my fists when I see injustice. 

Especially when the state abuses its power against those who have almost nothing to oppose it with. 

Besides the opportunity to help people, what else attracts you to human rights activities? 

The ability to build institutions that do not depend on the state. It seems to me that the more effectively the law works, the less need there is for state coercion – maybe this is a legacy of my past interest in anarchism. 

Do you need empathy to engage in advocacy, participate in rallies and write collective appeals?

I don’t think empathy is the main quality. I know many human rights defenders and public activists who do not have it. They work in this area because of a desire to resist evil, and we, unfortunately, often forget about individual people in this struggle and the struggle becomes an end in itself. Those who lack empathy should focus on a sense of justice and a sense of healthy self-centredness. Human rights help protect us from people in power: either we trust them unthinkingly, or we understand that they are the same as everyone else – with faults, a lack of restraint, but that they have real powers such as a monopoly on violence. Are we sure that a judge always delivers a just sentence?

I think most people believe that it’s not always the case. Probably, with this in mind, you can often hear people say,  “Come on, nothing will change anyway.” What do you say to that?

It’s probably impossible to change everything, but it’s always worth trying.

And why? And, most importantly, to what end?

It’s always better to say you tried. That’s much better than just signing away your ability to do anything straight away. It always seemed to me that a lot can depend on one particular person and that the more those people on who things depend act altruistically the better it is. I know many examples when people have changed history – and these people are not necessarily presidents or oligarchs. Common people who have created things that will survive long after them include Henri Dunant [Founder of the Red Cross Movement] and Peter Benenson [Founder of Amnesty International]. The Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) is also proof of this. Who would have thought that a handful of dissidents, whom no one took seriously, would create a structure that would spring up in other countries, change the entire OSCE system, and put human rights at the heart of many processes?

But many of these people paid for this with their freedom. Do you feel that there is a direct or indirect threat to your freedom?

I am often asked this question. I try not to think about it: do what you must. On one hand it’s not like it was in the 1970s but at the same time there was the recent disgusting poisoning of Navalny … And yet, I believe that the risks to defenders of human rights are exaggerated.

Human rights defender – is this a calling or just a normal profession requiring a certain set of competencies?

Several years ago, I would have said that, yes, this job is a calling and a way of life. But all the same it has its own set of values, and competencies. What we understand by the term ‘human rights defender’ has changed in recent years – many people now call themselves this. We need to constantly ask ourselves: have I achieved the level, where I can call myself a human rights defender? I am constantly posing this question to myself. 

I see your shelves are packed with the annual reports of the Moscow Helsinki Group. How should a human rights defender with your amount of experience assess the state of human rights in Russia; has it improved or gotten worse? 

On one hand I want to give the standard answer, that it has become only worse. But on the other hand, in the past year we have tried to raise ourselves above this and write about the positive things that have happened. Of course, we can’t ignore the breaking up of peaceful protest, the jailings, and the new wave of political prisoners and the persecution of religious groups. But we have seen an improvement in the area of environmental rights as well as the situation in Khabarovsk. There the issue isn’t only about or limited to events surrounding the governor, but also about people who began to feel outraged but had no voice to express it. A lively and engaged society is emerging there.

Recently we have seen various changes in the system of human rights in Russia, including personnel changes at the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and firings from the Constitutional Court. To what extent now has it become more difficult to bring your initiatives to the authorities? 

I’m not a political scientist so I can’t analyse these processes with ease. What is far more interesting to me in my work is how society at large reacts to this type of thing. I continue to think of the Presidential Human Rights Council as an instrument, even if it has become less effective than it was several years ago. Or we can talk about the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman. The particular individual in office often comes in for criticism, but on many issues the Ombudsman has taken positions of integrity. As human rights defenders we should be interested in how to strengthen the institution, so that it doesn’t depend on the specific person. We also need real pressure by society, a manifestation of the need for an effective working structure. 

Are there any positions where any self-respecting human rights defender shouldn’t work? For example, in state structures which haven’t proven their effectiveness? 

I may be naïve, but I believe that the more good people we have working in different structures, the better. The main thing is that these people proved stronger than the system which will put the pressure on them. 

Have the core areas for human rights violations changed throughout your career in human rights?

It’s hard to say. I think street violence has decreased, but day to day racism and xenophobia hasn’t gone anywhere: there’s a disparaging attitude towards migrants (and other vulnerable groups), and they have absolutely terrible working conditions. This can be said of any area. In the penitentiary system prisoners’ living conditions have improved but numerous violations persist, including forced labour, violence and abuses of power. Then there’s a new area for violation: digital human rights…

Officials of many states love to repeat that representatives of other countries cannot criticise the state of human rights elsewhere if they haven’t dealt with their own internal violations. How do you feel about such rhetoric?

One of the foundational principles of the Helsinki Final Act is that human rights are not a matter of national sovereignty. We as human rights defenders adhere to this stance: not only is it possible to criticise, it is also necessary.

In any country there are human rights violations, but we have taken on a responsibility to our citizens and the entire global community to talk about this and help improve the situation. The more criticism from different points of view, the better.

Can you comment on the phrase said to former judge of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation Anatoly Kononov: “Don’t flirt with human rights, there are still state interests”?

Yes, there are state interests. But for some reason these are often understood not as the interests of society, but the interests of a specific group of people.

Human rights is always about finding the right balance.

They can, and even sometimes should, be limited for the common good. But the duty of a human rights defender is to constantly remind people that there are lines that cannot be crossed even for the common good.

Is this dichotomy of “state interests on the one hand and human rights on the other” unjustifiable?

It’s a false opposition.

As a human rights activist, you must often be exposed to negative information. How do you manage to maintain your indomitable optimism?

I don’t know! The support of my family. My children are an immense gift from the universe. And people inspire me. I have met so many wonderful people in the human rights field who never fail to inspire me. But the main thing is to believe that our work will live on after us.

 August 2020

About Dmitry Makarov on the MHG website

Translated by John Tokolish, Matthew Quigley, Fergus Wright and Verity Hemp

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