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Human Rights Watch Letter to the EBRD in Advance of its Review of Russia

Board of Directors

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)

Re: Russia Country Strategy Review

Dear Directors:

We write to urge you to use the upcoming country strategy review for Russia to provide an honest assessment of Russia's commitment to and application of the principles articulated in Article 1 of the EBRD's founding agreement. As described in this letter, ongoing, serious human rights abuses and a lack of accountability for them raise serious questions about the Russian government's commitment to multiparty democracy and pluralism.

Only a candid assessment of the human rights situation would allow the Bank to accurately formulate its engagement with Russia, to use the strategy to promote positive change by articulating the kinds of reform steps the Russian authorities would need to take in order to address concerns, and to determine whether any revisions to its policies in Russia would be necessary.

The Bank's draft country strategy states that Russia "is committed to principles of multiparty democracy, pluralism and market economics," but at the same time notes that there have been "few signs of tangible progress" towards President Medvedev's stated intentions to promote political pluralism, open society, the rule of law and good governance since his election in May 2008 (Draft Strategy p. 54).

Human Rights Watch has identified a number of serious ongoing human rights abuses that directly contradict a commitment to pluralism, including:

  • murders, attacks and threats against human rights defenders and other civic activists that have contributed to a deeply negative climate for civil society;
  • concerns about good governance and rule of law stemming from the government's failure to implement European Court of Human Rights decisions on cases from Chechnya; and
  • ongoing grave abuses in the North Caucasus, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and illegal detentions, and continued impunity for these abuses.

We encourage you to recognize these serious concerns and assess candidly how they reflect on the EBRD's engagement with Russia as a partner. We also urge you to articulate clear expectations for steps Russia should take to address these concerns and closely monitor the government's progress in fulfilling these expectations.

This letter describes in detail the areas of concern described above as well as specific changes in policy and implementation that Russia should be taking to address these concerns. We encourage you to insist on their realization. 

In addition, this letter describes widespread abuses against migrant workers in the construction sector, including concerns related to migrant workers during Russia's preparations for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. We call on you to encourage Russia to address these abuses and ensure that the EBRD has policies and procedures in place to prevent and remedy human rights abuses against workers, including migrant workers, employed in construction projects financed directly by the EBRD or through financial intermediaries.

Human rights defenders and civil society

As the Bank's draft strategy indicates, President Medvedev has made several welcome overtures underscoring the importance of democracy and human rights in Russia and acknowledging areas where change is needed. Notably, President Medvedev expressed his willingness to review the restrictive 2006 NGO law and appointed a working group to propose changes. As a result, modifications to the registration procedure and accounting procedures for noncommercial organization (about one third of Russia's NGOs are registered as noncommercial organizations) were adopted.

These measures are welcome but have not stopped continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in Russia in recent months and since the Bank made its draft strategy available for comment. In particular, human rights and civic activists, organizations, lawyers, and others who work for justice and accountability or express dissent have come under increasing attack. These attacks, and the hostile atmosphere for independent civic groups that persists despite reforms to the NGO law, profoundly undermine pluralism in Russia. 

Violence and threats against civic activists and journalists

At this writing at least four brazen murders of civic activists have taken place in Russia in 2009; several other activists have been brutally attacked.

  • On August 10, Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, who ran an organization that provides assistance to children affected by conflict in Chechnya, were abducted from their Grozny office. They were discovered murdered the next day.
  • A few weeks prior, on July 15, Natalia Estemirova, the leading researcher for the Memorial Human Rights Center's Grozny office, was abducted and murdered. Following Estemirova's murder, other Memorial staff in Chechnya have suffered harassment and fear for their safety.
  • On January 19, Stanislav Markelov, a prominent human rights lawyer, was shot dead on the street in central Moscow. Markelov was well known particularly for representing victims of human rights abuses in Chechnya. Anastasiya Baburova, a young journalist who was with Markelov, was also killed.

