28 February 2021
Simon is chair of Rights in Russia but writes these comments in a personal capacity and they may not necessarily represent the views of the organisation
When I first heard on 24 February 2021 that Amnesty International had withdrawn its designation of Aleksei Navalny (last summer the victim of what is widely considered to have been a state-sponsored assassination attempt and, since his return to Russia earlier this year, imprisoned on politically motivated charges) as a prisoner of conscience my first thought was that Navalny must have said something at his latest court hearing that made it impossible for Amnesty to maintain the designation. Then I learned that Navalny had said nothing new, but Amnesty had taken the decision on the basis of an examination of Navalny’s past statements that crossed ‘the threshold of hate speech.’ As an Amnesty member with a strong interest in human rights in Russia, I consider Amnesty has made an unfortunate and grave error that will have serious negative consequences for human rights.
Everyone who has followed Aleksei Navalny’s career in the difficult world of Russian politics knows of his earlier nationalist views, his split from Yabloko, and the way in which, since then, he has refashioned himself as a democratic politician who respects human rights and campaigns for free and fair elections (in which he can participate) and against corruption by those in power. It is because of this campaigning that he has been persecuted by the authorities. A good exposition of Navalny’s views can be found in his recent interview with the liberal economist Sergei Guriev. Guriev himself recently referred on Twitter to Navalny’s views on illegal migration that, Guriev notes, ‘do not contain any xenophobia, on the contrary […] talk about protection migrants’ rights and support for integrating migrants and their children.’
Later, Amnesty issued a statement in which it attributed its withdrawal of the POC designation to ‘concerns subsequently raised within the Amnesty movement’ and stated that its decision was not ‘a response to external pressure’ but was in line with its ‘longstanding and detailed internal policy.’ This raises a number of questions. There is no transparency about these ‘concerns raised within the movement’ (I, for example, as a member was not aware of them). If the decision was in line with ‘longstanding and detailed policy’ why was Navalny designated a prisoner of conscience immediately on his arrest on 17 January 2021? And why had he been so designated a number of times previously when he had served periods of days in prison for taking part in peaceful demonstrations? Surely Amnesty was familiar with the views of such a major public figure as Aleksei Navalny whom it regularly designated as a POC? Was this incompetence? Amnesty’s statement says it ‘used the term POC following Navalny’s arrest to emphasize the unjust nature of his detention and our opposition to his unfounded prosecution.’ Is that an admission that the organisation consciously use the term POC with disregard to its actual definition?
The decision to ‘conduct a thorough review of the evidence base’ with ‘painstaking consideration’ only after Navalny was designated as a POC and just when his life in prison in Russia, as the European Court of Human Rights considers, may be in danger, seems rather thoughtless to say the least. More than that, one would like to think that human rights defenders might take into consideration some form of the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: ‘First do no harm.’ Amnesty’s actions could well have a negative impact on the matter of whether Navalny survives his term of imprisonment or not. Amnesty states: ‘The fact that AI decided not to refer to Aleksei Navalny as a POC has no bearing on our insistence that Navalny has been unlawfully detained, and subjected to state-sponsored harassment and prosecution for exercising his right to freedom of expression.’ Regrettably, Amnesty’s decision has a powerful bearing on the effectiveness of the impact of Amnesty’s future campaigning to release Navalny in the real world. At a stroke, the move reduces both the protection afforded Navalny by the designation POC and the level of media attention and public support, so crucial in Navalny’s case.
Amnesty withdrew the POC designation on account of statements made by Navalny in the past that ‘reached the threshold of advocacy of hatred, at odds with our definition of a POC’ and these statements ‘so far as Amnesty is aware, have not been publicly renounced.’ At the same time, Amnesty says ‘Navalny has not, to the best of our knowledge, made similar pronouncements in recent years.’
This raises a further slew of questions. What is the definition of the ‘threshold of hate speech’ – in particular in cases where a person has not been convicted of such in a court of law? What constitutes evidence of hate speech? What degree or quantity of such ‘hate speech’ – or what size of audience it has – disqualifies a person from being a POC? Is there a ‘statute of limitations’ for such statements or once uttered can a person never be considered a POC? What form must a retraction take? Does a specific statement have to be specifically retracted, or will a general retraction do? Or is an ‘evident’ change of heart enough? Do deeds speak louder than words? What actually constitutes a retraction? In any particular case, to what extent would Amnesty be obliged to take pro-active steps to find out if the alleged ‘hate speech’ had, firstly, taken place and, secondly, was still supported by the individual concerned? For example, in the case of Navalny, should Amnesty ask him to clarify if he still holds views he expressed perhaps a decade ago before withdrawing the designation? And if Navalny is in prison (where his life may be in danger) and cannot be asked, what should Amnesty do?
What is clear is that the Russian authorities have jailed Navalny for his campaigning for free and fair elections and against corruption. So Amnesty’s definition of a POC does not solely relate to the unjust imprisonment of an individual even where that individual is imprisoned for standing up for human rights. It concerns the totality of the expressed moral and political views of the persecuted individual. And that individual, at a time of great personal stress and perhaps facing danger to their very lives, may be called upon by Amnesty to justify any statements they have made throughout their adult life. One must question whether Amnesty’s definition of POC is really fit for the real world. Is it suitable as an effective instrument of human rights protection?
Amnesty International is a hugely important organisation for everyone who cares about human rights and plays an invaluable role building a global community and constituency for human rights defenders and supporters. Yet in Russia today many people are wondering why Amnesty is, apparently, so fickle? Why have ‘western’ human rights defenders suddenly abandoned Navalny when the rightness of his cause and the unjustness of his treatment seems so clear? What is the point of the POC label if it cannot be used in such an egregious case of politically motivated prosecution as that of Aleksei Navalny?
Paradoxically, for many years Amnesty was criticised, not least by activists in Russia, for failing to recognise Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a prisoner of conscience following his arrest in 2003. Amnesty only came to recognise Khodorkovsky as a POC after his second conviction in 2011. Nearly 20 years on from Khodorkovsky’s first arrest, for those critics Amnesty seemed to have remedied its hesitant approach in that case by recognising Navalny as a POC immediately on his arrest – only, bizarrely, to see Amnesty retract that recognition a month later.
Amnesty’s decision with regard to Navalny would seem to have harmed the cause of human rights in Russia and damaged the organisation’s reputation. More importantly, it may yet prove to have harmful consequences for Aleksei Navalny himself, who recently survived an assassination attempt and for whom publicity for his cause may be a major factor not only in getting him released, but indeed in saving his life. That cannot be considered a good outcome for human rights.