28 September 2022
Speech by Oleg Orlov at an OSCE conference in Warsaw, Poland, on the human dimension
Dear colleagues, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to address this distinguished assembly.
The protection of freedom of association is a key OSCE commitment in terms of the human dimension. Without this freedom, civil society cannot function effectively. However, in recent years in the OSCE area of responsibility we have met not only with attacks on freedom of association and new threats to the security of human rights defenders, but also with systemic developments that call into question the very existence of independent civil society.
The authorities in some OSCE participating States have consistently worked to bring about these outcomes. We – the community of human rights organisations from various countries – have been talking about this threat for many years in a range of forums. Unfortunately, our voices have been largely ignored.
We have reiterated the principle formulated by Andrei Sakharov almost 50 years ago: Peace, progress and human rights are three inseparable goals and it is not possible to achieve one while neglecting the others. This comprehensive approach to matters of international security became at that time the basis for the creation of the OSCE. According to the Helsinki principles, the comprehensive approach to security has three interrelated dimensions, and these correspond exactly to the Sakharov trinity.
Democracy and human rights are the strongest guarantees for trust among nations. Civil society organisations are a vital and indispensable element in the protection of these values. Therefore, we maintain that the suppression of civil society in some countries threatens the security of all countries and constitutes a threat to peace in the whole OSCE region.
Now this thesis has again been confirmed by the examples of Russia and Belarus, countries that long ago set course towards the complete destruction of civil society. The Russian authorities, having carried out internal repression for many years, have now unleashed large-scale aggression against a sovereign state, Ukraine, and the illegitimate authoritarian regime of Lukashenka in Belarus has become Russia’s active accomplice.
Not only have our voices been largely ignored. International institutions designed to protect human rights have at times failed to fulfil their responsibilities. Take, for example, the reaction of the European Court of Human Rights to the applications submitted by a large group of Russian human rights organisations with regard to the so-called ‘foreign agent laws.’ These repressive regulations have grossly restricted freedom of association in Russia for the past 10 years. The first applications were submitted to the European Court of Human Rights in 2013. We asked that the Court consider the applications as a matter of priority, but our request was refused. It was only in June of this year, nine years after the first applications were submitted, that the Strasbourg Court issued a ruling. By that time, the ‘foreign agent’ legislation had been maximally toughened and more than half the applicant organisations had been liquidated or forced to dissolve themselves. The Court issued its ruling after Russia had announced its withdrawal from the Council of Europe and Putin had signed laws on the non-enforcement of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.
As a result, the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights had no influence on the situation in Russia.
If the judgment had been issued a few years earlier, the toughening of the ‘foreign agent’ legislation would have taken place more slowly, and by February of this year the field of Russian civil society would not have been so devastated, and public opposition to war would have been considerably stronger.
This is just one example of an international institution failing to uphold freedom of association, even as, in recent years, governments in many countries have been suppressing civil society ever more severely, in more sophisticated ways and more systematically. This has happened above all in a number of states in the post-Soviet space, but attacks on civil society have also taken place in other countries of the OSCE region.
I shall list some of the more significant methods used in various countries to restrict freedom of association:
1. Illegal violence, including murders, attacks on human rights defenders and other civil society activists, and threats.
Often this violence is committed by agents of the authorities or by pro-government groups. In Russia in the North Caucasus such violent attacks occur regularly. My friends and colleagues have been victims of such attacks.
However, frequently, it is not the authorities who are behind such crimes, but persons who call themselves supporters of ‘patriotic’ or ‘traditional’ values. They attack associations that defend the rights of women, groups of LGBTI people, ethnic minorities and migrants. This happens in Russia, Georgia, Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Austria, Italy and Spain.
In each such case, an immediate and unambiguous response from law enforcement bodies is important. Lack of effective investigation encourages new attacks.
2. The criminal prosecution of activists on trumped-up charges of grave crimes, defaming a person’s reputation. Prosecutions of this kind happen in Russia and in the states of Central Asia and Azerbaijan. A prime example is the case of Yury Dmitriev, a member of the Memorial Society and an outstanding researcher into the history of Stalinist repressions, who was sentenced to 13 years in Russia on false accusations of pornography and sexual abuse.