At the time of this writing, no one has been held accountable for any of these crimes.

Other activists and civic groups have faced harassment and excessive interference in their work. Several examples from 2009 include:

  • In July, the Kazan Human Rights Center, which assists victims of police abuse and Agora, a consortium of human rights organizations, suffered a series of harassing inspections and legal action against their leaders that appear to be aimed at stopping their work.
  • In June, Aleksei Sokolov, an activist from Ekaterinburg who reports on prison and police abuse, was beaten and threatened while being arrested on what appear to be politically-motivated charges, and remains in detention awaiting trial.
  • In March, Lev Ponomarev, leader of the nongovernmental group Za Prava Cheloveka ("For Human Rights"), was violently attacked by several unidentified assailants on his way home from a meeting with a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

The NGO law and bureaucratic harassment

Notwithstanding the June 2009 revisions, Russia's NGO law and implementing regulations subject Russian and foreign nongovernmental organizations to excessive, unwarranted government scrutiny, undue government interference, and place onerous documentation requirements and unreasonable bureaucratic hurdles on Russia's 240,000 NGOs.

Organizations can be audited excessively and are required to submit detailed activity reports annually. During audits and reports, the law gives the authorities unlimited discretion to request documents for inspection and to interpret them, including for non-compliance with the constitution, laws, and "interests" of Russia in the broadest terms. NGOs spend inordinate amounts of time and resources complying with these two aspects of the law.

In its 2009 report, the Expert Council on NGO Law-a body created under the auspices of the Council of Europe Conference of International NGOs to evaluate the conformity of member states' NGO-related laws and practices with Council of Europe standards and European practice-criticized various aspects of Russia's NGO regime, concluding that it "needs to be seriously simplified and built on straightforward bases."

The EBRD draft strategy cites Human Rights Watch as stating that "the [NGO] law in practice has not resulted in a reduction in the number of registered NGOs" [p. 54]. However the relevant and more significant impact of the NGO law is not its effect on numbers, but its selective application and the discretion it allows for officials to target NGOs which work on sensitive issues including corruption, and on NGOs capable of galvanizing dissent or which receive foreign funding. For example, the Tyumen affiliate of Za Prava Cheloveka was dissolved for minor infractions in September 2008, not long after it submitted a complaint to the prosecutor alleging corruption within the office at the Registration Service in Tyumen that registers real estate transactions.

Contributing to the negative operating climate for NGOs, the authorities 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. 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 are perceived to be affiliated with or viewed as supportive of the political opposition, are at risk of being targeted under the 2002 Extremism Law.

An investigation into extremism was used as the pretext for a commando-style raid on Memorial in Saint Petersburg, an organization that holds vast archives on Soviet political repression. In the raid, the organization's archives were confiscated and its work severely disrupted. The archives were returned only six months later, after Memorial pursued the matter through the courts.

The actions described above undermine the principles in Article 1.

Human Rights Watch hopes the Bank will use the upcoming Russia strategy review to:

  • Make it clear to the Russian government that rule of law and pluralism require, fundamentally, the protection of those individuals and organizations who seek to promote the rule of law and government accountability;
  • Encourage Russia to further reform the NGO law to bring it into full compliance with Council of Europe standards.

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch press releases:

"Russia: Protect Rights Workers in Chechnya;"

"Russia: Ensure Independent Inquiry into Activists' Killings,"

"Russia: Leading Chechnya Rights Activist Murdered;"

"Russia: Investigate Murder of Prominent Lawyer;"

"Russia: Rights Advocate Seriously Hurt in Attack;"

"Russia: Investigate Threats to Civic Group;"

"Russia: Free Human Rights Defender,"

"Russia: Proposals on Changes to the Russian Federal Laws on Regulating NGOs"

Human Rights Watch reports:

Russia: Choking on Bureaucracy: State Curbs to Civil Society Activism;"and

"An Uncivil Approach to Civil Society: Continuing State Curbs on  Independent NGOs and Activists in Russia."

