GENEVA (13 July 2022) – United Nations human rights experts* today condemned the continued and increased crackdown on civil society groups, human rights defenders and the media by the Russian authorities, and called on the government to end the crackdown on civic space.
“Over the past decade, we have witnessed a decisive and systematic repression of civil society in Russia.” said the experts. “The stigmatization of civil society actors and human rights defenders as ‘foreign agents’, their harassment and imprisonment, the closure of human rights organizations and the severe restrictions to the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association have further contributed to the closing of an already shrinking civic space.
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine, this worrying trend has deteriorated considerably. While thousands came out to peacefully protest the war, more than 16,000 people, including many human rights defenders, were arrested for participating in or covering peaceful protests against the war. Police reportedly used excessive force against protesters and detained human rights defenders, including humiliating and threatening them. Persons providing legal assistance were also reportedly denied access to police stations and courts by law enforcement officials.
More than 60 criminal cases have also reportedly been opened for “fake war news”; and at least seven for “discrediting” and “calling for obstruction” of the use of Russian armed forces”, which have been criminalized under amendments to the criminal code, adopted on March 4, 2022.
“This law and other sweeping restrictions on freedom of expression and association in Russia are being used to silence human rights defenders, journalists and civil society representatives,” the experts said.
Most independent Russian media have shut down to avoid prosecution, or have been blocked along with dozens of foreign outlets. More than 20 media outlets have ceased operations or suspended their work in the country, including the Nobel Peace Prize-winning newspaper Novaya Gazetathe last independent television channel Dojd and radio Echo of Moscow.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are also blocked, and Meta has been designated an extremist and banned organization. Many other companies, including the international tech sector, are pulling out of the Russian market due to legal and reputational risks, without necessarily considering the negative human rights impacts of those left behind. This leaves human rights defenders and civil society organizations with little access to the information and communication infrastructure vital to their work.
“Companies should be human rights aware throughout their operations and try to help Russian human rights defenders and civil society organizations avoid complete isolation,” the experts said. .
Many human rights defenders have fled the country for security reasons, and those who have decided to stay continue to face immense pressure.
On April 8, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Justice confirmed in a statement that it had revoked the registration of 15 Russian subdivisions of foreign organizations, a number of which had humanitarian and human rights programs , on the grounds of alleged violations of national law, without providing further details.
“The revoking of the registrations of these organizations, without a thorough and transparent investigation, is deeply concerning,” the experts said. “By preventing these organizations from operating in the country, Russia further impedes the monitoring of human rights violations and the protection of open and just societies, with full respect for fundamental freedoms.
On June 29, 2022, the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, passed a new law that will make it easier for authorities to label critics as “foreign agents”. Since 2012, Russia has used the designation “foreign agent” to identify individuals and entities suspected of engaging in political activities with foreign funding. The new bill, which still needs to be passed by the upper house and signed into law by the president, contains 18 new prohibitions for “foreign agents” and expands the interpretation of the term. Anyone “under foreign influence” or receiving any support from abroad can now be declared a “foreign agent”.
“We urge the Russian authorities to end these restrictive measures, to respect the rights to freedom of expression and association and to allow civil society actors, human rights defenders and the media to continue to play their crucial role in ensuring accountability and access to information,” the experts said. said.
The experts urged the international community to redouble its efforts to provide support to civil society and Russian journalists in the country and in exile, working for the protection and promotion of human rights. “A conducive environment for all civil society, including human rights defenders and independent media, helps to uphold human rights and strengthen peace and security in the world,” they said. they stated.
Experts have raised these issues with the government and will continue to monitor the situation.
*The specialists : Mrs. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ms. Miriam Estrada-Castillo (Chairman-Rapporteur), Mr Mumba Malila (Vice-president), Ms. Elina Steinerte, Mr. Matthew Gillett and Mrs. Priya Gopalan, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Ms Fernanda Hopenhaym (President), Ms. Elżbieta Karska, Mrs. Anita Ramasastry and Ms. Pichamon Yeophantong (Vice-Chair), Business and Human Rights Working Group; Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and Ms Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression
The Experts are part of what are called the Special procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the United Nations human rights system, is the general name for the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific national situations or issues themes in all regions of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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