By Ronald McNamara,
International Policy Director
Nearly a hundred human rights advocates representing dozens of NGOs and national human rights institutions gathered in Vienna, July 12-13, 2007, for the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Protection and Promotion of Human Rights convened by the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Discussions were organized around three main topics: the role of national courts in promoting and protecting human rights; the role of civil society in addressing human rights violations; and, the role of national human rights institutions in promoting and protecting human rights.
Rooted in the fundamental right of individuals to know and act upon their rights, much of the discussion focused on the legal framework, access to effective remedies when violations occur, and the role of civil society and non-governmental organizations in fostering the protection and promotion of human rights. A recurring critical question throughout the meeting was whether courts, the judiciary, and national human rights institutions are truly independent.
Keynote remarks by Professor Vojin Dimitrijevic, Director of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, revolved around institutional concerns, including the limited development of structures to address human rights violations, significant backlogs in the processing of human rights cases, and inadequate training of jurists and others. He suggested that universities could do much to address the current shortcomings of existing mechanisms. The Director of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ambassador Christian Strohal, referred to a related resolution adopted by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at its Annual Session held the prior week in Kyiv. A long-time rights advocate, he stressed the importance of prevention of violations, while underscoring the need for effective remedies when rights are violated.
Professor Emmanuel Decaux opened the session of national courts by underscoring the fundamental importance of effective remedies and transparency in judicial proceedings. He pointed to the critical need for independent judges as well as protection and preservation of rights amid a heightened focus on counterterrorism. Legal advocates from Georgia and Azerbaijan addressed practical concerns such as transparency in judicial appointments, disciplinary actions against judges, public confidence in the courts, limits on televised coverage of courtroom proceedings, financial independence of the judiciary and combating corruption.
Karinna Moskalenko, a leading human rights lawyer from the Russian Federation subjected to intense pressure because of her advocacy, including cases relating to Chechnya, noted the large number of cases from Russia being taken up in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human Rights. Nearly 30,000 complaints from individuals in Russia were submitted to the court between 1998 and 2006.
Concern was also raised over the situation in Uzbekistan, where authorities frequently resort to use of Article 165 of the criminal code on extortion to imprison human rights defenders, including 10 members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. An activist from Kazakhstan said that it simply made no sense to speak of judicial independence in his country. Similarly, an NGO representative from Belarus asserted that whatever independence the judiciary had previously has evaporated under the regime. Others from Ukraine and Georgia bemoaned the slow pace of judicial reforms in their countries.
Several speakers noted the failure of governments to change their laws or procedures following repeated judgments against them by the European Court of Human Rights. According to one, the budget of the Russian Federation now includes a line item specifically to cover fines stemming from rulings of the court, while the underlying deficiencies go unchanged.
Liubov Vinogradova of the Russian Research Center for Human Rights opened the session devoted to human rights defenders, underscoring the difficult and often dangerous environment for activists in the post-Soviet space. She also pointed to attempts by government to manipulate NGOs, create GONGOs (government non-governmental organizations), and erect potemkin umbrella organizations or councils. Vinogradova cited the urgent need for meaningful judicial reform in her country. She decried efforts by some in Moscow to impede access by plaintiffs from Russia to the court in Strasbourg. She read off a lengthy list of areas where Russia’s 2,000 registered human rights NGOs are making a difference. Among the challenges are limited resources, harassment by the authorities and an often hostile media with close ties to the government. Vinogradova was skeptical about the intent of President Putin’s decree offering funds to NGOs in Russia, suggesting that it could represent an attempt at “managed NGOs.”
Several subsequent speakers noted the particular difficulty encountered by those active in the defense of political rights, especially the tendency of the authorities to construe such work as party politics. A number referred to various forms of harassment by the authorities. Activists from Belarus talked about the deteriorating situation they face in a country where human rights defenders are viewed with deep suspicion by the authorities and most are forced to work underground due to a refusal by officials to issue formal registration. Some observed that obstructive methods employed in one country of the Commonwealth of Independent States often are adopted elsewhere, in what one speaker termed the “Putinization” of the former Soviet space.
