Russia: increasingly hostile environment for NGOs and rights defenders is unacceptable

Three United Nations independent human rights experts today expressed serious concern at the “obstructive, intimidating and stigmatizing effects” brought about by the current implementation in the Russian Federation of the law on ‘non-commercial organizations’ (NCOs), adopted on 21 November 2012 by the Duma.

The UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of association, human rights defenders and freedom of expression urged the Russian authorities to revise the law due to its lack of compliance with international law and standards and its adverse consequences on the important work of hundreds of organizations and human rights defenders.

“Unfortunately, our fears seem to have been confirmed,” said the Special Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai.

In July 2012, the three experts warned that the law could brand as ‘foreign agents’ all foreign-funded NCOs engaging in political activities and impose severe penalties for non-compliance with the established requirements. They also raised alarm about the use of the term ‘foreign agents’, which can be associated with ‘spy’ and lead to increased stigmatization and vulnerability to acts of violence against those targeted.

“Since the law was passed, we now witness an unprecedented wave of inspections some of which have led to administrative cases against NCOs, including severe penalties,” the expert said.

Mr. Kiai also stressed that these inspections lack appropriate legal basis as the protection of sovereignty is not listed as a legitimate ground to restrict freedom of association, according to international human rights law. “States cannot refer to additional grounds, even those provided by domestic legislation, and cannot loosely interpret international obligations to restrict the right to freedom of association,” he noted.

“We already warned against the extensive requirements contained in this law for NCOs allegedly ‘engaging in political activities’, which could infringe on the right of human rights defenders to publically raise human rights issues and conduct advocacy work,” said the UN expert on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya.

“Defenders should be able to participate in public affairs by raising issues of public interest in a critical way, irrespective of where their funding comes from,” she stressed. “This type of work should not been seen as a political activity but as an essential component of an open and democratic society.”

“Everyone should be entitled to promote and express their ideas freely without undue restrictions,” added the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue.

The three experts recalled that various UN bodies, including the Committee against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, have also expressed serious concerns regarding the law on non-commercial organizations and the detrimental impact it may have on civil society organizations and defenders.

They drew special attention to the unanimously strong stance adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in a recent landmark resolution against any type of legislation used to unduly obstruct or criminalize the work of human rights defenders on account of the origin of their funding.

The experts concluded by offering the Government further assistance and technical advice on legislation affecting the work of civil society and right defenders.

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