Congress in Defence of Human Rights: Moscow, 26-27 November 2017

posted 4 Dec 2017, 08:20 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Dec 2017, 08:29 ]
28 November 2017  


On 26 and 27 November 2017, the 2nd Congress in Defence of Human Rights, called by the Human Rights Council of Russia, took place in Moscow.

Rights organisations from across Russia gathered in Moscow for the second human rights congress on 26 and 27 November. Representatives from several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) discussed the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, including the main threats and negative trends in the field, at the event organized by the human rights council of Russia. It is no coincidence that organisers decided to display a copy of the Russian constitution behind the stage as the talks took place. The slogan “observe your constitution” was used when the rights movement started in the Soviet Union, and some say it has taken on a new meaning today.

The first human rights congress of this kind was held in January 2001. 

Protests and media

The event attracted protesters, who picketed against the congress outside a nearby metro station. Several separate protests took place at the same time, with picketers holding placards denouncing human rights defenders. Later on, one of the pro-government activists managed to get into the hall and started shouting “Motherland! Freedom! Putin!” But she quickly retreated to the sound of laughter and applause ringing through the auditorium.

Camera crews from the now infamous TV networks NTV and REN-TV also tried to enter the hall several times. The organizers of the forum did not let them in, saying their activities have little to do with journalism.

A few minutes before the congress was due to begin, the fire alarm went off and an alert sounded to tell everyone to evacuate the building. But after a few minutes it was confirmed to be a false alarm.

Lev Ponomarev, 
Liudmila Alekseeva and Sergei Kovalev

Lev Ponomarev, head of the movement “For Human Rights,” who chaired the congress, emphasised that “this is not a congress of human rights defenders, but a congress for the protection of human rights.”

On the first day groups presented several reports and there were panel discussions. 

To open the session, Len Ponomarev read a welcoming address on behalf of Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva, the chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. A speech by the chair of the board of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, was read by Aleksander Cherkasov, the head of the Memorial Human Rights Centre.

"We are proceeding on the premise that in Russia a transformation from an authoritarian state to a democratic one is taking place, which began in the late 1980s, although we are now witnessing the reverse process. Society is gradually losing the freedoms and democratic gains of the early 1990s guaranteed by the Constitution, and we hope that this congress will work out and propose a strategy of action for human rights activists and civil society in the current situation,” Liudmila Alekseeva's address read.

Sergei Kovalev's speech, "Human Rights Defenders and Power: Resistance of the Material," was a heated polemic on a number of principled positions. "In the opening statement, the first sentence sets the tone: 'In Russia a transformation from an authoritarian state to a democratic one is taking place,'” his speech read. "Pardon! Russia is putting the finishing touches on an expressive self-portrait of a totalitarian state."

The second human rights congress was very broad in scope. On the first day there were panels on the law enforcement system and human rights (focusing on the FSIN federal penitentiary service, Russian National Guard and the police), freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression, the media, independence of the courts, labour rights, social protest, social rights (focusing on medicine and education) and elections.

Public Oversight Commissions

Human rights activist Valery Borshchev analyzed the ONK civic monitoring commissions which are tasked with monitoring the observance of human rights in places of detention (jails, prisons, colonies, etc.).

"When we were drafting the law [on the commissions], we had in mind a series of laws on civilian control, including oversight of psychiatric institutions, and of disabled people's homes and the army, but, alas, these laws could not be upheld,” Borshchev said.

“In the draft legislation proposed by the members of the ONK, the ombudsperson for human rights was tasked with giving approval. But then the public chamber was established, and [in the law] this right was given to it instead, which was a huge mistake.”

The investigation into the murder of Sergei Magnitsky at the first convocation of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission (POC) was a significant event. The second convocation was even more successful – as well as representatives from Moscow, St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg (Urals), people also came from other parts of the country. The regime realized that the POCs could have an impact and began to think how to prevent this […]

The fourth convocation last year saw any public oversight or involvement in the way penitentiary facilities are run in Russia almost wiped out.

The Public Chamber began to set up POCs in the regions with the result that human rights activists, with experience of working in POCs, were wholly eliminated. All the leading defenders of human rights were purged from the commissions.

“We must recognize”, said Valery Borshchev, “that the Public Chamber simply proved to be incompetent when staffing the POCs.”

Other issues

Natalya Taubina, director of the Public Verdict foundation, spoke of the torture of those arrested and held by the Ministry of Justice; Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of the Civic Assistance Committee, talked of the lack of rights of refugees and migrants.

Sergei Krivenko, head of the Citizen and the Army rights organisation, raised the serious problems experienced by conscripts and soldiers.

Oleg Orlov, of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, focused on the infringement of basic human rights and freedoms in Chechnya. The Congress passed a separate resolution on this issue.

The Congress discussed the situation of NGOs in Russia today. Since 2006 the law has been drastically amended. The introduction of the 2012 law on ‘foreign agent NGOs’ led to the closure of a third of those labelled ‘foreign agents’ by State officials. Today 15% of human rights organizations in Russia find themselves subject to this kind of repression, including those which could be referred to as the ‘elite’ of the human rights community.

On free speech and the media, the Congress issued a statement about the hate speech which dominates the State television’s news programmes and has a very destructive impact on Russian society. It encourages xenophobia, intolerance and seeing others as the enemy – both individuals and entire social groups, ethnicities, nations and countries.

Those gathered at the Congress voiced harsh criticism of the bill on the media and ‘foreign agents’ which the President has recently signed into law. Professor Vladimir Mironov presented an analysis of the situation with regard to the courts.

Those who attended and spoke 

It was noticeable that those who spoke at the Congress included not just media personalities and well-known human rights defenders but also representatives of 
small groups of activists from Moscow and the regions. There were miners among them, and people who had borrowed hard-currency or were queuing for social housing, long-distance lorry drivers, representatives of various associations, and activists defending the disabled. 

Overall, their reports painted a dismal picture of the observance of human rights and civil liberties throughout Russia. Only if people actively defend their rights will the situation improve: groups of active citizens must work together. Ella Kasayeva of the Voice of Beslan organization, for example, recounted how the relatives of the children killed or injured at Beslan during the terrorist attack won their case at the European Court of Human Rights. This required 13 years of unremitting struggle, however.

On the second day, Monday 27 November, the Congress split into various thematic working groups, covering issues such as cooperation between activists, and a strategy for the human rights community.


This was followed by a resolution, listing specific proposals arising from the day’s discussions. There were demands to repeal the discriminatory laws on ‘foreign agent NGOs’, ‘foreign agent’ media and ‘undesirable organizations’, and to abolish the Platon “spy in the cab” system.

The assembled representatives of the human rights community demanded thorough investigation of the kidnapping and murder of journalists, concerning not only the immediate perpetrators, but also the individuals who issued the orders to abduct and kill, and those who aided and abetted such violent crimes.

The final document included proposals for ensuring the independence of judges, and public and transparent exercise of justice.

The Congress called for the abolition in its present form of Centre ‘E’, the section for combatting extremism at the RF Ministry of Internal Affairs. The problem, it said, was that “to a significant extent, [Centre ‘E’] pursues the ideological opponents of the authorities rather than carrying out a real fight against terrorism and extremism”. The Congress also called for Chechnya to return to the legal and judicial norms of the rest of the Russian Federation.

The Congress organizing committee is sending all the proposals, agreed by the human rights and civic activists at the forum, to the appropriate State institutions. It plans to publish the Congress materials for public discussion.

Translation by Helen Corbett and Mary McAuley