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Russia: legislation and practice on NGOs should be revised

Opinion on the legislation of the Russian Federation
headline Strasbourg 15/07/2013
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"The legislation regulating NGOs activities in Russia is complex and the excessive discretion in applying it may impede the legitimate exercise of two fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression and association. Law and practice should be simplified and brought in line with the applicable international standards" said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while releasing an Opinion on the legislation of the Russian Federation on non-commercial organisations.

Highlighting the central role that NGOs play in a democratic society, the Commissioner underscores that "NGOs should be able to pursue their public watchdog function in an environment conducive to their work, without undue interference in their internal functioning, unless there are objective reasons for doing so. In many cases the inspections of NGOs did not satisfy these requirements, and were carried out in an unnecessarily intrusive and disproportionate manner." He further stresses that grounds for an NGO's dissolution should be strictly limited to the three recognised by international standards: bankruptcy; long inactivity; and serious misconduct. "Sanctions should be applied only as a last resort, should be proportionate and meet a pressing social need".

Welcoming the recent announcement made by President Putin that the "Law on Foreign Agents" will be amended to better define political activity by NGOs, the Commissioner hopes that such changes will also remove all the other provisions which interfere with the free exercise of the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression, such as the use of the term ‘foreign agent' and the possibility of applying criminal charges for ‘malevolent' non-compliance with the law. "These provisions should be fundamentally revised, if not repealed. The same applies to the new definition of treason following amendments to the Criminal Code enacted in 2012."

The Commissioner highlights the positive role played by human rights structures in Russia in promoting the observance of fundamental rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression, which are essential to a robust civil society. Acknowledging that steps have recently been taken by the Russian authorities to promote the functioning of civil society in Russia, including through financial assistance, the Commissioner urges the government to pursue a genuine dialogue with the representatives of the civil society and human rights structures on the issues outlined in the Opinion. "I stand ready to continue my dialogue with the authorities on these issues and reiterate my readiness to provide any further support."