Human rights defenders vs politicians. reports

18 February 2013 

Vera Vasileva

The federal law "On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation Relating to the Regulation of the Activities of Non-Profit Organisations Acting as Foreign Agents" continues to attract criticism from human rights advocates. The most recent manifestation of this came about during the discussion "Human rights and politics - are they incompatible?", which took place on 15 February 2013 at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Centre in Moscow. The event was dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the birth of the dissident, political writer and human rights activist Yelena Bonner.

To see the photos online click HERE

The law on "foreign agents" gives no clear definition of what "political activities" means. Moreover, there is no consensus on the interaction of human rights activists with the authorities, or on their involvement in politics, either in society at large or even within the human rights community. Meanwhile, the adoption of the law has made clear the intention of Russian officials to try to label human rights activities as political. 

Taking part in the discussion were Director of the Human Rights Institute Valentin Gefter, Consultant of the C. S. Mott Foundation in Russia Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Chair of the Board of the Sakharov Centre Sergei Kovalev, Head of the Sociocultural Research Department at the Levada Centre Aleksei Levinson, expert at the Perm Civil Chamber Igor Averkiev and Chair of the Memorial Human Rights Centre Aleksandr Cherkasov.

Valentin Gefter pointed out that the terminology had to be clearly understood.

The ambiguity comes from the fact that Russian has one word, politika, which in English, for example, would be split into two separate concepts: policy and politics. Policy is a strategy of targeted actions in some public sphere, whereas political activities are to do with the struggle for power. The human rights advocates called policy activities "civil politika" and political activities "political politika."

"In my view, human rights issues, election monitoring for example, should at the very least not be confused with political politika," he said.

Aleksandr Cherkasov also thought there was a problem with the terminology:

The word pravozashchitnik (human rights activist) is being treated as a noun whereas in reality it is an adjective. It is attached to a specific activity. For example when Sergei Kovalev edited the Chronicle of Current Events as a human rights journalist. Or a human rights official like Sergei Adamovich when he was a State Duma deputy. Promoting draft laws aimed at defending citizens' rights. You can have human rights lawyers.

The word politika is actually quite ambiguous."

"My theory is that politika [politics] and pravozashchita [human rights] are separate and in many ways opposite things, completely incompatible things," said Vyacheslav Bakhmin.

In his opinion, politika and pravozashchita call for entirely different human qualities:

"The most important thing for human rights activists are the value and rights of every individual. They demand openness and believe that the state should be controlled by society. On an international level, from a human rights point of view, people and countries are justified in interfering in the internal affairs of another state if there are mass violations of human rights there.

For a politician, the focus is on the masses, on society as a whole rather than on the individual. The value and security of the state is more important to a politician than the value of an individual, political expediency is more important than formal laws and legal norms. The nitty-gritty of politics has an essentially closed nature. The authorities are willing to criticise human rights abuses in other countries but they will not tolerate any interference in these matters in their own country."

I don't mean that it's something terrible. It is simply a different profession."

Sergei Kovalev had some criticism for what Vyacheslav Bakhmin said:

"Vyacheslav described political politika very well and in my opinion dug its grave. I agree with everything he said, except for one thing: that it is a natural thing."

Sergei Kovalev also said that human rights proponents "do not get involved in the struggle for power, they are engaged in far more important matters" in answer to the question of how the international political paradigm should be organised. In other words, do the proclamations of universal values and human rights values by politicians really mean anything, or are they just a hypocritical tool in the hands of "pragmatic politicians?"

Aleksei Levinson in turn, speaking about the results of an opinion poll carried out by the Levada Centre, described the public perception of human rights advocates and politicians. According to this survey, the authorities have "to a large extent succeeded in discrediting human rights activities and human rights proponents." In addition, "politics and politicians have been discredited 100 percent. There is virtually no one out there who believes that there is such a thing as an honest politician."

Igor Averkiev spoke about the law on "foreign agents." Lawyers need to formulate clear terminology and arguments to help prove, in particular, that human rights activities are not political acts."

Igor Averkiev also believes that a state which does not recognise human rights will inevitably perceive any human rights activities as being directed "against that regime."