October 24, 2014

Democratic states in need of a new Wallenberg


By Grigori Chvedov and Aage Borchgrevink

Under the pretext of the war in Ukraine, Russia and its neighbouring states are attacking human rights defenders and the media. Democratic states must work to protect those in danger.

At a time were the war that rages in eastern Ukraine brings the relations between Russia and Occidentals back to the bygone pre-Gorbatchev era, an internal struggle between liberal forces and authoritarian regimes makes a bad turn in Russia and several ex-Soviet republics.

In Russia in the North Caucasus, civil activist and blogger Timur Kouachev has recently been found dead after receiving an injection of an unknown substance in the armpit, raising presumptions of murder.

13 months ago, Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, journalist at the 24/7 Internet agency Caucasian Knot, was shot to death at his doorstep. For lack of suspects, authorities have recently closed the inquiry. Many NGOs for Human Rights had to report themselves as “foreign agents” to avoid fines that would lead them to closing, yielding to a procedure reminiscent to the yellow star Jews had to sew on their clothes.

In Azerbaijan, authorities have arrested several Human Rights eminent defenders.  Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist of international renown, was struck by a travel ban. Activists such as Rasul Jafarov, who launched the campaign Sing for Democracy during the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Intiqam Aliyev, Leyla and Arif Yunus, were imprisoned and accused of high treason. On August 21, unidentified people attacked the office of the Resource Center for NGO Development and Democracy in Nakhchivan. Ilqar Nesibov, known defender of Human Rights, who works at the Center, was atrociously beaten. This new wave of repression has not raised eyebrows among international media focused on Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine.

What remains the most disturbing is the lack of strong reaction from the main institutions for Human Rights, such as the Council of Europe (CE). General Secretary, Mr. Thorbjorn Jagland issued a statement of a remarkable weakness, while Azerbaijan continues to preside the Committee of Ministers, which takes the most important decisions of the EC. In Azerbaijan the Council of Europe is failing to protect the values it is supposed to embody.

Many states have detailed the principles of protection for defenders of Human Rights, but their embassies are unable to support them against the new wave of repression.

There are recent examples of defenders on the run, who received absolutely no support from the embassies of Western countries for the simple reason that they were “expecting new ambassadors”. Despite the proclaimed principles, the current protection system seems totally inadequate.

Even if the wave of arrests may be a temporary phenomenon, the real problem is that democratic states should establish a new system of measures if they really intend to support and protect Human Rights. Unfortunately, the work this defenders is becoming more and more dangerous. There are four simple ways to help journalists and local activists in case of an emergency that we would like to propose.

Defenders and their families should obtain multiple entry visas for Europe and North America countries, just in case they need to leave during an emergency. The current visa regime is heavy and does not allow a long-term stay if the applicant has not made several trips to the United States (or Europe).

Embassies require established procedures to evacuate immediately defenders at risk. If Raoul Wallenberg were a diplomat today, how would he act?

Democratic states should support the implementation of scholarships and internships for Human Rights defenders in their universities, research centres and institutions. Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is about to establish a program for professors from the Russian Caucasus universities, which includes courses in Moscow and Oslo. Similar projects facilitate the flow of information, the transfer of skills and can also help solve security problems, if they provide opportunities for long-term scholarships.

Imprisoned Human Rights defenders should also be supported: prisoners may need food, medicine; their families may face financial problems. Memorial, a Russian centre recognized for the defence of Human Rights, recently published a list of 45 political prisoners under detention in Russia, some of which are defenders of Human Rights. The number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan approaches a hundred, according to the list drown up by local defenders (currently in prison too).

With the aim of creating an effective defence mechanism, a procedure for recognition of defenders at risk should be introduced. The major international organizations for Human Rights (Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Frontline, the International Federation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, the Helsinki Network, The Human Rights House Foundation among others) can provide essential information on these cases. Undoubtedly, there should be a procedure planned for these groups so that they can be able to present it, which is actually most often occurring ad hoc.

Lawyer Gao Zhisheng, one of the leading advocates for Human Rights in China, was recently released from prison after three years detained. Gao appears to have suffered a serious injury, he is unable to communicate adequately and it is unclear whether he will ever be able to lead a normal life. To avoid such tragedies from affecting people who risk their lives fighting for the rights of their fellow citizens, democratic states must move from words to deeds.

It’s not complicated. It’s not expensive. This is a correct thing to do. In the memory of the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of lives at the end of the Second World War, the “Raoul Wallenberg procedure” must be created in order to protect Human Rights and journalists in danger.

Grigori Chvedov (Internet Agency Caucasian Knot and editor-in-chef)

Aage Borchgrevink (Advisor at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee)

Translation: Margarita Trovato, IRWF