1 August 2022
While they need little introduction, we asked the two co-chairs to answer questions about the Centre’s future activities: Oleg Orlov and Sergei Davidis talk about our work.
As a graduate in biology from Moscow State University, acting entirely on his own, Oleg Orlov produced and distributed leaflets against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 and, in 1981, in support of the independent trade union Solidarity in Poland. He took part in the setting up of the Memorial Society. He was a parliamentary assistant to the Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev. From the start of the second Chechen war in October 1999, Orlov headed the work of Memorial in the North Caucasus. From November 2004 until October 2006, he was a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights. He was a laureate of the 2009 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, an annual award established by the European Parliament.
What will be the focus of the work of the Human Rights Centre?
The work of Memorial Human Rights Centre will focus on human rights violations in Russia and by the Russian authorities, without ruling out the possibility of work in other countries.
Priority areas of work for the near future will include:
- Protecting the rights of persons who have suffered from arbitrariness by law enforcement agencies and other state agents.
- Gathering and disseminating information about instances of politically motivated prosecutions; legal and other assistance to victims of political repression.
- Protection of the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees; internally displaced persons; stateless persons and migrant workers.
- Using international human rights mechanisms for the protection of human rights to counter violations. Unfortunately, the citizens of our country are now deprived of such an effective mechanism as the European Court of Human Rights, so we will focus on the range of UN mechanisms.
- Countering human rights violations that come about as a result of counter-terrorism and anti-extremism activities by the authorities.
- Collecting and disseminating information about violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in armed conflicts and post-conflict situations. To collect and disseminate information about the situation in regions where human rights violations may lead to large-scale clashes or armed conflicts.
Who will be the main audience for your work, whose attention do you aim to attract and what kind of response can you expect from among civil society, state authorities and foreign human rights organisations?
First of all, this the target audience is Russian citizens, and not necessarily those who are directly involved in the work of civil society, but people who are not indifferent and who are interested in what is actually happening in our country.
Getting our information to them is much more difficult now than it used to be. Without VPN it is often no longer possible to find uncensored information on the Internet. In practice, in terms of freedom of expression and the ability to disseminate and receive information, Russia has now, as it were, ‘returned to the Soviet era.’ This is a serious challenge for the work of human rights organisations, to which it is necessary to find appropriate responses.
Of course the state authorities remain for us a target audience but a very specific one. Previously, we could hope that our appeals to state bodies, to officials and to members of parliament could bring some constructive results and initiate a dialogue. However, over the last 12 years such opportunities have rapidly diminished.
The ‘foreign agent’ legislation, in particular, was in addition created to cut off any contact between representatives of government agencies and independent civil society. For a long time there were nonetheless some opportunities for interaction with human rights ombudsmen, with the heads of certain regions and with specific departments. Now all these opportunities have been wholly destroyed.
Nevertheless, repeating the experience of Soviet dissidents, in present circumstances we still address public letters, appeals and proposals to representatives of the authorities. For example on matters concerning the situation of both Russian and Ukrainian military service personnel captured in the course of military operations. If such public appeals on various aspects of human rights are supplemented by parallel legal and informational work, all this taken together is a necessary component of human rights work and an attempt by civil society to influence the authorities.
As before, inter-governmental, international, foreign bodies and organisations engaged in human rights work should remain part of our target audience. For example, we are planning, together with other NGOs, to prepare alternative reports to various UN structures. This is common practice for human rights organisations around the world. However, we face difficulties here as well – our government is trying to criminalize any independent contacts between Russian civil society representatives and international structures.
What is there left to say? We shall try to work under these difficult circumstances as well.
A lawyer and sociologist by training, Sergei Davidis joined the Memorial Human Rights Centre team (now closed down by court order) in 2009 as part of a project to support political prisoners and he led the project until its liquidation. He participated in defending the right to freedom of assembly in the courts and in civil society activities. He has been a member of the governing bodies of the Solidarity movement and of the Fifth of December party, a member of the Coordination Council of the opposition, and was an organiser of many public events in Moscow, including the wave of protests that took place in 2011-2012 and the Peace March in 2014. He has been a candidate for the Moscow City Duma and the Russian State Duma. Sergei Davidis is now the head of the independent human rights project ‘Political Prisoners. Memorial.’
What opportunities does Russian civil society now have, inside and outside the country, to oppose the repressive system and defend its rights? What can an ordinary citizen do?
After 24 February, the human rights situation in Russia deteriorated even further when compared to the already poor state it was in before.
In such a situation, it is particularly important not to leave anyone alone to face the repressive system. While the effectiveness of purely legal instruments to counter unlawful prosecutions has become less effective in these circumstances, it is not nil. It is therefore important that everyone subjected to repression should be provided with legal assistance. Psychological assistance is equally important.
All praise to the lawyers who provide such assistance pro bono, but apart from thanking them, it is still important to work together to ensure that there is funding to pay for legal aid in all necessary cases. Therefore, the material support of NGOs and informal groups and individual lawyers providing legal aid to victims of repression, and participation in targeted collections to support specific people, are the most obvious means to resist the repressive system.
Financial support is important not only to pay for the legal assistance itself, but also to help solve the immediate problems of both the victims of repression and their families and to pay court fines. Such solidarity networks are active, but the scale of assistance is always smaller than necessary.
If we are to talk about those who have been subjected to repression in the form of imprisonment, sometimes it is just as important for them to receive letters, a live and open expression of support, a connection to the world.
Another important area is the dissemination of information. Publicity is both a way of providing moral support and a tool to a great extent limiting the worst violations of the rights of victims of repression.
Many human rights activists and journalists are now abroad and it is not safe for them to be in Russia. What opportunities for providing assistance and support do they have left? What can they do now?
I mentioned above two areas, material and informational support. This also fully applies to those who are abroad. In point of fact, they are generally freer in their actions than those still inside Russia and their efforts to disseminate information can certainly be much more effective outside the stifling Russian censorship. Those who are abroad are better able to work with public opinion in other countries and report truthful information about the situation in Russia to the governments of those countries, international organisations and the world’s media.
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Translated by Rights in Russia