Rights in Russia interview – with Bill Bowring, Russia expert, teacher of human rights and international law and practising barrister

This month Mary Page talks with Professor Bill Bowring who teaches human rights and international law at Birkbeck College, University of London. Bill Bowring first visited Russia in 1983, and returned many times until the Covid pandemic and then Putin’s all-outwar in Ukraine.

As a practising barrister, Bill has, since 1992, represented applicants in cases against Russia before the European Court of Human Rights, especially on behalf of Chechen victims. In 2003 he obtained €1 million from the European Commission and founded the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre which partnered with the Russian NGO Memorial (now in exile). He has some 150 publications on international law, human rights, minority rights, Russian law and philosophy, some in Russian. In recognition of his scholarship on Russia he was conferred a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS). He was twice, in 2005 and 2007, arrested and deported from Russia in connection with his human rights activities but got back in again.

This interview was recorded on 18 January 2024.

Mary’s questions

  • For many years you were a participant in, and a close observer of, Western support for Russian human rights groups. To what extent should we say now that these efforts failed to consolidate civil society and strengthen human rights protection?
  • What could have been done differently?
  • Why has authoritarianism been so successful in Russia – and civil society apparently so weak?
  • How is Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights affecting human rights – and the work of lawyers and activists – in Russia?  
  • What is the human rights situation in Russia today actually like? What valid comparisons are there? For example – is it like the Soviet Union under Brezhnev? Or Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s? 
  • There are numerous cases of human rights defenders being prosecuted – such as Oleg Orlov – and also human rights lawyers: the lawyer Ivan Pavlov has been forced out of Russia, Dmitry Talantov, president of the bar association in Udmurtia, is in pre-trial detention on charges of defaming the Russian army, lawyers who acted for Aleksei Navalny are being prosecuted, lawyers defending Crimean Tatars have been disbarred, Vadim Prokhorov, a lawyer who represented Vladimir Kara-Murza, has been forced to leave the country. Would it be fair to say that the authorities are destroying the legal profession in Russia?
  • Many human rights activists and human rights lawyers have now left Russia. Are they lost to Russia for good? Are there things they can do from abroad to support human rights in Russia?
  • The so-called ‘elections’ scheduled for March 17 this year will be far from ‘free and fair’. Do you think they have any real significance?
  • Taken altogether, how do you see the future for human rights in Russia?

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