Defending the defenders

A project aimed at protecting the rights of human rights defenders is soon to be launched in 7 countries, including Ukraine, The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union asked human rights and civic activists in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine about problems confronted by the human rights movement.

They were all asked the following questions:

What are the greatest dangers for human rights defenders in your country?

Are they persecuted?

Do they have influence in society?

Dmitry Markushevsky, Press Secretary for the Belarusian Helsinki Committee

There are a fair number of dangers for human rights defenders in Belarus. There is, for example, Article 193 of the Criminal Code which imposes criminal liability for civic activities in an unregistered organization, or beyond the framework of a registered organization. At the same time it’s extremely hard to register, and it’s the local authorities who decide whether or not to allow registration. They also decided whether to allocate premises for those wishing to register, and very often the excuse for turning down applications is the lack of premises.

Then on the contrary, it doesn’t need much to have registration cancelled. Our organization once sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice where the words “Belarusian Helsinki Committee” were written without inverted commas (as is customary). We then received a warning from officials in the Ministry telling us that two such warnings would be enough to cancel registration. There are also an incredible number of difficulties in getting funding both from foreign and from Belarusian donors. If Belarusian businesspeople officially donate money towards the statutory activities of our organization, they invariably face an inspection or other unpleasantness.  Persecution is thus at State level.

As far as influence in society is concerned, we can maintain our authority only through specific cases. Our organization is the only one in the country which still has in its charter a provision about defending people in court, and we indeed sometimes manage to do this.

Despite our work, however, public opinion is extremely mixed, and this is largely due to the State-owned media.  We get called enemies of the people, hirelings and spies. And when international organizations impose sanctions on Belarus, it’s not the regime which is violating human rights which gets blamed, but

human rights defenders who dare to inform the international community of the abuses.

Andrei Yurov, Honorary President of the Youth Human Rights Movement (Russia)

Russian human rights defenders face several main problems, these being with freedom of assembly, association, access to information and pressure on them sanctioned not just by the government.

Persecution of human rights defenders is carried out at an organizational level through court trials of NGOs and the prohibition of mass protest actions. For such prohibitions, the government uses articles of the Criminal Code which were not previously applied, like those on “extremism”, “terrorism”. We also come up against persecution not just by government bodies, but by various nongovernmental organizations with a racist or other focus.

Human rights groups do have influence on society but for the above-mentioned reasons it is gradually being eroded. The human rights movement is weakening. The mass media are contributing to this by presenting us as spies, traitors of Russia’s national interests and so forth.

We are ever less able to withstand the State mechanism, and demonstrate effective and real work. For this reason people are becoming disillusioned and say that we just bellow and don’t do anything.

Volodymyr Yavorskyy, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union

The biggest danger for us is in the limited possibilities for working. For example, Ukrainian legislation effectively prohibits human rights organizations through the obligation it imposes on civic organizations to only defend the rights of their members. Legislation on civic organizations directly contravenes both the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. No organizations have been closed down over this legislation, but there have been official warnings.

We don’t see any other threats from the State.

There has been no direct persecution since the end of 2004.  There has, however, been some pressure on those fighting against corruption, for example, journalists and civic activists. It takes different forms, but in any case it has not come from the law enforcement agencies which have stopped being used to persecute opponents.

It’s difficult to assess our influence on society. If you look at public opinion surveys, then not many people are aware of what human rights groups do and there are even less who trust them. However, we don’t have the same attempts to discredit us as in Belarus and Russia and the number of people who have a negative idea about our work is not high.
I’d say therefore that we are not really influential in society, however we have mechanisms for exerting influence on the authorities aimed at defending the public interest and our opinion is increasingly heeded.

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