The Gadfly Bytes --
Environment and Human Rights in the Russian Federation
Notes From a Conference
In early November, 2001, I was
invited to participate in a conference on "Environment and Human
Rights in the Russian Federation." It was held at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center in Washington, D. C. The principle sponsors of
the conference were the Center for Democracy (USA) and Center for
Russian Environmental Policy (Moscow). My presentation,
"Just Do It!," may be found at this website.
There were four panels at the conference with a total of thirteen presenters, seven of these from Russian non-governmental environmental and human rights organizations, and two more from the Human Rights Commission of the Russian Federation.
I was one of the four non-Russian presenters.
The following report is composed from notes that I took at the
conference. I have asked and received permission from the Center
for Democracy to post it on this website. Because this report
is presented here strictly at my own initiative and might contain
some inaccuracies, I will make no attributions as I strive to
summarize as best I can, the most significant points of the
discussion. I will also confine my "editorial comments" to the final section.
Presentations by several Russian participants in the conference indicate that in Russia today, there is a radical disconnection between constitutional doctrine and political practice – an inconsistency not unfamiliar to observers of the American political scene.
The letter of the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation should be a source of great satisfaction to environmentalists, for it explicitly proclaims the citizens' "right to a healthy environment" – in particular, rights to an unpolluted environment, to compensation for environmental damages, to environmental information, and to citizens involvement in environmental decisions.
In fact, all these rights are "formally in place, but not practically in effect," as one panelist put it. Another observed, "we have good laws, but they are not supported by the government." Specifically:
Environmental Information: Contrary to Constitutional guarantees, official data on the health effects of environmental pollution are not publicly available. Attempts to secure and publicize environmental information have put several individuals in serious legal difficulty, among them Alexandr Nikitin, Grigory Pasko and Igor Sutyagin. In each of these cases and more, the government has regarded environmental research as "spying," and has thus prosecuted these individuals. (We will have much more to say about these cases shortly).
Compensation: In the few instances when compensation for environmental damages is awarded to injured citizens, all too often it is stolen or pocketed by local officials. In the case of the Chernobyl disaster, compensation awards were bitterly described as "coffin money."
Education: By order of the federal government, environmental education will be excluded from the school curricula. High school students are not taught about their environmental rights, and thus very few are aware of them. In addition, the "environmental militia" – citizen cadres that monitor environmental quality – have been abolished. However, in the Moscow region, the "environmental militia" have been restored.
Citizen Involvement: In May, 2000, President Putin issued a decree which abolished the Environmental Protection Committee and the Forest Service. In response, the Russian environmental NGOs launched a petition campaign to restore these agencies. Despite a collection of over two and a half million signatures, the petition was thrown out by the Federal government. Then, in January, 2001, the NGOs then convened an "All-Russian Special Conference on Human Rights" in Moscow, which apparently had little positive effect on government policies. (See Alexey Yablokov's address to the conference, and the Resolutions of the conference, these links).
Clearly, there is a wide gap between theory and practice of "environmental rights" in Russia.
"Prisoners of conscience:" The collection and publication of unclassified and public information has led to the arrest of several Russian citizens. The most celebrated cases are those of naval officers Alexandr Nikitin and Grigori Pasko. After three years of legal struggle Nikitin was acquitted by Judge Sergei Golets in St. Petersburg, and his acquittal was affirmed by the Federal Supreme Court. Grigori Pasko was less fortunate. Following a dismissal of charges in July, 1999, charges were reinstated, and on December 26 Pasko was convicted of espionage and sentenced to four years of prison, thus renewing a national and international campaign in his behalf.
(Added note: Pasko was eventually paroled
by a civilian court and released
in January 2003). Other imprisoned scholars and activists include Igor Sutyagin, Valentin Danilov, and Vladimir Soifer. (For more information on the human rights violations in Russia, see
and the Bellona Foundation.
Civil Society: Regarding "civil society" – the spontaneous association of citizens into common interest groups – the Russian government apparently just doesn't "get it." During the Soviet era, all associations were directed and/or supervised by the Communist Party. This has proven to be a habit that is difficult to overcome, as the Putin government attempts to build a new civil society "from the top down." Accordingly, "unregistered" non-governmental organizations (NGOs) face harassment and close official scrutiny. NGOs with international scope, such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the Belona Foundation, are looked upon with particular suspicion by the espionage-conscious former KGB functionaries in the Federal Security Bureau. Of course, the only "civil society" worthy of the name arises from the "grass routes" – through spontaneous and voluntary initiative by private citizens. In Russia today, one panelist remarked, "civil society is more of a slogan than a practical reality."
The Media: Alexey Simonov of the Glasnost Protection Foundation reports that "the government monopoly on mass media is moving towards its peak. The vast majority of regional and municipal newspapers have links with local government agencies. .. Printing houses and TV towers belong to the government." As a result, news reporting is selective and biased. For example, Alexandr Nikitin's arrest was widely reported in the media, but not his acquittal. (See Siminov's report,
"Information Security Doctrine," this site).
In General: Despite these difficulties, the situation is vastly improved over conditions in the Soviet Union, and the government might possibly yield to citizen demands and international expressions of outrage.
