The discussion focussed on different aspects of Human Rights Commissioner’s work and measures to strengthen the status of this institution.
In particular, Mr Putin and Ms Pamfilova discussed amending the law on the human rights commissioner, measures to streamline the provision of temporary housing to individuals left without housing for various reasons, and the development of a procedure to remove NGOs from the registry of international agents once they stop receiving funding from abroad.
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Russian Human Rights Commissioner Ella Pamfilova: Mr President, I would like to ask you to back the proposed amendments to the Law on the Human Rights Commissioner. This institution has been operating in Russia for 16 years now. Of course, now, given the new threats and rapidly increasing challenges, it is hard to operate within the framework of the law that was passed back in 1997. We have proposed amendments that were very thoroughly worked out with the Presidential Executive Office and are aimed at creating a single state system for protecting citizens’ rights, improving coordination of work with regional commissioners, strengthening their status and improving cooperation.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: So what is missing?
Ella Pamfilova: We are missing the most important element: the candidacy of a regional commissioner should be agreed upon with the federal commissioner, including during its consideration. This will allow for better cooperation and give us a certain level of independence.
Vladimir Putin: The law will create such a system?
Ella Pamfilova: Yes, and there is a whole set of suggestions on how to enhance the status of regional commissioners.
Vladimir Putin: Ok.
Ella Pamfilova: Thank you very much. This was very important.
And I would like to ask for your help on a very acute problem. Right now, I am receiving a large number of appeals from people who have found themselves in a difficult situation in life, who have lost their housing for various reasons: flooding, fires, or sometimes, falling victims to the mortgages. All of a sudden, due to critical factors, people – and sometimes families with kids – find themselves in the street. It is particularly tragic when this happens in winter and when there are children.
In Russia, Article 95 of the Housing Code stipulates the creation of temporary housing, so that people get the opportunity to live through these difficult times even in humble conditions, with minimal social requirements to such housing, while their problem is being resolved, while it is being decided what to do next.
In some regions, this scheme works fairly well; programmes have been developed in Rostov-on-Don and Tomsk. But in most regions, in spite of this article in the Housing Code, there are very serious problems. I feel it is very important. And it is quite advantageous from the economic point of view. But what’s most important is that people must know that they will not find themselves in the street in a difficult situation: in other words, that there is a state system that will help them overcome difficult times.
Vladimir Putin: It seems to me that this norm is in effect practically everywhere.
Ella Pamfilova: Unfortunately, we do not even have statistics (we tried to collect some), there are no technical requirements, there is no division of lines of responsibility – it is unclear who is responsible for the creation and maintenance of the existing temporary housing fund, how to create a new one, using what resources and what mechanisms – there are very many problems.
Vladimir Putin: Do you think this needs to be done at the legislative level or we can develop the existing norms of the law?
Ella Pamfilova: I feel the existing norms should be developed.
Vladimir Putin: Perhaps some sort of Government resolution.
Ella Pamfilova: The Government should be instructed to gather all the information, because we do not even have statistics. I have many complaints – a whole package – and it turns out that there is no system. In some places, the authorities work effectively: there are possibilities, they resolve those problems; but people in any part of Russia should know they won’t be left behind.
Vladimir Putin: Especially if this involves manmade disasters.
Ella Pamfilova: Yes. In other words, we need to forecast and foresee that such situations might occur. Overall, I feel this is important.
Vladimir Putin: Like what just happened in Moscow, the gas accident.
Ella Pamfilova: Yes. The worst thing is when this happens in cold regions, with bitter colds, and when there are kids.
Vladimir Putin: Incidentally, this didn’t involve any kind of accident with high-pressure networks. This was the result of renovations in the next neighbourhood over. It is an entirely local, small-scale situation.
But overall, very well, let’s look into it. We just need to understand the boundaries – who can expect what.
Ella Pamfilova: The sphere of competence.
