Thursday, May 21, 2009

Russia Creates Working Group to Draft Changes to Federal Law Affecting NGOs

In an order released on May 12, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev createda working group to draft changes to Russia's law on non-commercial organizations (NCOs). Approximately 35% of Russian NGOs are registered as NCOs and the rest are registered under different legal forms.  The working group, composed of representatives of the presidential administration, the Ministry of Justice, the Duma and Federation Council, and civil society, is to submit proposals within three weeks of May 8, the date the order took effect.

A coalition including Human Rights Watch and Russian human rights organizations urged the working group to adopt proposed reformsin order to guarantee the right to freedom of association.  "President Medvedev's directive is a first step toward removing the choking restrictions on Russia's NGOs," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The working group has a chance here to make real changes and to end government interference so Russia's civic life can flourish."

At a meeting with the members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights on April 15, Medvedev acknowledged the difficulties faced by NGOs, including restrictions "without sufficient justification," and the fact that many government officials view NGOs as a threat.   At the time, Medvedev stated his willingness to review the law.  Thousands of organizations have been denied registration, liquidated and harassed under Russia's existing NGO law.  NGOs are calling for a reform process that takes their experiences into account in a procedure that is open and consultative.

In his order and public statements, President Medvedev has not committed to specific reforms. Because the effort under way only touches on one subset of NGOs, the working group will not address the regulation of a majority of organizations. Moreover, any reforms that result from the panel's work will not change limitations on foreign grant funding introduced by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2008.

Russia's 2006 NGO law subjects Russian and foreign NGOs to intensive government scrutiny and interference contrary to international standards on freedom of association.  The law grants state officials excessive powers to interfere in the founding and operation of NGOs. Organizations may be denied registration for presenting documents "prepared in an inappropriate manner" or if an organization's activities are considered objectionable. For example, the Ministry of Justice rejected the registration application of the Tyumen-based Rainbow House, whose advocacy for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people was found to undermine the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." Other organizations reported having to submit and resubmit registration documents several times because of minor errors identified by the Ministry of Justice in their founding documents. 

Further, under current law, NGOs can be warned for a wide variety of minor violations, including not filing timely activity reports or errors in founding documents. Two such warnings can result in liquidation, the only presumptive remedy for violations prescribed in the law.  NGOs are also required to submit yearly reports, which combined with audits can take up large amounts of time.   Many NGOs are also vulnerable to being targeted under the 2002 Law on Countering Extremist Activity, which designates certain forms of defamation of public officials as extremist.  NGOs and activists that are outspoken on controversial topics of Russian government policy are frequently targeted under this law.  

 Human Rights Watch, the Moscow Helsinki Group, AGORA, the Youth Human Rights Movement, and the Human Rights Resource Center submitted a list of proposed reforms for the NGO law to the Ministry of Justice in April and to the Presidential Council for Civil Society Organizations and Human Rights in early May.  These proposals are based on four principles for regulating NGOs that spring from Russia's domestic and international human rights obligations: government actions should be lawful; authorities should not interfere with the groups' activities; the authorities should presume that NGOs  operate with good faith; and government action should be transparent, easy to understand, and predictable.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member, adopted a recommendation in 2007 that minimum standards should be respected concerning the creation, management, and the general activities of NGOs. A recent review of Russia's NGO legislation by the Council of Europe's Expert Council on NGO Law, established to evaluate the conformity of member states' NGO laws and practices with Council of Europe standards and European practice, criticized Russia's NGO registration procedure, concluding that it "needs to be seriously simplified and built on straightforward bases."


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