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Ludmilla Alexeeva – a veteran human rights defender

There are very few people who in their 80’s would describe themselves as human rights defenders, and who continue to lead protests in the streets, especially in the middle of a Russian winter. 

45 years on, Ludmilla Alexeeva continues campaigning for human rights in Russia © OHCHRLudmilla Alexeeva was arrested on New Year’s Eve last year in Moscow as she took part in a rally in support of, as she describes it, the most important right of common people, “the right to peaceful rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets… It is the only method for them to bring their demands, concerns and suggestions to the authorities.”

Alexeeva, the chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest Russian human rights organization, has been advocating for human rights for 45 years. In a video interview for Human Rights Day 2010, Alexeeva talked of two distinct periods in the development of the modern human rights movement in Russia – the Soviet and the Russian.

During Soviet times she says there were very few human rights defenders because it meant real conflict with State power. “We used to say that we are human rights defenders and that we protect human rights, but in reality we could not protect even ourselves,” she says. “In those days defenders were persecuted just for declaring people should have human rights.”

Because of her involvement in the human rights movement at the time, Alexeeva became friends with fellow advocates Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov and Larissa Bogoraz, defenders internationally recognized for their efforts. Knowing these people has “been an incomparable privilege” she says.

The efforts of these defenders, many of whom were imprisoned for long periods, at great cost to themselves and their families, resulted in the Constitution of the Russian Federation which has, as she points out, as “its very first chapter that the main responsibility of the State is to respect and protect human rights of its citizens.” Alexeeva herself was forced into exile in the United States for many years and did not return to Russia until 1990.

Ultimately though, Alexeeva prefers the Russian era because now it is possible “to not only declare human rights but also protect them in reality”.

She believes support for human rights in Russia is improving. “The number of people, of our citizens, who realize they have rights, who are ready to protect these rights and who require respect for their rights and freedoms is increasing,” she says.

Being a human rights defender is very hard work but she is encouraged by the young people in the Russian human rights movement who she says are especially advantaged because they are much better professionally educated than her generation.

The challenge for the new human rights defenders, she says, is to achieve implementation of the provisions of the Constitution so that it is enacted and does not exist only on paper.  “An additional 20 years will be needed for that,” Alexeeva says.

Speaking after her arrest on New Year’s Eve 2009, Alexeeva was quoted as saying, “I have no idea why I was arrested…  They offered to release me, but I refused, demanding that they release all those in the police vans."  

Excerpts of Alexeeva’s interview can be seen in the video, “Human rights defenders speak up to stop discrimination”.

On Human Rights Day 10 December this year’s theme is human rights defenders who act to end discrimination.

1 December 2010