17 February 2011
Good afternoon and thank you for coming.
This is my first visit to the Russian Federation as High Commissioner for Human Rights. Obviously, after spending just four days in this vast country which is still in a state of seismic transition, I will not pretend to have been able to cover adequately the multitude of human rights issues and situations in Russia today.
Instead, I have concentrated on issues relating to systems and institutions vital to the protection of human rights during my meetings with President Medvedev, various Government ministers and officials, the Chairman of the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General, some members of the State Duma, civil society organizations and individual human rights defenders and many others.
I have also raised a number of specific issues of concern, mostly relating to minorities, and emblematic individual cases, which I will return to later.
First of all, I would like to thank the President and Government of the Russian Federation for welcoming me and my team, as well as for the Government’s generally constructive longer-term engagement with my Office in Geneva, and with the Senior Human Rights Advisor who has been representing me here in Moscow for the past three years under a “Framework for Cooperation” agreed with the Government in 2007.
My discussions with President Medvedev on Tuesday, and with various top officials have included some very frank analyses of the reforms that are being undertaken, are under consideration, or are still needed, to key institutions relating to the rule of law and the fight against corruption and discrimination. These include the police, judiciary, General Prosecutor’s office, penitentiary system and military.
I appreciate that in my discussions with the President, and most of the ministries and state officials, there was no attempt to downplay the challenges facing the Government in its efforts to revamp a system in which human rights are still a long way from being consistently respected in accordance with international standards, and with Russia’s own laws and Constitution.
I also commend the President for his clear vision and public statements concerning the importance of such reforms as part of the modernization process, and believe there is some recognition at the top that, across Russia today, there is a serious deficit in public trust in key institutions which should be upholding the rule of law, and instead are all too often disregarding it. There has undoubtedly been some progress, but also some serious setbacks – including murders, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders and investigative journalists and independent media, and apparent serious miscarriages of justice.
The envisaged reforms relating to human rights need to be pursued with increased vigour and determination if well-functioning rule-of-law institutions are to take root and prosper, to the benefit of all Russians, including the poorest and most marginalized. Rule of law, including accountability and protection of rights for all citizens and non-citizens on Russian territory, is an essential prerequisite for true democracy, peace and development.
I have received extensive briefings, both by government officials and civil society organizations, on the new Law on Police, which was signed by the President earlier this month and will come into force on 1st March. I warmly welcome the scope and content of the law, which incorporates international standards such as the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, and the way in which the Government opened it up for public debate and took into account the views of civil society during the drafting process.
However enacting a good law is one thing, and actually implementing it properly is another. The same goes for the implementation of international human rights treaties, and recommendations by various parts of the UN human rights system.
The extent and speed with which the Law on Police results in genuine, fundamental change in the conduct of the police across the length and breadth of the land will, I believe, be a litmus test for the potential for meaningful reform in other areas. It will also be an important test of the ability of the State to overcome domestic mistrust of several key Russian institutions.
As a contribution to this important new law, I have offered advice and international expertise to help set up video monitoring of police handling of suspects, especially during interrogations, in an effort to prevent ill-treatment, torture and other human rights violations. I’m delighted that, during my visit, the Interior Ministry agreed to this idea and that, once the Law on Police is implemented, will work together with the regional Commissioner for Human Rights, on a pilot video-monitoring project in Permski Krai.
During our discussions, President Medvedev spoke of the importance – and difficulty – of changing mindsets, and I have also heard from many others of the difficulties in preventing entrenched interests and mentalities from obstructing necessary reform.
My hope is that the Government’s own broader initiatives such as the reviving or strengthening of accountability mechanisms, including the Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, which now, via its Head, has a direct line to the Presidency, and the establishment of the Investigation Committee as a separate entity from the Prosecutor General’s office will also begin to deliver concrete results. Other important players in the field of accountability are the Federal and Local Commissioners for Human Rights and the Public Chamber.
Accountability for those in power is essential, if abuse of power is to be diminished, and public trust established. This principle must be applied, and be seen to be applied, to the most senior government, state and judicial officials, and on down the entire line of command to the local administrators and the policemen and military officers in the towns and villages. I urge the government to take all the actions necessary to ensure that the institutions act to protect the people, rather than to protect the authorities, and to ensure that civil society and media are given the necessary space and encouragement to carry out their important monitoring role.
The lack of accountability and respect for the rule of law has been particularly acute in relation to the North Caucasus. Despite some visible progress and stabilisation, there are continued reports of arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, and this situation is almost certainly acting as an impediment to true and lasting peace and stability.
I utterly condemn terrorist acts, such as the recent appalling suicide bombing killing 36 people at Domodedovo Airport, as well as many earlier bomb blasts and armed assaults. As I discussed in my meeting with President Medvedev, it is essential to ensure that counter-terrorism measures are carried out in line with human rights principles. I fear that the often brutal and illegal methods used by federal and local security and law enforcement agencies in the North Caucasus in the past have aggravated the situation, by alienating many people. Impunity for serious crimes allegedly committed by the military and security has accentuated the cycle of anger and violence, and undermined the entire notion of rule of law.
Russia currently has the highest number of cases pending before the European Court of Human Rights. This is a clear indication of endemic problems within Russia’s own legal system. Yesterday, the Chairman of the Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, told me that some 50 percent of the cases before the European Court are because of the failure of other state institutions to execute decisions by Russian courts, rather than because of the judgments themselves. He also pointed out that the Supreme Court had initiated draft laws on Administrative Courts and Administrative Justice, neither of which have yet made it through the Duma to become law, despite being an important element in reforming the judicial system, and combating corruption.
