EU and Human Rights in Russia

On 13th of April Heidi Hautala, Chairwoman of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, wrote on the website of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev Communications Center about human rights in Russia[:] and related EU policies.The European Parliament emphasizes the need to base the mutual EU-Russia relations on common values, and not just on pragmatic cooperation. In its latest resolution, the Parliament has not used the common notion of “strategic partnership” because there is a growing understanding to the effect that strategic partnership is only possible when the common values, which we share through participation in international human rights organizations and – conventions, are fully implemented by both partners and that with Russia this unfortunately is not possible today.

We must be clear of the fact that Russia continues to suffer from a rollback of freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Human rights defenders, independent civil society organizations, political opponents, independent media and ordinary citizens all continue to be victims of this lack of civil and political rights.

How does this conclusion relate to EU policies concerning Russia and to my work as the Chairwoman of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights?

An important part of the overall EU-Russia dialogue consists of human rights consultations. Human rights consultations and dialogues, with now nearly 40 countries, are meant to be one of the most important tools of the EU to promote human rights and implement its own human rights policy.

The new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, admitted recently that the dialogues do not work as they should. In my view a thorough review is needed. Should common commitment to true dialogue and achieving tangible progress not be established, there are no grounds to continue the discussions in their present form.

Human rights consultations with the Russian Federation have been unsatisfactory from the point of view of the European Parliament. Russia does not agree to discuss the most vital human rights questions with the EU. In EU-Russia Summits e.g. serious restrictions to political rights and fundamental freedoms prevailing in Russia are not discussed in substance. This is also due to the EU authorities who prefer to concentrate on energy cooperation and other pragmatic issues. And as long as the Russian authorities refuse the independent civil society from taking part to the consultations it is simply not realistic to expect tangible, or any results. The talks have lead to no benchmarks or any measurable commitments.

The legal landscape in human rights protection has changed in the European remit. The European Union has recently taken a big step towards making Europe a better place concerning human rights.

The Lisbon treaty has enhanced the ability of the European Union to act internally on human rights and fundamental freedoms. The European Commission has now for the first time a Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. Furthermore the EU’s fundamental rights agency founded in 2007 is now up and running. Both of these facts will improve the safeguarding of human rights and fundamental freedoms within the EU even further. We must always be ready to discuss human rights deficiencies within the EU. Self-criticism and openness are instrumental in any progress.

At the same time the European Union is starting to make arrangements to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights. This shows that the Union is constantly seeking to upgrade its own performance and make improvements on a daily basis.

Naturally the EU expects its closest political partners to do the same. In line with these internal developments, EU should now demand that the Russian Federation will fully implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights now that it has ratified the all-important Protocol 14, which should enable the Court to function better. These are of crucial importance especially as many of the judgments are of extreme severity as they concern violations to right to life.

The Treaty of Lisbon, as outlined in its article 3 and 21, puts the promotion and protection of human rights at the centre of the Union’s external action. In practice this means that the promotion of human rights must be both the basic value and a core objective of the Union’s foreign policy. Within these new post-Lisbon structures, the Subcommittee on Human Rights will do its utmost to help integrate human rights into all EU foreign policies.

The need to protect human rights defenders is close to the heart of us in the European Parliament. I am the author of the European Parliament report on human rights defenders. The proposals of this report, to be adopted in June, aim at protecting human rights defenders worldwide more effectively and they will be highly relevant to the situation in Russia. I am confident that they will be fully used in EU’s attempts to define better policies in this regard.

EU delegations are reminded of their obligations to establish local strategies for the implementation of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, including creating so called “focal points” for human rights at the EU delegations. One must acknowledge that human rights defenders are of manifold nature. They all deserve protection and the protection must be tailored to suit their short and long term needs. We do not simply need to rescue them to safety, we need to enable them to continue their important work. They are our partners and they should be treated accordingly.

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 in Russia were awarded with the prestigious European Parliament Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2009.

Moreover, 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. In addition to this, 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 in support of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees Russian citizens the right to gather peacefully and hold demonstrations. To add to these, the European Parliament joint parliamentary committee with the Russian State Duma has established a working group to deal with human rights and democratization.

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.

The gravest issues concern the abuse of the judicial system to convict human rights activists. The combination of the anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws with their loose formulations give the authorities all the possibilities to interpret it in abusive manner. So do the administrative procedures which are used to harass the civil society.

EU must step up its timid criticism of human rights violations in Russia. Those responsible for murders of human rights defenders must be brought to justice. Impunity for murders and harassment of human rights defenders must stop. Moreover, it is the duty of the EU to demand accountability for human rights violations in the Caucasus, in particular, in Chechnya and Ingushetia.

It seems to me that 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 the EU must give them the full support in these efforts.

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. The Subcommittee will continue to pay close attention to these issues and as the Chairwoman of this committee, I will keep raising especially the issue of the freedom and safety of our courageous colleagues beyond borders.