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Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights reiterates his call to bring Russian NGO legislation in line with European standards

Opinion
Strasbourg 09/07/2015
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Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights reiterates his call to bring Russian NGO legislation in line with European standards

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“Russian NGO legislation falls short of European standards and must be revised to allow human rights defenders and NGOs in Russia to work in an environment conducive to performing their essential role in society,” said today Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks, making public an updated Opinion on the legislation of the Russian Federation on non-commercial organisations. The opinion analyses the legislative amendments introduced since July 2013, the implementation of the so-called Law on Foreign Agents since its adoption and the practical consequences for Russian NGOs. The Commissioner also formulates recommendations to the Russian authorities. This update builds on the previous Opinion published by the Commissioner in 2013 after the entry into force of legal provisions introducing the term ‘foreign agent' and the possibility of applying criminal charges against civil society activists.

As of 29 June 2015, the Ministry of Justice maintained a list of at least 70 NGOs labeled as ‘foreign agents’ for performing activities deemed to be political and receiving foreign funding.  The majority have been added to the register during the last six months. There have been at least 189 cases brought before domestic courts to challenge the foreign agent label. Of those, at least 121 judicial decisions found that the law had been applied correctly, while only some 28 judicial decisions were delivered in favour of the NGOs.  As a result, at least 20 NGOs have already ceased their activity either in full or in part, including through ‘self-liquidation’. “This trend, and the pace with which the authorities label NGOs as ‘foreign agents’, is alarming and can have an immediate and long-term adverse effect on Russian civil society organisations which perform an essential watchdog role,” said Commissioner Muižnieks.

The Commissioner notes with regret that the practice of applying the Law on Foreign Agents has largely confirmed his initial concerns about possible abuse. Moreover, the legislative amendments introduced since July 2013 have amplified the already serious problems related to the lack of legal certainty, arbitrariness and disproportionate sanctions as well as the wide discretionary powers granted to the Prosecutor’s Office and the executive authorities. The absence of prior judicial review of decisions seriously interfering with NGOs’ rights is another key procedural flaw that leaves the affected civil society organisations without effective safeguards. The new provisions have also widened the legal grounds for unplanned or extraordinary inspections of NGOs and introduced further restrictions on conducting many activities of vital public interest. “The current NGO legislation is open to the possibility of misuse as a repressive tool against human rights defenders. Stringent sanctions, including the possibility for NGO managers to face criminal charges, can have a chilling effect on the work of civil society institutions and cultivate self-censorship.”

The Commissioner for Human Rights calls on the authorities to listen to the concerns about the broad and vague character of definitions used in the law expressed by the Russian national human rights structures, and to urgently revise the legislation. “Pending revision, I call on the authorities to suspend any further application of the Law on Foreign Agents and to refrain from imposing any further restrictions on the work of civil society organisations in the Russian Federation.”