Implementation of European Court of Human Rights judgments on Chechnya

The Bank's draft Russia strategy notes that President Medvedev "has made the rule of law, elimination of "legal nihilism" and the fight against corruption the cornerstone of his agenda," and underlines the "political will behind this effort." [p. 55] However, one key area in which this commitment to the rule of law has not yet been put into practice is Russia's implementation of European Court of Human Rights judgments on Chechnya. The failure by Russia to implement these judgments not only denies full justice to individual victims in the cases, but raises serious concerns about Russia's willingness to abide by the rules of international institutions of which it is a member.

In 110 rulings to date, the European Court of Human Rights has held Russia responsible for serious human rights violations in Chechnya, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture. It almost all cases, the court also found Russia responsible for failing to properly investigate these crimes. Following a judgment, Russia has an obligation not only to pay the monetary compensation and legal fees awarded by the court, but also to implement measures in each individual case to rectify the violations, as well as adopt policy and legal changes (also known as general measures) to prevent similar violations from recurring. Russia generally has paid the compensation and legal fees in a timely manner. But in cases from Chechnya it has failed to meaningfully implement the core of the judgments: it has failed to ensure effective investigations and hold perpetrators accountable.

First, and most significantly, with only one exception, no perpetrator in any of the 110 cases decided by the European Court has been brought to justice, even in cases in which the court has found that the perpetrators are known, and in some instances even named in its judgments. Other problems include: the state's failure to inform the aggrieved parties about the investigation; failure to provide access to criminal case files; inexplicable delays in the investigation; and legal obstacles preventing investigators from accessing key evidence held by Russian military or security services.

These same failures had plagued earlier investigations and had led the court to find violations related to the investigations. In addition, in a new and very troubling trend, the investigative authorities have flatly contested several of the European Court's judgments apparently in order to justify closing of the investigations and refusing to bring charges against perpetrators. This has occurred even in cases in which those responsible or their superiors are known and named in European Court judgments, or could readily be known.

Russia has also shown resistance to cooperating with the court in other ways. In 40 judgments on cases from Chechnya, the European Court found that Russia's refusal to share with the European court, documents from the criminal case files had violated its obligation to "furnish all necessary facilities" to support the court's examination of a case.  

Full implementation is crucial to prevent abuses from recurring in Chechnya and in other parts of Russia's troubled North Caucasus. It carries perhaps the single most significant potential to produce lasting improvements in the human rights situation in this region. Full implementation is also an important indicator of Russia's commitment to establishing the rule of law and to practicing the principles of good governance in every region in the Russian Federation.

Human Rights Watch encourages the Bank to:

  • Underscore the importance of Russia's full implementation of the decisions of the European Court as an important demonstration of its commitment to the rule of law.

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch memorandum "Update on European Court of Human Rights Judgments against Russia regarding Cases from Chechnya," and Human Rights Watch brochure, "Justice for Chechnya: The European Court of Human Rights Rules against Russia."

Ongoing human rights violations and impunity in the North Caucasus

The human rights situation in the North Caucasus has deteriorated significantly since the Bank made its draft Strategy for Russia available for review. In Chechnya, security forces continue to use torture and illegal detention, and impunity for abuses is rampant. As noted above, the failure to implement fully the European Court's rulings on Chechnya contributes to this persistent climate of impunity. As a consequence, law enforcement and security servicemen receive the message that they will not be held accountable for human rights violations they commit. The July and August 2009 murders of civic activists, discussed above, and other cases of attacks and harassment highlight the risk to those who speak out about violations or work for justice.

