By Thomas M. Callahan
Earlier this year, as the Russian parliament was discussing a draft law restricting the operations on Russian territory of so-called “undesirable organizations,” I speculated that the bill would probably not pass the legislature in my Note for the Fordham International Law Journal, which focused on legislative restraints to foreign influence in Russia. In a section on provisions under review in Parliament, I included a brief discussion of the bill to illustrate some of the kookier ideas being debated in the Russian legislature.
It passed, though, and was signed into law by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin just as my Note went to publication at the end of May. By the end of this summer, I had met and spoken with enough lawyers and other human rights workers in Moscow and across Russia to know that the law is having serious consequences: many reputable Russian human rights attorneys at a range of organizations, both international and domestic, told me that, essentially, the jig is up, and they’re on the market for private sector work. In recent weeks, I’ve started seeing more posts on Facebook than usual about fleeing the country.
SETTING THE GROUDWORK
Technically, the Law on Undesirable Organizations is doing exactly what it’s supposed to. But it didn’t come out of nowhere: in summer 2012, Russia had adopted the Law on Foreign Agents, a similar set of provisions dealing exclusively with domestic organizations. The Law on Foreign Agents, among other things, required some non-profits receiving operational funding from outside Russia – as human rights organizations there nearly universally do – to register with the federal government and advertise their status as “foreign agents.” In colloquial Russian, the term “foreign agent” is equivalent with “spy.” These groups are also subject to random audits that often function as raids on records and also equipment like computers.
The organizations that are required to register are those engaged in “political activity,” a term whose definition Russian courts have yet to categorically decide. But, generally, any project with an element of advocacy for policy change can constitute “political activity.” And if the advocacy is for a change to Russia’s policy on Crimea, it could constitute a “threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation,” an extremist crime. Many small, politically inconsequential human rights groups, who are doing extremely brave and crucial work, are now listed as “foreign agents.” These groups must now disclose that they are a “foreign agent” on the front page of their website and any of their publications. The Law on Foreign Agents is a great facilitator of self censorship: the heads of multiple Russian human rights organizations have told me that they would prefer to fold their organization instead of paying the massive fines that come with continued operation of an unregistered “foreign agent” group, or the legal fees of appealing the determination. By February of 2015, numerous groups had chosen to shut down instead of continuing to operate with a “foreign agent” status. Furthermore, there is no due process in how organizations are identified or registered as “foreign agents.” The Ministry of Justice can add an organization to the register of “foreign agent” groups, technically, without having to actually notify the organization.
While the Law on Foreign Agents creates a more hostile environment for Russian human rights workers, it has very little practical impact, other than making Russian human rights workers a little more uncomfortable in an already inhospitable environment. More importantly, it does not cut off funding. This is where the Law on Undesirable Organizations comes in.
A STRANGLEHOLD ON CIVIL SOCIETY
The Law on Undesirable Organizations is actually a set of amendments to various Russian laws, including Russia’s Criminal, Criminal Procedural, and Administrative Codes; the Law on Procedure for Exit from and Entry to the Russian Federation; and the Law on Measures Against Persons Involved in Violations of the Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms of Citizens of the Russian Federation (usually called the Rights and Freedoms Law). .
The main feature of the Law is that it gives officials the power to deem certain non-Russian and international organizations “undesirable.” These organizations will then have their activities limited or banned in Russia, and their assets can be frozen. It was hotly discussed in the months leading up to its passage, primarily in Russia’s community of human rights workers, which I joined in 2010. The law establishes that the activities of non-Russian or international non-governmental organization that represent a “threat to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the country’s defense, or the security of the State,” may be kicked out of the country.
Thus far, only the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an American grant making organization working for “democracy promotion,” has been labeled as an undesirable organization. Since NED’s funding supported a variety of Russian civil society and human rights groups, this ban from operating in Russia could have serious consequences.
Under the new law, “undesirable” organizations in Russia are subjected to the following:
- A ban on opening new offices in Russia
- A ban on the dissemination of information by publication, including through the media, or Internet, and on the production or storage of such publications with the intent to disseminate.
- Placement on a financial blacklist, after which Russian financial and credit institutions are barred from transacting with the organization
- A bar on entry to the Russian Federation for non-nationals who “participate” in the activities of “undesirable” organizations
Unfortunately, from an international legal perspective, the Law on Undesirable Organizations is probably perfectly legal on its face. What government should be barred from restricting the operations of foreign groups working to change the political and social contours of its society? The law itself invokes state security and threats to social order and public health as impetuses for its creation. But in practice, the law is just another blunt weapon for use in the Russian government’s assault on civil society in general and human rights in particular.
In its March 2015 review of Russia’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee was clear about the potential for misuse and abuse in the Law on Foreign Agents. It called on Russia to amend the law to clarify its language, and recommended removal of the term “foreign agent” entirely. The Committee and other international organizations and advocates must similarly criticize the Law on Undesirable Organizations, which invokes a cynical and twisted version of sovereignty in a bid to intimidate, starve, and ultimately banish the groups that bravely report on the various human rights violations that have become a standard feature of life in Russia today.
Thomas Callahan was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. He interned with an international human rights organization in Russia.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo Credit: jaime.silva/Creative Commons