During my discussions with various branches of the executive and the legislature, it has become apparent that part of the problem lies in gaps and contradictions between institutions, as well as failings within them. This has led to imbalanced powers, and insufficient checks and balances geared to ensuring a greater focus on judicial protection.
If courts are rendering judgments and other authorities are failing to execute those judgments, that is not the fault of the courts. If the Prosecutor’s Office is bringing charges on the basis of evidence that is insufficient, contradictory or tarnished, and the suspect is still being convicted, then the responsibility lies with the investigators, the Prosecutor’s Office and, above all, the Courts which should throw out such cases and not rubber stamp them. If the law says torture is illegal (which it does), and torture takes place, and is not punished (which it rarely is) then several institutions are failing, and failing badly, to carry out their clear responsibilities under national and international law to effectively protect the people from serious crimes.
The case of Alexey Sokolov – who disclosed video evidence of grave examples of torture within detention facilities, and is now himself in detention for an alleged act of theft, while the torturers are free – seem to be a particularly egregious example of the institutions acting to protect themselves rather than to protect ordinary people. I urge that the case of Sokolov is reviewed as soon as possible, and an independent investigation is launched into the whole affair. I also urge systematic independent monitoring of places of detention, to deter and punish abuse of prisoners.
One sector where one can clearly see both positive and negative trends being played out, is in the treatment of civil society.
Shortly after my arrival on Sunday, I received a remarkably thorough and wide-ranging briefing on a host of different issues by some 50 different civil society organizations, hosted by the Sakharov Center. Civil society members had a constructive role to play in the drafting of the Law on Police, and were able to discuss their views on the new law directly with the President, which was an important recognition of the vital role they play, which I hope will be repeated in relation to other important legislation and national fora.
Some of Russia’s most eminent human rights defenders are also members of the Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights. Unfortunately, several other eminent human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova and Sergey Magnitsky have been brutally murdered or died in custody, and the investigations and legal processes surrounding their deaths have been untransparent, inconclusive and shrouded in controversy.
Numerous other human rights defenders and investigative journalists have also been harassed, assaulted, threatened and otherwise abused, and continue to be so. I urge a concerted effort by all relevant State authorities to expose the truth about all these cases, as a key test of their resolve to improve accountability of their own actions as well as those of others.
These acts of violence and intimidation have inevitably had a very detrimental effect, not just on human rights defenders and the media, but on the general population, who depend on human rights defenders to expose abuse of power and, by exposing it, help to curb it. I urge the President, and all arms of the government, as well as top members of all the relevant State institutions to make it clear repeatedly to their own staff, as well as the country at large, that civil society organizations are vital both to the functioning of the modern State and carrying on the Russian tradition of principled dissent.
I also urge the authorities to stop all actions aimed at preventing civil society, including media, from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, which are enshrined in the Russian Constitution as well as in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is binding for the Russian Federation.
The role of human rights defenders is particularly important when it comes to protecting the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups, and on Sunday, as well as in further meetings, they flagged many issues relating to discrimination. These include xenophobia and racism, violations of rights of indigenous peoples and migrants, as well of people with disabilities, and continuing rights violations within the armed forces. Particular concerns were raised about the treatment of drug addicts as criminals, rather than as people suffering from an illness, and of rampant discrimination, driven by high levels of stigma, against people living with HIV. Individuals who use drugs, and people who have the misfortune to have contracted HIV, do not forfeit their human rights.
There are also many issues relating to equal treatment of women, including employment practices and domestic violence. During my meetings I have raised the possibility of specific legislation criminalizing domestic violence, as the best form of deterrence.
In the longer term, education initiatives would help change many of the attitudes that are hampering reforms in Russia. I am pleased that my office has played a key role in the establishment of Human Rights Masters programmes in three Russian Universities, as well as setting up a new Russian-language version of the UN human rights website, which I launched earlier this week (www.ohchr.org/ru). But I believe that human rights education needs to be spread, and spread quickly, throughout the school system, rather than confined to a few graduate students, academics and human rights specialists. Russia has a great educational tradition, and an injection of fundamental human rights principles into the curriculum is essential for the development of future generations, and to break down resistance to beneficial change.
In 2009, Russia made a commitment to the UN Human Right Council to implement 57 recommendations. I stand ready to work with the Russian Government in order to secure the implementation of these recommendations, which Russia will have to report on by 2013. This process should give extra impetus to the current efforts to modernize rule-of-law institutions.
Finally, I should mention that my mission is, in fact, not yet concluded, as I will be travelling to St. Petersburg tonight for further meetings with the Constitutional Court, Federal Commissioner for Human Rights Vladimir Lukin and over 50 regional Commissioners for Human Rights, as well as more civil society organizations.
It has been a pleasure and a privilege to visit this great country, and I offer all the tools at my disposal, and in particular the UN’s considerable accumulated experience, to assist those who have a vision of change to ensure its solid human rights foundations. But I would stress that institutional reform is matter of great urgency, and appeal to the President and all those in a position to increase the pace of change, to do so. Peace, stability, democracy, development and prosperity are all dependent on the realization of fundamental human rights.
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