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Human rights chief calls for accountability on her mission to Russia

“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,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said at the conclusion of her six-day mission to Russia.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concludes mission to Russia © OHCHRDuring her mission from 13 to 19 February 2011, the High Commissioner met with President Dmitriy Medvedev, various Government ministers and officials, and some members of the State Duma, civil society organizations and individual human rights defenders.

Pillay appreciated that in her discussions with the President and most of the ministries and state officials, that 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. She commended the President for his clear vision and public statements concerning the importance of such reforms as part of the modernization process and said, “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.”

She urged the government to take all 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 High Commissioner said that 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 stabilization, 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,” the High Commissioner said.

During her visit, Pillay addressed issues relating to equal treatment of women and stressed that, “there are 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.” She also spoke out on protecting the rights of migrants, indigenous, and those living with HIIV, as well as the important role human rights defendants play in working to protect the rights of minorities and other vulnerable groups. 

Pillay said that numerous human rights defenders and investigative journalists have been harassed, assaulted, threatened and otherwise abused and added, “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.”

The High Commissioner specifically mentioned 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, and said, “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.”

She urged 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.

On the last day of her mission to Russia, Pillay travelled to St. Petersburg, where she met with the Constitutional Court, Federal Commissioner for Human Rights, Vladimir Lukin and over 50 regional Commissioners for Human Rights, as well as with civil society organizations. 

23 February 2011