The Chechen authorities use collective punishment practices against people with suspected rebel ties. Families of active or alleged insurgents are subjected to persecution, including in particular punitive ‘house-burning'. Human Rights Watch is aware of more than 27 cases in which houses belonging to particular families have been deliberately targeted and burned apparently by Chechen law-enforcement officers between July 2008 and July 2009. All the families in question have alleged insurgents, usually sons or nephews, among their close relations. Prior to the actual house-burning, they all came under strong pressure from law enforcement and administration officials to compel their relatives to surrender and were threatened with severe repercussion for failure to do so. No one has been held responsible for any of the house burnings.

Notably, in 2007-2008 high-level Chechen officials, including the president, Ramzan Kadyrov, made numerous public statements stressing that insurgents' families should expect to be punished unless they convince their relatives to surrender. In doing so, the officials openly undermined Russian law. Such statements, while falling short of direct instructions to law-enforcement to destroy houses of insurgents' families, encourage lawless punitive actions by police and security personnel. In one striking example of such lawlessness and impunity documented by Human Rights Watch, on July 7, 2009, local law enforcement carried out the extrajudicial execution of a man they had accused of giving a sheep to the rebels.

In Ingushetia, the human rights situation and the security situation have significantly worsened since the summer of 2007, which saw a rise of insurgency attacks on public officials, security and law-enforcement personnel, and civilians. The Russian government's response to these attacks, however, has not been in accordance with Russian and international law. The counterinsurgency practices adopted by the authorities of Ingushetia involve extra-judicial executions, unlawful, abduction-style detentions, and torture and cruel or degrading treatment. These practices antagonize the local population and serve to further destabilize the situation in the republic.

In recent months Dagestan has also experienced an upsurge of abductions, killings and torture by the police and other law enforcement authorities as the government fights an Islamic insurgency. On August 19, an arson attack burned the office of the independent organization the Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights, a group formed in 2007 by mothers of young men believed to have been forcibly "disappeared." The group gathers information on abusive counterterrorism practices and provides legal support to victims of rights violations. The fire followed the shooting death on August 11 in Makhachkala of Abdumalik Akhmedilov, a newspaper editor who had criticized law enforcement officials for suppressing political and religious dissent in their campaign against religious extremism.

Human Rights Watch encourages the Bank to:

  • Call on Russia to allow access to the region for international monitors, including the United Nations Working Group on enforced and involuntary disappearances and the Special Rapporteurs on torture, on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions and on violence against women in full agreement with the requirements for conducting visits that these monitors' terms or reference set forth;
  • Express concern about the practice of extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances, abduction-style detentions, and other abuses perpetrated in particular by security services, military, and law-enforcement agencies in the Northern Caucasus, and urge for such abuses to stop;
  • Encourage Russia to sign and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch press releases:

"Russia: Investigate Dagestan Arson Attack;"

"Russia: Leading Chechnya Rights Activist Murdered;"

 "Russia: Halt Punitive Attacks in Chechnya."

Human Rights Watch report:

Russia: What Your Children Do Will Touch Upon You.

Human Rights Watch commentaries:

 "Dagestan: curse of the sixth department;"

 "Ending Chechnya's counterterrorism operation - or not;"  

 "Russia: Torture Victim Abducted in Chechnya."

Human Rights Watch report:

Russia: Stop ‘Dirty War' Tactics in Ingushetia.

Migrant workers in the construction sector

Despite the impact of the global financial crisis on the Russian economy, Russian demographic experts have noted that there has been only a modest decrease in flows of migrant workers in 2009. Poor economic opportunities in migrants' home countries continue to push migrants to seek employment abroad. In recent years, Russia has been home to between 4 and 9 million migrant workers, over 80 percent of whom come from other countries of the former Soviet Union. Forty percent of migrant workers are employed in construction. During extensive research on abuses against migrant construction workers in Russia, Human Rights Watch documented abuses including denial of contracts, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, excessively long working hours, and unsafe working conditions. These abuses are widespread and not restricted to any particular geographic locations.

