Grigory Okhotin: The defence of human rights is a counter-crisis strategy

posted 21 Nov 2017, 12:03 by Website Service   [ updated 22 Nov 2017, 07:47 ]

8 November 2017 

An extract from an interview with Tatyana Trofimova, Gaidar Foundation

Source: [original source: Gaidar Foundation]

Grigory Okhotin, one of the founders of the human rights project “OVD-Info” and a member of the board of the International Memorial Society, regards the defence of human rights as a means of empowerment, a route to mobilising civil society and an opportunity to build a rule-of-law State from grass roots.

To what extent are human rights organisations and human rights activities an indication that a country is in a pathological condition? It is correct to assume that there is no need to monitor the observance of human rights if a State is operating as it should?

No, the presence of human rights organisations certainly does not point to any kind of pathological problem. On the contrary; the more democratic the State, the stronger civil society will be and the more human rights activists and human rights organisations and associations there will be.

This is because freedom and human rights work in a peculiar way – they expand if you keep on defending them, and they shrink if you fail to do so. This is true in every country, whether it be France, the USA or the United Kingdom – human rights need to be defended everywhere.

Only those rights which are genuinely defended become guaranteed and effective. The protection of human rights is therefore not merely the lot of Russia and countries where human rights are violated, but a normal and necessary activity in any society.

When OVD-Info was first set up, both I and the other people in our team believed that our objective was to make ourselves superfluous. We were wrong. Freedom of Association must in fact be defended on an ongoing basis, because only then will it exist. As soon as you stop defending this right, it disappears. […]

Does OVD-Info fight the rising darkness in the here and now? Or do you have some future perspective in mind -- a goal you would like to achieve, and a way of getting there?

There’s a very simple answer to that question. I don’t believe that change happens because clever, honest people come along one day and change everything. I believe that change is the result of a consistent chain of events, which must always start today.

No one involved in the fight for human rights and freedom should be content to say, “when this happens, that will happen.” We must fight for this brave new world in the here and now, starting with the fate of a specific individual. If we merely indulge in abstract dreams rather than carrying out our work today, nothing will ever happen.

That is why our focus is on the present day, on the violations which are apparent right now, and on providing assistance to people who are suffering today. Step by step, we are building an understanding of the problems we are facing and how they can be resolved: our own understanding, that of experts and media professionals, and that of society as a whole.

Proceeding like this, step by step, we get ever closer to the time when the problem will be resolved, or at least when improvements will become perceptible. There’s a great deal of strategy involved, rather than simply fighting the darkness in the here and now.

You once said that you are not at all interested in people’s political, ideological or other convictions if they are in favour of human rights. Are you happy to work together with people who sit at the other end of the political spectrum to you, provided they believe that human rights should be respected?

As far as OVD-Info is concerned, we write about people whose rights have been violated. Their political convictions are completely irrelevant to us, since we’re only interested in their rights. My colleagues and I naturally have our own political leanings and ideological worldview, and there can be quite major differences.

None of that matters when someone’s rights have been violated. We might not agree with his or her views, but we believe that he or she has the right to hold those views. Whether they be nationalist, left-wing or Putinist -- if someone has been arrested, we regard them as ours.

In fact, we write about everyone, and the calls we receive come not only from opposition activists, but from all kinds of activist: those active on social issues, environmentalists and even members of the [pro-Putin] “Nashi” movement, who were formerly sometimes arrested, strange as it may seem. If they have been arrested unlawfully, we will write about them.

As far as direct cooperation is concerned, we work together with a fairly wide range of organisations. Provided they share our fundamental belief in the importance of human rights, we don’t have a problem. If there was a Duma deputy from the “United Russia” party who also wanted to fight for human rights, and was prepared to help particular individuals -- and who knows, there might be someone like that out there -- I’d be more than happy to work together with him or her.

Photo of Grigory Okhotin: 
Sergei Karpov, Heinrich Böll Stiftung Russland

Translated by Joanne Reynolds