The case of Russian advocate Mikhail Trepashkin was cited as an illustration of what can happen when a lawyer gets involved in a case viewed as sensitive to the authorities. Trepashkin was arrested in 2003, days before a trial was to open relating to an apartment bombing in Moscow in 1999 that then became the basis for the Kremlin’s renewed military campaign in Chechnya. The lawyer was initially detained and charged with illegal possession of weapons, then convicted by a closed military court to four years imprisonment for disclosing state secrets.
Other speakers urged the participating States to strengthen OSCE commitments on human rights defenders. The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation echoed this call, noting the precarious position of activities in many OSCE countries. The IHF recommended focusing on the safety of human rights defenders in the face of harassment and threats and called for the November Madrid OSCE Ministerial Council to approve related language.
Irish Human Rights Commission President Dr. Maurice Manning introduced the final session devoted to national human rights institutions. He provided an overview, stressing the importance of the independence of such bodies and adherence to the “Paris Principles.” Manning urged that these institutions be focused and avoid interference from government and non-governmental organizations alike. He suggested that they could play a number of useful purposes such as reviewing pending laws and regulations, assess compliance with standards in individual cases, and help identify systemic areas of concern. He concluded by suggesting that national institutions were ideally situated to serve as a bridge between civil society and the state.
The UN Economic and Social Council, beginning in 1960, encouraged the establishment of institutions as a means of encouraging and assisting states with implementation of international human rights commitments. In 1978, the UN issued a series of guidelines on the function and structure of institutions, falling into two main categories: human rights commissions and ombudsman offices. In the early 1990s work was completed on the Paris Principles, addressing the competence and responsibilities of national institutions as well as composition and guarantees of independence and pluralism, and methods of operation. The International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights oversees accreditation of such bodies based on compliance with the Paris Principles. As of March 2007, 17 national institutions in the OSCE region were deemed fully compliant, five were not fully compliant, and two were non-compliant. Accredited institutions are found in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Several representatives of ombudsman offices described their activities, including establishment of national hotlines to receive human rights complaints, as well as working relations with courts and prosecutors. The discussions became more animated with exchanges between NGO participants and regime surrogates, notably regarding human rights in Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The International Helsinki Federation expressed concern over a number of troubling trends faced by institutions, particularly targeted harassment stemming from their advocacy as well as legal and fiscal barriers to their work. The IHF representative made several concrete recommendations for OSCE, including strengthening relevant commitments, considering establishment of a special representative of the OSCE Chairman in Office on human rights defenders, and enhancing networks between civil society, national institutions and OSCE.
The delegation of the Russian Federation used the closing session of the SHDM to renew its objections to allowing the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society to register for the meeting, notwithstanding the fact that the group did not actually attend.
While the SHDM was informative and perhaps useful in terms of networking among those attending, the meeting underscored the clear divide between civil society representatives who advocate for human rights and the governments which perceive such work as a threat and thus try to thwart it. Though several heads of delegation from the Permanent Council made cameo appearances at the opening of the meeting, attendance by government delegates was sparse, particularly from countries which limit NGO activities. On the other hand, the theme of the meeting was particularly relevant in light of moves by several participating States, especially Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and other CIS countries to control civil society. Not surprisingly, these delegations are working actively behind the scenes to limit OSCE focus on human rights, particularly questions relating to freedom of association and assembly, bedrock commitments for civil society.
A disturbing trend is the increasing tendency of several of these participating States to assert “interference in internal affairs” — a standard ploy during Soviet times – when their rights violations are raised. While in Vienna, it became apparent that efforts are underway to limit NGO participation in OSCE meetings and to find an alternative to the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the singularly most important opportunity for civil society to engage the participating States and the OSCE. The failure of the Ljubljana and Brussels OSCE Ministerials to adopt proposed texts acknowledging the contribution of civil society and human rights defenders to the Helsinki process – drawn from existing OSCE commitments – clearly illustrates the backsliding of those States that refused to join consensus. Ironically, some participants in the SHDM proposed strengthening commitments on human rights defenders, when the reality is that a number of countries – Russia, Turkmenistan and Belarus among them – would be hard-pressed to agree today to provisions of the Copenhagen Document dating back to 1990! It is incumbent upon those OSCE countries that value the human dimension to resist the push to water down existing commitments or move the discussion of their implementation behind closed doors.