In the worst cases, employers or intermediaries confiscate workers' passports and force them to work without wages. Human Rights Watch also documented numerous cases of trafficking into forced labor in Russia. Some employers threaten or use violence to intimidate workers who protest against non-payment or other violations. Police frequently use document inspections to extort money from minorities, including migrant workers, and may physically abuse them or force them to perform work for free. Migrant workers have few effective options for redress for these abuses.

Russia's human rights obligations require the government to take positive measures to protect migrant workers from abuse and exploitation. Effective, accessible mechanisms for timely redress for abuses are a crucial dimension of rights protection, yet have not received sufficient attention from the Russian authorities. Although a number of entities exist that at least formally should provide avenues for redress for migrant workers, including the Federal Work and Employment Service (Rostrud), the courts, and the prosecutor's office, none of these mechanisms has proven adequate to effectively investigate and ensure prosecution of violations. 

Human Rights Watch hopes the Bank will use its upcoming strategy review of Russia to:

  • Encourage Russian authorities to take effective steps to address abuses against migrant workers in the construction sector. Such steps include:
  • o Establishing an accessible, effective complaint mechanism and rigorously investigating complaints of abuse made by migrant workers, irrespective of a migrant workers' contractual status or migration status;
  • o Ensuring that migrant workers are aware of their rights under international and Russian law and informed of this complaint mechanism;
  • o Rigorously investigating and prosecuting employers who confiscate passports, deny workers legal contracts, withhold wages, use physical violence against workers or commit other violations of Russian law;
  • o Cooperating with the nine governments of the former Soviet Union with whom Russia maintains a non-visa regime to facilitate prosecutions and investigations of employers and intermediaries implicated in trafficking, including by facilitating the participation in the investigation of complaints, and any legal proceedings, by victims who have already returned home;
  • o Establishing a clear regulatory framework for state and private employment agencies, individual employment recruiters and other intermediaries, and adequately funding mechanisms for regular monitoring of these entities, including unannounced visits.

In addition to these concrete measures regarding Russia's obligations, we encourage the EBRD to create and implement effective policies and procedures to prevent and remedy abuses against workers, including migrant workers, particularly when lending directly or through financial intermediaries to private companies in the construction sector. In doing so, the bank would serve as a best-practices example and send a strong signal regarding its commitment to promoting sound business practices and taking "a rigorous approach to labor and working conditions issues" [p. 66]. In particular, we call on the EBRD to take the concrete steps to ensure that bank clients and recipients of bank funding (including those who receive funding through financial intermediaries) and their sub-agents adhere to the requirements set out in Performance Requirements 2 (PR2) of the 2008 EBRD Environmental and Social policy and do not benefit from exploitation of workers, including migrant workers. 

The specific steps for the EBRD to undertake include the following:

  • Prioritizing the establishment of mechanisms for timely redress for workers, including migrant workers, engaged in bank-financed projects in the construction sector. In addition to the requirement that bank clients establish a grievance mechanism for workers (PR2, para. 18), we urge you to establish, through your offices in Russia, a complaint mechanism which would receive and respond promptly to complaints by workers engaged in EBRD-financed projects. EBRD clients, sub-agents and other relevant parties should publicize the mechanism and make it easily accessible to all workers.  
  • Establishing within your offices in Russia, a post of labor liaison or its equivalent to ensure regular, on-site monitoring of adherence to PR2 commitments by all bank clients and bank-financed projects, through unannounced site visits and other measures.
  • Taking direct responsibility for regular monitoring of compliance with PR2 commitments; the pervasive character of abuses against migrant workers and other workers in the construction sector in Russia suggests that reliance on clients' self-regulation or auditors hired by the client may be insufficient to ensure definitively that bank clients and bank-financed projects are not benefiting from exploitive labor practices.

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch report:

Are You Happy to Cheat Us? Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in Russia.

Thank you for your attention to these concerns, and with best wishes for a productive review.


Holly Cartner

Executive Director

Europe and Central Asia Division

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