It was agreed that Alexandr Nitkitin, (who was present at the conference), owed his freedom to international attention and support. Likewise, Grigori Pasko, might yet regain his freedom if international protests in his behalf persist. All conference participants agreed that international awareness and response to environmental and human rights conditions in Russia is crucial, if those conditions are to be improved.
The improvement in human rights in Russia is manifested by the very existence of the NGOs represented at the conference, by the existence of an official government Commission on Human Rights (also represented at the conference), and by the boldness and candor of the written and published expressions of protest to the Russian government. (For example, see the papers by
Simonov, Ernest Cherny, and
NGOs, linked here).
Russian activists are inclined to integrate environmental and human rights issues. This is indicated in the name of a leading Russian federation of NGOs: "The Socio-Ecological Union." American environmental groups, on the other hand, are more inclined to pursue individual issues, one at a time.
The Putin government has decided to cast its lot with the international community, and thus it is sensitive to international opinion. This provides an opportunity for environmental and rights NGOs. (See the commentary, below).
The Russian citizens' human rights demands should involve the United Nations.
The NGOs in Russia need more legal support. In addition, the Russian business community should be encouraged to give greater support to ecological and rights organizations. (Such support is virtually non-existent today).
Human rights victims and prisoners should be identified and supported by name.
Internet resources should be strengthened and expanded. There should be an international a website on ecology and human rights.
Transparency and publicity are the environmentalists' and rights activists most powerful weapons.
Putin is not likely to engage in open political repression, except perhaps, against the environmental movement, which is capable of arousing public opinion – over pollution and health hazards, for example. That movement is also capable of interfering with large-scale financial deals in which the administration or its allies have an interest.
New York Review, 8/9/01
Now as never before there is a historic chance to carry out systemic reforms in Russia. It would be a great mistake not to make use of it.
New York Review, 5/25/00
My response must be "ambidextrous."
On the One Hand, one can only agree with the comment of
an American panelist -- "conditions have improved enormously since the fall
of the Soviet Union."
Of course! During the Soviet regime,
this conference could not take place, for the Russian participants would not
be allowed to attend. Furthermore, the candor exhibited by the
Russians at the conference, and even more by the papers that they
distributed at the conference and in Russia (included at this website), would have earned the authors a trip to
the Gulag, or still worse, a bullet in the head. Now the President of
Russia is convening a meeting of non-governmental organization, and during his
visit to the United States, he proclaimed on National Public Radio that Andrei
Sakharov was a hero who "turned on the light and showed us the way."
On the Other Hand, the conditions in human rights
described by our Russian guests are, albeit improved, still dreadful.
Grigori Pasko is back in prison, as are Igor Sutyagin, Valentin Danilov.
Alexander Nikitin is free, thanks to the persistent and voluminous protests of
his international supporters. The exuberantly free and diverse Russian
press that briefly burst forth with the advent of glasnost, has shrunk
into insignificance as media conglomerates under government control have taken
the center stage. A sizable cadre of KGB alumni, in effective control of
the Federal Security Bureau, just can't seem to get over their bad habits and
learn to trust their fellow citizens. The top KGB alumnus, President
Putin, can't quite stomach the autonomy and unpredictability of an an
authentically free and democratic polity.
And yet, when one listens to and ponders the reflections and
concerns of the Russian participants at this conference, both within and outside
the government, and when one assesses their courage and their commitment, one
cannot despair. As they reported, the letter of the Russian law is on
their side -- guaranteeing human rights including the right to a healthy
environment. And President Putin, as he travels abroad, proclaims that
communism is dead in Russia, and that a new democratic order is emerging.
Though the facts do not support these proclamations, nonetheless the laws and
proclamations are on the record and thus exist as moral and political resources
for the reformers.
As I pointed out in my conference paper, it is not appropriate
for us Americans to rush to the aid of Russia with our mouths open and ears
shut, full of pre-conceived policies and doctrines. There was too much of
that behavior a decade ago. Instead, we should follow the lead of the
Russians in and out of government. And they have made their needs and
objectives very clear to us. Above all, they ask for international publicity
and support. The government of the Russian Federation wishes to join the
community of democratic states, and desires the respect of the members
thereof. Human rights and environmental activists throughout the world
should affirm their desire and hope that Russia will join this community, but at
the same time they must articulate the price that the Russian government must
pay to gain this acceptance and respect. That price will not be paid while
the likes of Pasko, Sutyagin and Danilov are unjustly incarcerated and the
letter of the law guaranteeing human and environmental rights is not enforced.
The West, and the United States in particular, will make a
stronger case for human rights and environmental integrity in Russia as it
exemplifies these values in its own policies. And quite frankly, recent
developments in domestic American policy have only weakened that case.
A final thought: This American citizen looks with much
admiration mixed with envy at the Russian heroes, Where are our Sakharovs,
our Yablokovs, our Nikitins and Paskos? It is true that conditions
in the United States are not as severe as they are in Russia -- no
environmentalists or human rights advocates have been accused or espionage and
put in prison. Not yet. So there is no need for "the
opposition" to exhibit the courage and dedication that we see in the
Russian activists. But if conditions worsen, will we find individuals of
such stature? We can only hope.