Site Archive‎ > ‎Ombudsmen‎ > ‎Vladimir Lukin‎ > ‎

An Interview with Vladimir Lukin. The Ombudsman’s Daily Routine…

25 December 2012 

Source: (info
– Yury Solomonov (Nezavisimaya gazeta): Vladimir Petrovich, I thought that I would find a huge map in your office showing in online regime the violations of human rights that have taken place in the various countries of the world… 

– Why would I need a map when I have two beautiful pictures. One of them is a seascape. The other is of a forest. Sometimes I’m sitting down and I wonder to myself whether I should drown myself in the one, or hang myself in the other.

– Is the human rights situation so very bad? Or are you joking?

– Well, I hope you were also joking about the map. But when you receive between 30,000 and 50,000 complaints in a year as my office does, there is nothing to be happy about.

– Do you analyze the complaints you receive in terms of the tendencies, specific features of the different regions, or the nature of violations of human rights?

– Analyzing the complaints is not the hardest task. It is much harder to actually help in some way.

– But at the same, what do you think about these international ratings?

– To be honest I’m not interested in them. This is because they do nothing but show how politicized the issues are. In the first place, a violation of human rights is a very serious matter. It has a very wide significance And it is not limited to legal aspects, as many believe. There is no purpose in talking about human rights in some general sense. In Africa, for example, there is the awful violation of rights that involves mutilation of female genitals. I would be so bold as to say that this is not typical of our country. But we have quite enough of our own problems, ones that Africans have no idea about.

Secondly, the notion of human rights itself is evolving. Traditionally, these used to be restricted to civil rights related to the freedoms of election and assembly, freedom of speech, movement and so on..

But a perfectly reasonable objection to this arose linked to the fact that, in addition to civil rights, people need a certain number of social rights. And these include not only the right to work, but also the right to rest, and to various kinds of social services and guarantees.

For all the horrors of the Soviet regime, objectively the USSR with its social policies acted as a model for the West, which borrowed some things from its ideological opponent.

– And if we draw comparisons between human rights in the USSR and in Russia in our own times?

– Of course, there are things that change and over time they become natural. Everything depends on what we take as the point of departure. If we take the Soviet period as the starting point, then, let’s say, the period of Leonid Ilich Brezhnev, no matter how critical of the period of stagnation one may be, there was much that was predictable. People on the whole knew what paths they would take in life. Their goals were often of very small significance. Because this was quite a meagre world.

But predictability is a very important factor. One of the ways in which people differ from animals is in their ability to think rationally, but there is no evidence that the rationality of humans corresponds with the rationality of the world in which we live. It does not surprise me, for example, that all major changes in the world that take place are unexpected for most of us. This is because there is a sharp contradiction between what happens in reality and what we are able to plan. That is why discussions about the world basically consist of talk about how wonderful or terrible past times were, and how terrible or wonderful the world will be in the future.

For this reason our rationality had greater application to the Soviet era. That is not to forget all the idiocies of that time. But what concerns the ideal, the sacred – this was all crushed by symbols of obvious ambiguity, cynicism and the feebleness of the rules in the form of the ‘Politburo on the Mausoleum’.

Nowadays the risks are greater. And the more adventurous part of society that is able to take risks feels better in these circumstances. This adventurousness leads to activity, but not necessarily to development. This is activity according to the principle: take action today, and whatever happens later, so be it.

And at the same time the other part of the population sees all these extraordinarily artful and brazen means of getting rich, and this vivid picture makes these people fall into despair, depression, spitefulness and envy.

– So that those who are honest don't envy the rich, tell us about the problems of human rights in the prisons that you often visit…

– I’ll begin by saying that prisons are not something separate from society. They have always been a fragment, a part of society separated by barbed wire. Recently on the television I saw a programme about a priest who conducts services, talks with prisoners, preaches and takes confession. And he himself is a prisoner, sentenced to a very near maximum term for very serious crimes. It’s a transformation with which we are familiar, isn't it?

And is it really sensational news that in prison people take bribes? The reason is obvious: the people who work as prison officers are badly paid. And those they are guarding are often rich, influential and able to pay. That’s why so many things have their price in prison. There is a price for almost everything: from the best cells to all kinds of entertainment. So today in our prisons it’s the same as in society at large: everything has an exclusively market character. Perhaps the only exception is our economy, but I won’t comment on that.