Regarding what you just said about the accident, I noticed and just launched monitoring on this: the situation concerning citizens’ rights to information about their rights. This is surprising. You see, some time ago, we fought for the ministries and departments to be as transparent as possible, so that they would provide citizens with information on what is happening there and what they are doing, and what citizens can expect, what is being provided by the government. And overall, there was even a kind of revolution. We have the 2009 law on information in effect, the Open Government, and some websites even compete in the rankings: Transparency International, the migration service, a number of other departments.
But there is a paradox: it seems like there is more information, but it has become much harder for an ordinary person to understand it. Most often, this information is either the department’s PR or a wordy information jumble that an ordinary person cannot understand.
What is happening in healthcare? What can a specific person in a specific situation do, in a village or in a city, what are his guarantees for receiving accessible and high-quality medical assistance? There is a lot of conflicting information where people usually find themselves lost, and this becomes a source of great tension and misunderstanding. Things are not working well on the federal level, and there is no cooperation on the local level. Often, Healthcare Ministry officials at the local level provide conflicting information.
The same is true for education. There is a lot of information, but people often do not understand what is happening in education, what their guarantees are, where they will educate their children tomorrow, etc. What is happening in housing and utilities, in the pension system. Unfortunately, we now have a problem with clear, freely available, high-quality, understandable information on what is happening, and this problem is very relevant. In addition to monitoring and surveys, I will prepare a special report for this year.
Vladimir Putin: Then I would like to receive specific suggestions from you what additional measures must be taken to resolve this problem. I think that overall, colleagues in various areas are making a great deal of effort on this. But, apparently, not enough.
You know, I have another question. Our last meeting with the Council for Human Rights. How is the work there going with summarizing the suggestions made and processing the materials?
Ella Pamfilova: We met with human rights activists and developed an instruction plan. Mr President, this is very important. I came across this myself. We send you a letter with the proposal, you sign it and give a very good resolution, but then the departments to which this resolution is addressed say, “No, everything is fine. Things are fine at the Federal Penitentiary Service. No tortures there. Everything is wonderful. We do not need anything.” No need, for example, to reform, to make suggestions, and so on, and so forth. Right now, the Presidential Executive Office has worked out this system, and what’s most important is that the instructions are being worked out and implemented together with the Council. This is an additional monitoring system in order to understand whether everything is really fine within a particular system.
Vladimir Putin: We need to go through on every issue, or at least take it to the point when a decision is made.
Ella Pamfilova: Following up on the conversation we had, Mr President, I would like to return to the law on foreign agents. The existing situation is a conundrum. The Justice Ministry has placed many organisations onto the registry as foreign agents. This law is in effect since 2012. But the system that has been formed does not give an opportunity to get off the registry. For example, an organisation no longer receives funding from abroad, it is not involved in any political activities, but the Justice Ministry explains that there is no procedure to get it off the foreign agents’ registry. This is paradoxical.
Vladimir Putin: They cannot make a decision?
Ella Pamfilova: That’s right. So I have also prepared suggestions and a letter.
Vladimir Putin: But it seems to me that they can challenge this decision by the Justice Ministry in court.
Ella Pamfilova: There are many cases underway.
Thank you. By the way, concerning the Memorial.
Vladimir Putin: I believe we actually have three Memorials?
Ella Pamfilova: They are all independent.
Vladimir Putin: Three organisations.
Ella Pamfilova: Three – a human rights centre, and a historical education society: an international and a Russian one. I hope they will successfully meet all the requirements and work well.
Vladimir Putin: They simply need to abide by the law. I understand that there are some routine things involved.
Ella Pamfilova: Yes, this is very important; after all, human rights activists demand that the authorities abide by the law. So they themselves must certainly comply with the law. I suppose that everything will be fine here. I am asking you to support my suggestion concerning organisations that essentially lose their status…
Vladimir Putin: What do you suggest?
Ella Pamfilova: The Justice Ministry needs to develop an exit procedure, based on existing regulations, and this can be done jointly with human rights activists.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course.
Ella Pamfilova: And making corresponding amendments to the law.
Vladimir Putin: Ms Pamfilova, I fully agree with you.