3. The abuse of anti-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation, which is facilitated by the deliberately vague and ambiguous wording of the relevant laws in a number of countries, for example, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Legitimate criticism of government authorities is treated as incitement to hatred. Discussion of the reasons that lead people to join terrorist networks is interpreted by the authorities as justification of terrorism.
The peaceful practice of religious beliefs that are not among those approved by the State is severely persecuted, as, for example, is the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation in Russia.
4. The prosecution of NGOs and their members for violating legislation on public assembly. In a number of countries, the relevant legislation, which is both proscriptive and repressive, contradicts OSCE standards and international covenants on human rights. Here again I will mention Russia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus.
5. The prosecution of NGOs and activists on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, for example in Belarus.
6. The extradition of human rights defenders from countries where they had hoped to obtain asylum, at the request of the authorities of their countries of origin based on politically motivated, fabricated criminal charges, often involving abuse of the Interpol system.
7. The severing of international ties among NGOs by designating their foreign partners as ‘undesirable organisations’ and by means of unjustified bans on entry into the country by foreign human rights defenders.
Leaving to one side, for lack of time, other methods of suppressing freedom of association as beyond the scope of this presentation, I would like to draw attention to the following:
8. The designation of NGOs out of favour with the authorities as ‘foreign agents,’ which has taken its most comprehensive form in Russia. From 2022, any organisation, any member of such an organisation, and any civil society activist can be designated a ‘foreign agent.’
For this purpose, it is sufficient, as it states in the law, to be ‘under foreign influence’ and to engage in ‘political activity.’
‘Influence’ is defined as any support or impact, including by means of persuasion, or, and I quote, ‘other means.’ It’s enough to have a conversation with a foreigner over a cup of coffee, and there’s foreign influence for you!
‘Political activity’ is defined as any public pronouncement, statement or communication.
‘Foreign agents’ are subject to significant restrictions.Their opportunities to engage in legitimate civil society activities are virtually wiped out. Any violation results in huge fines and, following that, criminal penalties and the liquidation of the organisation.
The organisations to which I had given many years of my life – the International Memorial Society and Memorial Human Rights Centre – were liquidated for violating the ‘foreign agent’ legislation. During the court hearings, the prosecutors made no secret of the fact that the Memorial organisations were in fact being liquidated for the work that they did.
This is not simply another repressive Russian practice. It is a systematic approach to interaction between state and society that is in direct contradiction with the very principles on which the OSCE and the Council of Europe have been built.
First of all, it is based on the simple logic that reigns among the security services: if you receive funds from a foreign source, then you work for that source. If you receive money from a government, then you must become an agent of that government.
There is simply no place for independent civil society activity in this picture of the world.
Secondly, the very space for non-political civil society activity disappears.
Think about it: this is a rejection of the very notion of the ‘third basket’ of the Helsinki Accords. This logic is being adopted by countries and regimes both within and outside the OSCE region.
It is a challenge to which the OSCE must respond.
Here are three of the many recommendations that have already been proposed by civil society organisations.
1 The OSCE Chairmanship should each year include the protection of freedom of association and the security of human rights defenders in its programmatic priorities.
2 A Special Representative on Civil Society should be appointed. Their permanent mandate should include assistance in the protection of civil society associations and the security of human rights defenders in the OSCE region.
3 The ODIHR should set up a panel of experts on freedom of association and the security of human rights defenders, similar to the existing panel of experts on freedom of peaceful assembly.
To conclude, I must point out that, while we are deliberating here, my friend Ales Bialiatski and many of his comrades in Belarusian civil society are in prison on serious charges. This month Marfa Rabkova, a coordinator of volunteers at the Viasna Human Rights Centre, was given a monstrous sentence of 15 years in prison!
This cannot be tolerated. Pressure on the Lukashenka regime must be greatly intensified.
Protection of the freedom of association must be a priority in the work of the OSCE.