What I’d like to say is that the protests that are happening in society have their own reflection in prisons. The recent revolt in Chelyabinsk that has been reported in the press is an example. We were obliged to take part in solving this problem. In the history of what happened in Chelyabinsk, unlike other prison crises, the protestors did not try to destroy anything or to take anyone hostage. They only broke the gates. And you know why? To go outside and hang up their slogan outside.

You could say that supporters of an evolutionary reform of the prison system have appeared on the scene.

– This is a domestic analogy. But what is happening with the protection of human rights on the international arena? Is it the same as it always used to be: "It’s better here because over there they are ‘lynching negroes’"?

– Of course there are fewer violations of human rights in developed democratic societies with their powerful economies of a post-industrial type, developed institutions of civil society, and with those fundamental values that have already historically developed in the public consciousness.

And protecting these rights in these countries is easier. That is why through the inviolability of basic rights of each individual, through freedom of assembly and media independence, citizens themselves have the ability to protect their political and social rights themselves.

Try, for example in developed European countries to create such a gulf between the poor and the wealthy as we have in Russia. This will immediately result in an indescribable explosion. This is what we have recently seen in the less developed countries such as Greece and Spain.

But if we think about it, these countries also have their problems.

The crisis has shown that in Greece itself there are more than a few people who, using their social rights, have fallen into a serious dependency syndrome, living on credit and government benefits in such a manner that the leadership of the European Union could not help but notice.

I mean to say, that human rights can also be used in this way.

Or take another extreme. The terrible shooting of small children in an American school is of course a national tragedy. I won’t take it upon myself to judge how reasonable is the US law that enables anyone who so desires to arm themselves. But the discussion among politicians and businessmen about what to do concerning the free sale of weapons shows that, along with concern for the lives of people, it is not only human rights motives that are engaged in this issue, but also economic, corporate and political ones.

Perhaps that is the reason why I’m not involved in politics. Moreover, the ombudsman may not by law engage in politics, and that is why as soon as I became ombudsman I left the Yabloko party, although I had been one of the party’s founders.

– You don’t take part in politics, but do you follow what is going on? And probably you are obliged to do that as part of your official role?

– Of course I follow what is going on in politics, in the economy, and legislative initiatives which in one way or another all impact on human rights.

Recently the president in his annual address reminded everyone that it is time to introduce a tax on luxuries. He used the word ‘reminded’ advisedly since talk about this unfortunate tax has been going on for several years now. And all the time the draft bill (if indeed there really is one) has been stuck somewhere.

Yes and the untouchability, almost sacred nature, of our 13% income tax also seems to me not to be beyond discussion. No one says that we must raise the level of income tax for all Russians to what we have seen in France, where Gerard Depardieu has rejected his French citizenship. But gradually, perhaps initially on a trial basis, we have got to leave behind this low level of taxation for all.

In other words what I want to say is that the social contrast which now has an extremely glaring character must be reduced. How should we do this – through raising taxes for the rich or increasing the incomes of the poor?

This is what we must talk about. But the discussion shouldn’t be dragged out over a long time. Because if we are too slow, this will increase the dangers of a dangerous gulf such as I have mentioned. We are talking about stability.

And what kind of stability can there be when there is such a gulf in society? What spiritual and moral adhesive can there be between those who have a pension of 10,000 roubles and those who are quietly suffering from melancholy on a hundred-metre yacht in the Pacific Ocean. 

But of course there are people who find reasons for not doing anything about it. The stability we have today, which is becoming more and more similar to the stagnation of the Brezhnev era, is often justified in terms of some temporary situation of the country. As one wise person said, we are all the time living in a transitional period between two other transitional periods.

Of course I am in favour of stability. But for stability with development, stability that is forthright in demanding human activity, courage and so on.

– And how are the regional human rights ombudsmen working today? When the president brought them together for a meeting, he said that there should be a regional ombudsman in every region of Russia. Do you think that is an important issue?

– Now we have regional ombudsmen in 69 out of 83 regions. The president really did say that there should be a human rights ombudsman in every region. But since the law states that the regions may have an ombudsman, some heads of regions have interpreted this to mean that they also may not have.

Probably, regional leaders of this kind think that it is better to have a good sports stadium where happy fans will burn flares in a burst of patriotism or drive black people and homosexuals out of the competing teams with victorious shouts.

So far as concerns the need for a region to have a human rights ombudsman, you can often hear: “We don’t have the resources.”

