Russia: UN experts condemn civil society shutdown

GENEVA (13 July 2022) – UN human rights experts* today condemned the continued and heightened crackdown on civil society groups, human rights defenders and media outlets by Russian authorities, and called on the Government to stop the clampdown on civic space.

“Over the past decade, we have witnessed a decisive and systematic clampdown on civil society in Russia.” the experts said. “The stigmatisation of civil society actors and human rights defenders as ‘foreign agents’, their harassment and imprisonment, shutdowns of human rights organisations, and severe restrictions on the freedoms of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association have further contributed to the closing of an already shrinking civic space.”

Since the outset of the invasion of Ukraine, this disturbing trend has deteriorated dramatically. As thousands came out to protest peacefully against the war, over 16,000 people, including many human rights defenders, have been detained for participating in or covering peaceful anti-war protests. The police have reportedly used excessive force against detained protesters and human rights defenders, including humiliating and threatening them. Those providing legal assistance have allegedly also been denied access to police stations and courts by law enforcement officials.

Over 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 the Russian armed forces’, which were criminalized under amendments to the Criminal Code, adopted on 4 March 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 outlets have closed down to avoid prosecution, or have been blocked along with dozens of foreign media. Over 20 media outlets stopped operating or suspended their work in the country, including the Nobel Peace Prize winning newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the last independent TV channel Dozhd and radio station Echo of Moscow.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are also blocked, and Meta has been designated an extremist organisation and banned. Many other companies, including the international technology sector, are withdrawing from the Russian market due to reputational and legal risks, without necessarily taking into account the negative impacts on human rights of people left behind. This leaves human rights defenders and civil society organizations with little access to the information and communication infrastructure vital for their work.

“Businesses should be mindful of human rights 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 due to safety concerns, and those who have decided to stay continue to face immense pressure.

On 8 April 2022, Russia’s justice ministry confirmed in a statement that it had revoked the registration of the 15 Russian subdivisions of foreign organisations, a number of which had human rights and humanitarian programmes, on the grounds of alleged violations of national legislation, without providing further details.

“Revoking the registrations of these organisations, without a thorough and transparent investigation, is deeply concerning,” the experts said. “By preventing these organisations from operating in the country, Russia is further hindering the monitoring of human rights violations and the protection of open and just societies, with full respect for fundamental freedoms.”

On 29 June 2022, the lower house of the 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 ‘foreign agent’ designation to identify individuals and entities believed to be engaged in political activities with foreign funding. The new bill, which still needs to be adopted 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 kind of support from abroad, can now be declared a ‘foreign agent’.

“We urge the Russian authorities to halt such restrictive measures, respect the rights to freedom of expression and association, and allow civil society actors, human rights defenders and media outlets to continue their crucial role in ensuring accountability and access to information,” the experts said.

The experts urged the international community to redouble their efforts to lend support to Russian civil society and journalists in the country and in exile, working for the protection and promotion of human rights. “An enabling environment for all civil society, including human rights defenders, and independent media helps to uphold human rights and strengthen peace and security worldwide,” they said.

The experts raised these issues with the Government and will continue to monitor the situation.


*The experts: Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ms. Miriam Estrada-Castillo (Chair-Rapporteur), Mr. Mumba Malila (Vice-Chair), Ms. Elina Steinerte, Mr. Matthew Gillett and Ms. Priya Gopalan, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Ms. Fernanda Hopenhaym (Chairperson), Ms. Elżbieta Karska, Ms. Anita Ramasastry and Ms. Pichamon Yeophantong (Vice-Chairperson), Working Group on Business and Human Rights; 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