President Dmitry Medvedev's newly announced working group on non-commercial organizations should bring the restrictive law governing the operation of these groups into line with Russia's international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The new group will hold its first official meeting on May 14, 2009.
A coalition including Human Rights Watch and Russian human rights organizations urged the working group to adopt proposed reforms in order to guarantee the right to freedom of association.
"President Medvedev's directive is a first step toward removing the choking restrictions on Russia's NGOs," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The working group has a chance here to make real changes and to end government interference so Russia's civic life can flourish."
In an order released on May 12, President Medvedev created a working group to draft changes to Russia's law on non-commercial organizations (NCOs). Approximately 35 percent of Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are registered as NCOs. The rest are registered under different legal forms. The working group, composed of representatives of the presidential administration, the Ministry of Justice, the Duma and Federation Council, and civil society, is to submit proposals within three weeks of May 8, the date the order took effect.
At a meeting with the members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights on April 15, Medvedev acknowledged the difficulties faced by NGOs, including restrictions "without sufficient justification," and the fact that many government officials view NGOs as a threat. At the time, Medvedev stated his willingness to review the law.
"Thousands of organizations have been denied registration, liquidated, and harassed under Russia's existing NGO law," said Cartner. "President Medvedev should ensure that the reform process takes their experiences into account in a procedure that is open and consultative."
In his order and public statements, President Medvedev has not committed to specific reforms. Because the effort under way only touches on one subset of NGOs, the working group will not address the burdensome regulation of a majority of organizations. Moreover, any reforms that result from the panel's work will not change limitations on foreign grant funding introduced by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2008.
Russia's 2006 NGO law subjects Russian and foreign NGOs to excessive government scrutiny and interference contrary to international standards on freedom of association. Human Rights Watch, the Moscow Helsinki Group, AGORA, the Youth Human Rights Movement, and the Human Rights Resource Center submitted a list of proposed reforms for the NGO law to the Ministry of Justice in April and to the Presidential Council for Civil Society Organizations and Human Rights in early May.
These proposals are based on four principles for regulating NGOs that spring from Russia's domestic and international human rights obligations: government actions should be lawful; authorities should not interfere with the groups' activities; the authorities should presume that NGOs operate with good faith; and government action should be transparent, easy to understand, and predictable.
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member, adopted a recommendation in 2007 that minimum standards should be respected concerning the creation, management, and the general activities of NGOs. A recent review of Russia's NGO legislation by the Council of Europe's Expert Council on NGO Law, established to evaluate the conformity of member states' NGO laws and practices with Council of Europe standards and European practice, criticized Russia's NGO registration procedure, concluding that it "needs to be seriously simplified and built on straightforward bases."
Medvedev is to meet with European leaders on May 21 and 22 at a European Union (EU)-Russia summit in Khabarovsk. The EU should welcome Medvedev's acknowledgement of the challenges faced by NGOs and strongly encourage the Russian authorities to make real changes to the operating environment for NGOs. EU leaders should urge the Russian government to condemn publicly attacks on activists and to make a commitment to a transparent process for considering changes to the law, ensuring adequate opportunities for input by civil society groups.
"The EU should make it clear that reform of all NGO regulations and the creation of an enabling environment for civil society is a priority issue for the EU, and that it will monitor closely any actions taken," said Cartner.
Human Rights Watch's report, "Choking on Bureaucracy," documented how Russia's 2006 NGO law subjects Russian and foreign NGOs to excessive government scrutiny and undue government interference, and places onerous documentation requirements and unreasonable bureaucratic hurdles on Russia's NGOs.
The law grants state officials excessive powers to interfere in the founding and operation of NGOs. Organizations may be denied registration for presenting documents "prepared in an inappropriate manner" or if an organization's activities are considered objectionable. For example, the Ministry of Justice rejected the registration application of the Tyumen-based Rainbow House, whose advocacy for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people was found to undermine the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." Other organizations reported having to submit and resubmit registration documents several times because of minor errors identified by the Ministry of Justice in their founding documents.
The law imposes onerous reporting requirements on NGOs, and allows "planned" and unplanned audits which can happen at any time and effectively for any length of time. During audits, the law gives the authorities broad discretion to request documents and to interpret them, including for compliance with the constitution, laws, and "interests" of Russia in the broadest terms. During an audit in 2007, the Ministry of Justice demanded copies of all outgoing correspondence for a three-year period from Citizens' Watch in Saint Petersburg, a demand that was recently ruled illegal.
The NGO law has a punitive dimension. NGOs can be warned for a wide variety of minor violations, including not filing timely activity reports or errors in founding documents. Two such warnings can result in liquidation, the only presumptive remedy for violations prescribed in the law.
NGOs are also required to submit yearly reports, which combined with audits can take up large amounts of time. One NGO director told Human Rights Watch that she spent 10 percent of her time in 2007 complying with the Ministry of Justice's demands for documents.
Authorities use the NGO law selectively to harass organizations that work on issues that are considered controversial, that may be capable of galvanizing public dissent, or that receive foreign funding. They also use tax inspections, inspections for fire code or labor code compliance, police raids, and politically motivated criminal charges to harass and intimidate such organizations.
Many NGOs are vulnerable to being targeted under the 2002 Law on Countering Extremist Activity, which designates certain forms of defamation of public officials as extremist and allows any politically or ideologically motivated crime to be designated as extremist. Those most targeted by all of these measures are NGOs and activists that are outspoken on controversial topics of Russian government policy, such as human rights violations in Chechnya or human rights more broadly, or organizations that are in some way affiliated with or viewed as supportive of the political opposition.
Russian NGOs also face attacks and threats. The goal of these attacks, especially against those who speak out about torture, abductions and extrajudicial executions in the North Caucasus, can only be to silence these important voices for human rights and the rule of law.
The starkest recent examples are the killing of the prominent human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and the journalist and social activist Anastasiya Baburova in January and the beating of a leading Russian rights advocate, Lev Ponomarev, in March.