The budget may be limited. But funnily enough those who deal with the budget are often far from poor themselves. But the process of creating a regional network of human rights ombudsmen is going ahead. And we should thank the authorities for their support.

– Vladimir Petrovich, you, so far as I know, are not a timorous person. Recently you directly condemned the law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children. It seems to me that, apart from shameful stupidity, this ban violates the human rights of people at the very earliest stage of their lives. But I wanted to ask about something else. Do the honesty and courage of regional ombudsmen depend on how the local authorities relate to them?

– Often the appointment of an ombudsman itself depends on the authorities. If, for example, the authorities want to get rid of some local official or other, they might appoint him as a human rights ombudsman. But I would not say that an appointment of this kind will immediately produce an effective ombudsman. This is why the presidential administration is right to arrange things in such a way that the process of appointment does not put the ombudsman in a position of dependency vis a vis the local authorities. This also concerns even more so the dismissal of ombudsmen.

After all, when do they try to sack an ombudsman? When the governor receives complaints about him. Because these are signals that indicate that the ombudsman has begun to work properly. And this is when they start trying to get rid of him.

In a word, a good ombudsman cannot be among the bosses’ favourites.

For example, my good friend Alvaro Hil-Robles who was ombudsman in Spain (and then continued this work as human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe) has said: "I managed to spoil my relations with all the political leaders in my country, except for two – the king and the prime minister. And that is why I managed to get something done."

Yes, the work is complicated, but sometimes there are achievements. For example, beginning in 2010, we have been working to make our police behave in a more civilized way towards the public. And this includes those taking part in rallies and demonstrations.

At the beginning, when rallies were held onTriumph Square, we were severely criticized, and it even seemed that this criticism was being organized by someone or other. We took a soft approach. We said that everything should be done within the law. And if some of the demonstrators violate the law, then it is wrong to become like the violators themselves: the steps that should be taken should be within the framework of the law.

And today, I must say, we have good relations with the city authorities.

– It turns out that this work is related to sharp social issues that concern large groups of the population. But what about the flow of complaints from individuals?

– This is not easy either. There are about 200 staff employed in the ombudsman’s office. The complaints from individuals are received by specific sections. What are these about?

The issues they raise are economic, housing, land, social issues, the rights of military service personnel, family issues, especially those relating to children…Although there already is a separate children’s ombudsman, and this is good, from habit many people are still writing to us.

What do we do when we get a letter of this kind? It is not always a matter of simply reading and responding, although this also often happens. The ombudsman must take advice about where the person should take their complaint, depending on the issue. Ombudsmen themselves can take up people’s complaints either before court proceedings take place, or after court proceedings have finished.

We have no right to interfere in a trial or in the official investigation into a case. But when a case has passed through two judicial levels, and after appeal the sentence has entered into force, then if we receive a complaint that laws were clearly violated in the earlier stages, and there is evidence to prove this, we can direct the attention of higher authorities to the violations.

It has to be said that we win quite a lot of cases of this kind. We also deal with pre-trial detention, and release on parole, which is an issue that involves a serious possibility of corruption.

This is what our daily routine looks like.

But if some violations occur that are of public importance, we can take a pro-active stance. And this goes right up to parliamentary investigations.

For example, recently we demanded that there should be a parliamentary investigation into the explosions at military bases. As is well-known, these explosions in peace time cause great harm to local residents and result in fatalities among soldiers.

We considered that these explosions should be stopped, and with our active support they have been stopped. Although things never got as far as a parliamentary investigation.

Questions started coming from the State Duma: why is it necessary, let’s hold closed hearings. Then it was proposed that these hearings should be put off until the spring.

At the same time the system of destroying munitions was changed from one using controlled explosions to disassembly. This is more expensive, but it is safer both for the army and the local population. So it seems that in some quarters people are more afraid of the procedures of democratic parliamentary oversight than they are of exploding munitions .

– And what is your view about violations of inter-faith and inter-ethnic equality? On the one hand, according to the Constitution all ethnic groups and faiths are equal, but in reality some are always more equal than others…

– We are working on these issues. During my last meeting with the president I put three issues before him. First was the prison revolt in Chelyabinsk. The second was the construction of housing for military personnel, and how it is distributed. It turns out that this is the biggest military secret.

And as for the third question, I told the president that in the post-Soviet period for many years now there have not been large-scale inter-faith conflicts. But recently they have become more and more evident. And if conflicts of this type are going to come on top of  inter-ethnic and social antagonisms, then the results may indeed be bad. The president, I think, heard what I was saying. And incidentally in his annual address to the Federal Assembly this issue was also mentioned. As to what will follow – I can’t say for the time being.

