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Stefania Kulaeva: What did Astakhov accomplish in his seven years at the “children’s rights” trough? (Radio Svoboda)

posted 11 Jul 2016, 02:07 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 11 Jul 2016, 02:10 ]
3 July 2016 

By Stefania Kulaeva, expert at the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Centre 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda

Photo: Moscow Helsinki Group

The topic of children’s rights has suddenly been getting play in the Russia media, on blogs, and on social networks. The reason for this at first was the latest scandalous statement by Children’s Rights Commissioner Astakhov, followed by that odious ombudsman’s resignation. People could not forgive Astakhov his boorish, sensational statements about “women wrinkled at twenty-seven” (which he’d used to explain his support for marriage to a minor girl in Chechnya) and the “children who went swimming” (who miraculously survived the fatal storm that carried away their companions in misfortune). Hundreds of thousands of people signed a demand for the resignation of such a cynical and heartless person as children’s rights ombudsman. Claims had been made against Astakhov before. His fight against international adoption of Russian orphans had angered opponents of the “Dima Yakovlev law.”

Reading the departing ombudsman’s reports on the work he’d done and the criticism of his words and deeds on the part of Astakhov’s opponents, I can’t shake the feeling that whatever everyone has been talking about, it’s not children’s rights. For seven years, the defense of children’s rights was simulated at the federal level in Russia. Instead of a discussion of real children’s real lack of rights—the violation of their rights to protection from discrimination, the limitation on their rights of self-expression, the violence that has practically been institutionalized in children’s colonies and prisons—all anyone discusses are the scandalous wisecracks and dubious sorties of the “children’s landing party” (as Astakhov absurdly called his inspections of children’s institutions). Astakhov and indeed the entire concept of state defence of children’s rights in Russia are bad not because of the cynical words themselves or even the insufficient concern for orphans. These are just manifestations of one general problem: no one cares about children’s rights, and for the most part no one knows what these rights consist of or how they differ from any other standards.

The tragic story of the death of the children who went on an excursion in a storm is shocking. The classic Pushkinian “It could have been me, you see,” is the basis for our customary solidarity; any one of us could have been in the place of these children’s parents. It’s no surprise that citizens’ pain and anger splashed out in their journals and blogs, and indignation at the indifference of the “children’s official” even took on the form of a petition demanding his resignation. We could also have been in the place of the instructors and counsellors who are now being indicted so as to offer up at least some sacrifice to the universal despair. After all, the most important thing is finding people to blame. Vengeance dulls emotions and even leads at times to exultation in those who have achieved it. I feel sorry for the counsellors. I can imagine what it is to try and not be able to hold onto a child drowning in icy waves… These young people are going to have a difficult enough time living now even without criminal prosecution. To bring against them the old Soviet reproach - “Why are you alive when others have perished?” – is absurd and foul. Understandably, the stronger ones survived and adults do have to fight for their own life, including for the sake of the children they are supposed to be saving.

Neither the arrests of the criminally negligent children’s camp directors who sent the children and university students on that outing, nor the resignation of the scandalously tactless ombudsman will change anything now. Personal responsibility for the life of the children entrusted to us, always has, is, and will rest on each and every adult. This is not about children’s rights; it’s about their elders’ obligations. It’s a shame that the explosion of solidarity and the collective manifestations of pain and anger did not appear after the publications about harassment against adolescents in children’s colonies, as was written about after the death of the Ukrainian boy at the Belorechenskaya colony for minors and in connection with the new law lowering the age of criminal responsibility to fourteen. Even without journalistic investigations, we understand that children in the colonies are beaten and raped, humiliated and tortured. But it’s hard for us to imagine ourselves as the parents of these children.

How hard it is for us to connect our life to the children who are victims of sex trafficking, who are brought to Russian towns from Africa and Asia. We have always known all this exists, but we don’t demand the resignation of those who have done nothing to stop the practice of crimes against pariah children, although children’s rights extend to pariahs, too - and even more so, because there is no one and nothing but these rights to defend these children. This is exactly why the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child tried so long to get Russia to join the elective agreement on preventing the sale of children, sexual exploitation, and the use of children in pornography. The Committee’s next session will examine the Russian report on implementation of this protocol’s terms.

What will we learn from the reports by government bodies about activities aimed at defending children’s rights themselves, that is, not at supporting children in difficult life situations but specifically at defending a given right of the child? It turns out, Russia’s main achievement in the matter of defending the child’s sexual inviolability has been that same law “on the defense of children from harmful information” that declared LGBT “propaganda” illegal, banned all discussions of suicide in the public sphere (which protects no one from suicides and only impedes their prevention), and introduced the “18+” label, which is discriminatory with respect to children, on important educational projects.

From this report we will learn that in the entire reporting period there were only a few dozen criminal cases indicting individuals who coerced children into sex acts (among other articles missing from the Criminal Code we must add here forcible early marriages and the organization of sexual assault as a means of pacification in the colonies and military institutions). There have been very few convictions on charges of the sexual exploitation of children or the use of children in the porn industry.

On the other hand, the country proudly reports on having blocked an enormous number of websites, as if the criminals were ever afraid of these blockings! Meanwhile, Russia remains one of the leading places in the world for quantity of pornography, both that accessible to children (unlike Rospotrebnadzor [Russian Consumer Rights Protection Service] officials, they understand that blocking is not a problem for capable Internet users) and the most terrible kind - the kind that uses children. Even worse is the fact that thousands of children (mostly foreigners) end up in sexual exploitation and are nearly impossible to save. As an expert working in this sphere explained, “all the large bordellos exist with the support of the FSB [Federal Security Service] or MVD [Interior Ministry]. They simply can’t exist without a strong backer. If any police did stick their nose in there, they’d get called off immediately.” Children are being brought to Russia from Vietnam, Cameroon, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. They’re bringing boys and girls, extremely little ones (under three) and older. A specialist explains: “There’s the concept of exotica. Children are more expensive. Most expensive of all are virgin girls and boys, which makes them profitable to bring in.”

What did Astakhov accomplish in his seven years at the “children’s rights” trough? In his own report, the commissioner reports that he worked actively to improve the law “for the purpose of protecting children against violations of a sexual nature and against sexual exploitation,” and he even quotes his own especially successful formulations: “The draft law excludes recognition as pornographic for materials (objects) containing depictions or descriptions of the sexual organs of a child if they [the depictions or descriptions] have a particular historical, artistic, or cultural value.” Please explain to me how the depiction or description of sexual organs can have “historical value.” This is the nonsense Astakhov has been engaged in for seven years while children have been raped to death.

Translated by Marian Schwartz