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Dublin: 21 °C Tuesday 22 July, 2014

Column: The struggle for human rights in Russia won’t end with the Winter Olympics

The abuse of minorities and their defenders in Russia affects gay people but also Roma, immigrant workers and other ethnic communities. Let’s not forget about them, writes Stefania Kulaeva.

Stefania Kulaeva

AT THE TIME of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi it is important to remember the human rights abuse of minorities and their defenders in Russia. This is a question for gay people but also for Roma, immigrant workers and members of other ethnic communities.

In a recent interview, the Mayor of Sochi, Anatoly Pakhomov, showed his intolerant and ignorant attitude to minorities, declaring that there are “no gay people in Sochi”. However the representatives of the gay community in Sochi published their immediate and negative response and invited the mayor to the gay club in Sochi – probably the biggest and most well-known gay club in the region.

My colleagues and I in the Anti Discrimination Centre “Memorial” (ADC Memorial) are based in St Petersburg, and being very far away from Sochi (more than 2,000 km) don’t work too much in that region. However there are things that we have had to react to. Since 2009 we’ve been trying to raise questions about a recent xenophobic statement made by Pakhomov, who had publicly given an order to cleanse the city of gypsies and homeless people. The mayor said that the presence of gypsies didn’t look good in the Olympic city and that the only way to get rid of them was to force them to work 24 hours a day on Olympic building projects. Police in the city were told to implement this plan.

The authorities of Sochi have also been criticised by a number of human rights organisations for the illegal exploitation of migrant workers, who had to carry out most of the hard work of the ambitious Olympic project, but who were often not even paid for their labour.

Anti-discrimination work

ADC Memorial specialises in anti-discrimination work and we often share the risks and challenges of those people – Roma, migrants, LGBT activists and women and girls from the north Caucasus, whose rights we try to protect. ADC Memorial is one of those NGOs that faces political persecution by the Prosecutor’s office of the Russian Federation within the framework of the new legislation, the so-called Foreign Agents law, which obliges the most independent NGOs – those who protect human rights and get their funding, not from the Russian Government, but from International funders – to register as “foreign agents” (meaning those who implement the policy of the foreign states and harm the interests of Russia). Not one NGO has agreed to label itself with this false and insulting name, even though this might lead to a criminal prosecution under the new law.

ADC Memorial was one of the first Russian NGOs, identified by the court as functioning as an NGO performing the tasks of a “foreign agent” and therewith obliged to register itself as such. The only basis for such an accusation was the fact that ADC Memorial had submitted a shadow report to the United Nations Committee against Torture in 2012 to raise awareness about police abuse of Roma, migrants and activists (especially LGBT activists).

The court decision against ADC Memorial, although under appeal and therefore not yet in force, resulted in the isolation of the organisation from its partners and clients, who were officially warned against working with a “foreign agent”. In December 2013,  just two days after the judgement on our case, a conference on the issue of Roma children in the school system in Novgorod province was ruined even though it had been planned well in advance. None of the participants showed up because they were afraid of working with an NGO which had been labelled a “foreign agent”.

The next incident happened in January 2014. ADC Memorial provided evidence of the segregation of Roma children in some Russian schools to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the CRC raised this issue with the Russian delegation to the Committee, with the recommendation that the Russian state inspect such schools and ban any discrimination against Roma pupils.

The longterm struggle for human rights in Russia

The specific case raised was that of a school in Leningrad province where Roma children study in a separate building and get almost no real education, while the non-Roma pupils enjoy a normal school building and the standard lessons in every subject. The official reaction followed very quickly – but instead of improving the schooling for Roma children, the local authorities threatened their parents that their homes would be demolished if they did not stop giving information to a “foreign agent NGO”.

Some other well-known and internationally respected human rights NGOs, including a few LBGT -rights NGOs, face the same problems and have to choose to close down, instead of registering themselves as a “foreign agent-NGO”.

The work to end discrimination against minorities is not just an issue to be highlighted during the Winter Olympics. It is part of the longterm struggle for human rights in Russia and requires the state to engage constructively rather than, as at the moment, making the situation worse.

Stefania Kulaeva is in Dublin to launch a new campaign organised by Front Line Defenders
to highlight the escalating human rights crisis in Russia and Central Asia – Risks Rights Change – see sportshrd.org for more information on the campaign.

Read: Putin signs law forcing some Russian NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’

Column: As the Winter Olympics kick off in Russia, let’s consider oppression in all its forms

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