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Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 24, 2019. © 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

While the war between Russia and Ukraine continues to draw global attention, the international community should not forget Russia’s ongoing repression within its own territory and its dire impact on Russian citizens.

Just as many Latin American nations have spoken out about the situation in Venezuela at the United Nations Human Rights Council, they can make a significant difference in focusing attention on the repression in Russia.

In the days following the full scale invasion in February, Russian authorities adopted unprecedented censorship laws that de facto criminalized criticism of the armed conflict in Ukraine. Reporting on the war became the exclusive prerogative of government outlets and those that echo them. Independent media only faced one alternative: leave the country or face harsh sanctions.

Following a decade-long repressive spiral in Russia, hundreds of criminal and administrative cases have been opened against journalists, activists and people who simply spoke up against the war. Thousands of others spent days or weeks in prison for joining anti-war protests. New administrative and criminal cases are being opened every day.

Russia’s crackdown at home began 10 years ago. Shortly after Vladimir Putin reassumed the presidency, Russia adopted its first “foreign agent” legislation.  Under this law, civil society groups that received even a cent of funding from abroad were required to register as a foreign agent – a term understood as “spy” or “traitor” in Russia – or face penalties. The Russian government has used this law to demonize, and seek to silence, criticism.  

This stigmatizing label has been broadened into a catch-all instrument. Hundreds of civic groups, activists and journalists were slapped with the toxic label and big, at times repetitive, fines. And it was complemented by other laws—for example the “undesirable” foreign organizations law and broadly worded amendments to counter-extremism and counter-terrorism legislation – that essentially put anyone thinking critically under a sword of Damocles.

In 2021, Russia banned groups affiliated with the imprisoned opposition politician Alexey Navalny – which focused on exposing high-level corruption and on election campaign issues  – as extremist, and opened criminal proceedings against Navalny and his aides. The authorities recently adopted amendments expanding criminal liability for Russian citizens’ involvement with “undesirable” organizations. The government continues to blacklist foreign groups, laying a trap for Russians affiliated with them.

It was no surprise last year when the Justice Ministry liquidated Memorial, Russia’s most prominent human rights group. Or when they de-registered the local offices of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and 13 other foreign and international organizations.

Meanwhile Russian authorities recently adopted new laws penalizing undefined “assistance” to foreign states and organizations against the equally undefined Russia’s “security”. This could be used for example against anyone advocation sanctions against the Kremlin. The same law also equates gathering information about Russia’s armed forces with espionage.

Another recent law allows for blocking web content and suspending media without judicial oversight. A bill introduced in April would deepen the crackdown against LGBT people.  The crackdown’s tempo shows no sign of relenting.

Many journalists, human rights defenders, and critics of the war have left Russia since the war began. Yet many more inside the country and continue their work under great pressure. It’s essential to protect both groups and to enable all independent media, civil society groups and civic activists to resume their peaceful activities inside the country to counter the Kremlin’s falsehoods and perverse narratives about the war.

Since Russia walked out the door of the Council of Europe in March, Russians have lost an important avenue for justice  via the European Court of Human Rights. Given the gravity of the situation, there is no doubt Russians will now seek increased attention and support from UN human rights bodies. Creating a dedicated special rapporteur on Russia could bring attention and relief to Russian human rights defenders, journalists, and activists – whether in exile or still in Russia.

 The European Union is expected to offer such a motion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September. We hope that Argentina will publicly support this worthy effort which is in line with the determinations that led the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Russia as a member of the Council back on April 7, by a margin of 93 votes in favor- including Argentina-  and only 24 against.

We hope that Mexico will publicly support this worthy effort which is in line with the determinations that led the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Russia as a member of the Council back on April 7. Mexico unfortunately abstained back then and should now seize the chance to take a principled stance for the defense of human rights.

While the war in Ukraine and repression within Russia may seem a long way away, Latin American and Caribbean states have an interest in seeing the domestic repression in Russia scrutinized, analyzed, and exposed. Latin American governments should not miss the opportunity to support the establishment of a special rapporteur and thus stand in solidarity with Russian citizens who believe in democracy and deserve no less.

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