To those who don't understand

11 April 2013

Lev Ponomarev

Source: Echo of Moscow

Let's start with an incontrovertible fact: the refusal of human rights defenders receiving assistance from international charities to register as foreign agents has been interpreted by Vladimir Putin as a personal challenge. Observers are predicting that any organisation refusing to submit to these requirements will be closed down.

Putin's determination to do this underscores his willingness to believe and repeat the absolute drivel about NGOs receiving approximately a billion dollars in three months.

Even those who support the human rights defenders are more and more likely to talk in defeatist tones, saying, "Fighting it is pointless, agree and register as 'foreign agents' to save yourself."

To those who don't understand why human rights defenders will never register as "foreign agents", allow me to explain.

There are at least five reasons why the "For Human Rights" movement will not undergo this degrading process:

1. It is clear that in the mind of the average person, the concept of a "foreign agent" carries negative connotations. Therefore, Russian citizens who need help from human rights defenders will be wary of contacting human rights organisations, meaning that the work of these organisations will become less effective.

2. This point is even more significant. The fundamental work of our Movement is based around public lobbying in the interests of a specific person who has come to us for help. We compel state bodies to act in their citizens' interests by writing numerous letters and these bodies trust us and support us, answering our queries promptly and frequently meeting with us in person. However, if our organisation's official notepaper has "registered as a foreign agent" written on it, there won't be a single civil servant left willing to work with us.

3. Today's human rights defenders naturally see themselves as continuing the work of the Soviet dissident human rights activists. Many of them were called foreign agents for opposing the totalitarian regime, but they refused to accept this label and often paid for their resistance with their lives. Can we betray their sacrifice?

4. By registering as a "foreign agent", I will undoubtedly be violating our agreements with foreign foundations. For those who have little knowledge of the relationship between donors and donees, I will briefly explain the procedure. An organisation specialising in a particular area, for example, the Foundation in Defence of Prisoners' Rights, writes an application for a specific project. This application is entered in a competition and, if the activity set out in the application suits the donor, money will be allocated to it. The donor never imposes any conditions for a proposed project. As such, a donor is not a commissioner of the work (a "principal" in civil law), and the organisation implementing the project is not a contractor (an "agent" in civil law). Given these circumstances, can I allow myself to register as a "foreign agent"? 

5. Most importantly, my organisation and I know that we are no agents. Can we lie to the world and ourselves? 

P.S. Across the world, the term "political activity" is understood to mean the fight for power and participation in elections. Political parties are prohibited from accepting money from foreign sources for this type of activity, and this is right.

But for some reason in the "foreign agents law," political activity is defined as influencing public opinion and influencing decisions being made by state bodies – in effect, exactly what a normal NGO not only can, but should do.

Complying with the "foreign agents law" would legitimise this false notion and would make all future activity of human rights organisations illegal.