– Do the social groups that think you do not pay enough attention to them complain to you officially?

– Of course. Often the question arises: why do you pay so much attention to the rights of convicted prisoners, and you don’t defend the rights of victims? In fact we do work for the rights of victims, and I have in the past written a special report on this issue. But, believe me, among all the problems that there are, those people whose freedom has been restricted by law are very much in need in the protection of their rights in the strict regime in which they find themselves.

It is the same with psychiatric clinics. We take the position that people, depending on the severity of their illness, must take part in the solution of their own problems – human, housing, hereditary and so on. This is because there is no sharp division between good mental health and mental illness. Who is healthy and who is ill is not a simple question. This became clear in the Soviet period, when of the two Medvedev brothers - who were both dissidents and well-known human rights defenders - one of them (who was a major biologist and academic) was put in a mad house. Later, on the basis of what happened, they wrote a book, Who is Mad? And the answer to the question turned out not to be so simple as it would seem, even for qualified psychiatrists. In saying this, all the same I hope that the new generations of specialists in medical schools are today being told about what in Soviet times was called punitive psychiatry.

But if we consider the work that we do in a broad perspective, then all of the various directions of our work are united by what would seem to be a simple, but at the same time most complex, task: protecting those who are most vulnerable.

This is the main thing for the sake of which the institution of human rights ombudsman exists.

So if we come back to the issues of faith and ethnicity, we are trying to make sure that small religious communities or ethnic minorities are not subjected to persecution. Larger groups can often protect themselves. Although at times they also experience unjust pressure from, let’s say, law enforcement bodies.

– What form does this take?

– For example, recently people from the agency for combating extremism have begun to study texts from the Middle Ages in great depth. This is how they found out about the well-known Muslim thinker of the Middle Ages, S. Nurdi. And they have tried to find in his works something that represents a threat to stability in the XXI century.

– I recall that a group of deep-thinking book lovers were found in the State Duma who addressed a collective appeal to the Public Prosecutor’s Office calling for measures to be taken in one way or another with regard to treatises from the Middle Ages on Judaism, as one of the most dangerous of religions.

– They could have done with taking a high school course in the main world religions. They would have found out much that is of importance and surprising. If we start to combat extremism in this way, we’ll go a long way. In general the broadening of the concept of ‘extremism’ is extraordinarily dangerous. But in our country people like to mark as ‘dangerous’ everything that they cannot understand. Take for example what they call ‘sects’. It is well-known that this word means a ‘part of something.’ And the word sect is not a legal term, it is one used in journalism, or even propaganda.

But a legal approach, which puts the question quite simply – ‘Do the activities of sects violate any Russian law? – does not suit those of our citizens who are of an especially vigilant frame of mind.

Most of all, inventing absurd accusations against one or the other faith community, without realizing it they are entering into conflict with the Constitution.

This is why our work is intended, on the one hand, to ensure that Russian laws are observed in the relations between different faiths. And on the other, we try to ensure that there are no unjustified, and therefore unlawful, restrictions on freedom of conscience.

– How does the work of an ombudsman differ in totalitarian, transitional or democratic societies?

– Today the institution of ombudsman exists in more than 100 countries throughout the world. As one might guess, these are countries with very different forms of government. Not everywhere do ombudsmen function at the national level. In the USA, for example, there is an ombudsman in Alaska, and perhaps for some other ethnic groups. In other instances the protection of civil rights is being developed at the municipal level, and so on.

In Germany there is a separate ombudsman for the army – in Germany historically much attention is paid to the army.

If you ask, where are ombudsmen most useful, I would say in a developing society. Or as in our country, in a society that is undergoing transition, where civil society already exists but is not yet adequately developed and structured.

And sometimes ombudsmen can fill in certain gaps in the work of civil society organizations.

On the other hand, without the architecture that constitutes civil society the institution of human rights ombudsman will not be effective.

Take the media. The institution of human rights ombudsman in Russia needs the media above all as additional sources of information, and even interpretation, of what is happening. It’s not so important for us what the media say about us. What is important is the ability to get information about what is happening at the local level.

Vladimir Lukin, federal human rights ombudsman in the Russian Federation, answered questions put by Yury Solomonov, editor of the supplement “Nezavisimaya gazeta – Scenarios”.

Source: Nezavisimaya gazeta