Speak out in Support of Russia’s Beleaguered Activists
July 14, 2014

"Brazil should urge Russia to end its crackdown on dissent when it meets its BRICS partners at this summit." — Maria Laura Canineu

"The Russian government has carried out the worst crackdown on nongovernmental groups in the country’s independent history." — Tanya Lokshina

Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director & Tanya Lokshina, Russian program director

(São Paulo, July 15, 2014) – Brazil should speak out in support of human rights in Russia and Russia’s independent activists at the BRICS summit, Human Rights Watch said today. Brazil should also firmly reject any attempt by Russia to persuade Brazil to support weakening the human rights mandate of the UN and other intergovernmental organizations.

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) are meeting in Fortaleza, Ceará, for the sixth annual BRICS summit on July 14, 15, and 16, 2014. BRICS is the association of nations with advanced economies that are often seen as rising global leaders.

“Brazil should urge Russia to end its crackdown on dissent when it meets its BRICS partners at this summit,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “As a country that itself has recognized and promoted civil society, Brazil should insist on the same from its partners.”

Brazil has historically recognized the universality of international human rights as a central component of its foreign policy. In a speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, the then-Human Rights Minister, Maria do Rosário, declared that, “The prevalence of human rights enshrined in our Constitution, is the guiding principle of Brazilian foreign policy, along with defense of multilateralism, non-intervention and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

The two years since Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency have been the worst for human rights in the country’s post-Soviet history, Human Rights Watch said. Russia is also trying to weaken international human rights institutions by rejecting the notion of universal values, denouncing international human rights advocacy as an intolerable infringement on sovereignty, and seeking to weaken several of the monitoring mechanisms of international organizations.

In a major speech in early July, Putin instructed the Russian Foreign Ministry to make “noninterference” a “main topic of international debate.”

Brazil should insist that discussions on the proposed BRICS bank reflect its view of universal rights and respect for civil society, and are not influenced by Russia’s restrictive view, Human Rights Watch said. The new bank is one of the key items on the summit agenda. Brazil should work with BRICS members to ensure that the proposed BRICS bank advances social and economic rights and respects the human rights of those it is meant to benefit.

In Russia, a series of repressive and discriminatory laws and persecution of the Kremlin’s critics have dramatically shrunk public space for civic activism and independent media. Migrant workers from former USSR republics, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have also felt the full brunt of hateful rhetoric, including by public officials.

The backlash began immediately after Putin’s inauguration, ebbed slightly in the lead up to the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, and intensified considerably after the Olympics ended and as the political crisis in Ukraine escalated.

“The Russian government has carried out the worst crackdown on nongovernmental groups in the country’s independent history,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kremlin is trying to brand individuals and organizations that publicly criticize government policies as traitorous, and to conflate independent criticism with extremism.”

Laws adopted soon after Putin’s 2012 inauguration expanded the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalize international human rights advocacy and require independent groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities,” to register and publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents,” which in Russia means “traitor” or “spy.” By June 2014, the government had pressured at least 76 organizations to register as “foreign agents,” and, after it did not succeed, authorized the Justice Ministry to register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent.

In recent years Russian television stations, which are either owned by the state or run by companies very close to the government, have aired several documentary-style shows that portray human rights activists and political opposition figures as “national traitors.”

The Kremlin has also sought to cast LGBT people and activists as alien and harmful to Russian society, Human Rights Watch said. In 2013 parliament adopted an anti-LGBT “propaganda law,” which bans spreading among children any information that portrays LGBT relationships in a positive light. The law’s adoption has coincided with rising public stigma, discrimination, and violence against LGBT people – including by blatantly homophobic vigilante groups – which go largely unpunished.

“The Kremlin’s strategy is to demonize advocacy groups in the public eye, foment homophobia, and paint both as Western agents determined to weaken Russia,” Lokshina said.

Putin recently called the Internet a “CIA project,” and in the past six months the Russian parliament has adopted three laws that severely restrict Internet freedom. The laws authorize prosecutors to block certain websites without a court order, require bloggers with more than 3,000 hits a day to register with the government and follow a set of regulations identical to those for mass media, and require website owners to store user data only in Russia – which could lead to blocking platforms such as Facebook in Russia. In recent years Russian authorities have also essentially taken editorial control over a number of independent news portals.

As Russia moved to annex Crimea, and as the political crisis in Ukraine moved toward armed conflict, the government adopted harsher measures to restrict free speech. Laws adopted since March toughen criminal penalties for any speech deemed to be calling for violation of Russia’s territorial integrity, which could in principle include criticism of Russia’s unrecognized annexation of Crimea.

The new laws also extend prison terms for “extremism,” including through re-posts and re-tweets, and criminalize the “desecration of ‘military glory’ symbols” and showing profound disrespect for commemoration days.

At least 21 people are behind bars on inappropriate charges of “mass rioting” in connection with a demonstration on the eve of Putin’s May 2012 inauguration. In May 2014, parliament adopted amendments increasing the maximum prison term for mass rioting and other crimes associated with large demonstrations.

Brazil has played a constructive role in promoting human rights at the United Nations in recent years. At the UN Human Rights Council, it has supported resolutions on critical human rights situations in countries around the globe, including Iran, Sri Lanka, and Syria. In 2011, Brazil actively supported the passage of the landmark UN resolution condemning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Brazil has also played a leading role in promoting human rights at the UN General Assembly. In 2013, it sought to rally international support for the right to privacy against massive and indiscriminate internet surveillance by the United States.

“It would be a serious mistake for President Rousseff to ignore the crackdown in Russia, which violates basic human rights principles that Brazil has embraced at home and in its international treaty obligations,” Canineu said. “If Brazil wants to continue to be seen as a leader in global affairs, it should stand up for these principles when dealing with governments that flout them.”