On 23rd of March, Chairman Hautala sent the following speech to be read in the EIDHR seminar on Human Rights Defenders, held in Moscow in the premises of the EU delegation.
I was very much looking forward to being with you today, I had to stay in Brussels where some unexpected meetings, impossible to avoid, take place just now. I promise to come back to Russia soon.
The European Parliament has emphasized the need to base our mutual EU-Russia relations on common values, and not just on pragmatic cooperation. In fact, in its latest resolution, the Parliament has not used the common notion of ”strategic partnership”. Strategic partnership is only possible when the common values which we share through participation in international organizations and conventions, are fully implemented by both partners. We must of course always be ready to discuss human rights deficiencies within the EU. Self-criticism and openness are instrumental in any progress.
I can assure you that the European Parliament and notably its Subcommittee on Human Rights has never been as active as now with this challenge of Russia. This activity has not been left unnoticed by the authorities of the Russian Federation.
I particularly regret not to be with you since I am just now finalizing a report for the Subcommittee on how the EU can support and protect human rights defenders better. The draft text is available.
Some of the conclusions are that the EU institutions must cooperate much more with each other for the support of human rights defenders. The EU must be more in touch with the civil society, and with international organizations which have mechanisms in the support of human rights defenders. We also call for more efficient visa regimes, and for support for shelter city programmes, just to name a few measures.
A good share of our proposals will oblige the EU delegations abroad to finally and fully implement the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. We keep hearing very different stories from our friends who try to have access to the EU delegations around the world. Some diplomats turn a blind eye on them, in order not to violate their good relations with an authoritarian regime. Some take their responsibility seriously. This must become the standard.
The European Union´s obligations towards human rights defenders are intimately linked with the human rights consultations and dialogues which we now have with nearly 40 countries. Some of these have got more attention, because they show that the dialogues can turn into a dead letter, a justification for continuing to deal with states despite that these deny human rights from their own citizens.
It is no secret that one of the HR consultations that we in the Subcommittee devote more than an average attention to, are those held two times a year with the Russian Federation. I have taken note of the efforts of the EU delegation here in Moscow to try to improve them. They have our full support.
One of the issues I keep raising with the Russian authorities is that it is simply not any more acceptable that they persistently refuse all participation of the civil society in the consultations. I am looking forward to hearing from you if it is of any help that now for the first time the informal civil society talks have been held here in Russia, and not in the capital of the EU presidency country, as last time in November in Stockholm.
Many improvements needed for a more efficient protection of human rights defenders are centered around the need for the EU delegations to establish local strategies, including focal points for human rights and in particular for human rights defenders.
When I was in Russia in December, I went to Yekaterinburg to a prison, and my impression was that it was a good experience for our officials to make such a field visit with me. I wanted to see two young persons who have been convicted – in my view – on the grounds of their political views and normal activities. I could not meet with Alexey Sokolov, as he had been transferred to a prison outside Yekaterinburg. I was able to meet with Alexey Nikiforov – though only in the warm offices of the prison director. I consider his case very significant as he is to my knowledge the first person convicted to a prison sentence on the grounds of the anti-extremism legislation. I keep corresponding with the lawyer of the two prisoners and with the authorities of the Sverdlovsk region about these cases.
Let me point out that I think one of the most important human rights movements in the Russian Federation would be for the humanization of prison conditions. The torture must stop. I am aware that some human rights activists and organizations want to work on that, and we must give them our full support.
I would still like to turn back to the EU-Russia human rights consultations. The Russian Federation must accept that the EU is not just sitting with the Russian foreign ministry on the other side of the table. Some of the most crucial subjects are in the hands of the ministries of interior and justice, of the prosecutor´s office etc.
Speaking on the situation of human rights defenders in Russia today the most grave issues deal with the abuse of the judicial system to convict human rights activists. The combination of the anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws with their open-ended formulations give the authorities all the possibilities to do so. So do the administrative procedures which are used to harrass the civil society. I have followed at a close distance the developments in Nizhnyi Novgorod, a place I really want to visit next.
The European Parliament is trying to support Russian human rights defenders as it best can. It was not by chance that Memorial and other human rights defenders were awarded with the prestigious Sakharov Prize. The winners of this prize are in our permanent attention. Even after many years we keep hearing that the Prize has been a protection to human rights defenders working under the most harsh conditions. The prevailing impunity towards the perpetrators of murders of human rights defenders is a constant subject in our resolutions and letters to the authorities of the Russian Federation. The President of the Parliament, Jerzy Buzek has regularly condemned the arrest of peaceful activists, in the demonstrations of the 31st day of the month. The EP joint parliamentary committee with the Russian State Duma has established a working group to deal with human rights and democratization. And so on.
The fact however is that the real place of human rights in EU-Russia relations remains at a low level. Business as usual prevails when the top leaders meet and agree.The European Union member states also sadly disagree on the priorities. Through the Lisbon Treaty there is a historic momentum to bring unity to the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy. The Parliament will be more incorporated into it. Our Subcommittee on Human Rights is an important interlocutor between the Russian civil society and other EU institutions. We must work more together to develop common strategies which aim at bringing human rights and democratization to the core of the EU-Russia relations. And we have unexpected partners if we do our job properly: the business community cannot operate in Russia without a functioning rule of law. Its representatives must ask if President Medvedev means what he speaks with his calls for reforms of the judiciary and other steps towards democracy.
I am far too well aware of the tensions and divisions within the Russian civil society and the human rights community. Often one ends up discussing who is a real human rights defender, and who is not. I believe that one must accept the widest possible definition.
Those who campaign for the fundamental political rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech are laying the foundation for the respect of other human rights. Those who call for political competition and the recognition of the role of a real opposition are also preparing the country for the respect of human rights.
Let me point out here that one of the most important subjects to campaign for in Russia should be for the Right to Know, that is, for freedom of information. The right of everyone to know is fundamental for the accountability of those who have the power. There can be no freedom of expression without the right to know.
AlI in all, one must acknowledge that human rights defenders are of manifold nature. They all deserve protection. One can take note of a dangerous tendency e.g. within the United Nations Human Rights Council: to narrow down the definition of human rights defender, in order to deprive some of them of the protection.
and please allow me now to speak even more in my private activist capacity than as the Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights. I have discussed the following idea intensely with friends in Russia and within the EU. I am convinced that the time has come to establish an independent EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Some successful projects to this direction have been implemented, and I am happy to say, the least not in Finland (“Finrosforum”). The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum which I have in mind, would serve as a permanent forum for deliberations on human rights and democratization.It would, among other tasks, follow closely the more official human rights consultations between the state parties, make them more visible and comment them.The Forum should be truly independent. This is not in contradiction with the possibility to search for financing from both private foundations and public sources.
I believe that the EIDHR, the European financing instrument for Democratization and Human Rights has for the main part served its purpose fairly well but it can still be improved. The EIDHR is the baby of the European Parliaments and it has our full attention.
I mentioned the EP report on human rights defenders. It will be adopted in the plenary session in June, with the participation of the new High Representative of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton. She particularly wishes to be present. This is a good sign.
With the view to our new post-Lisbon structures, the Subcommittee on Human Rights is doing its utmost to integrate human rights into all EU foreign policies. Today, as the High Representative will explain to the Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels how the work is proceeding, I will again remind her about her obligations.
I look forward to seeing you as soon as possible.