Civil society’s role in promoting interethnic and interreligious harmony, as well as in combating terrorism and extremism were the subjects of discussion.
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Excerpts from speech at a meeting of the Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights
President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon, colleagues,
As agreed earlier, this meeting is taking place in the North Caucasus Federal District. Considering all our current efforts and challenges, I believe this location is well suited to a discussion of the civil society’s role in maintaining ethnic harmony and in the prevention of extremism.
There is another issue that is highly relevant for our country: the harmonisation of interethnic relations. I raised this topic in Ufa recently and discussed it with religious leaders. Today I would like to talk about this matter with you.
I think there are several important aspects here. We must adopt a complex approach in our efforts related to interethnic relations.
Legislative measures are a major theme, including imposing restrictions on holding public office for individuals who have previous convictions for extremist crimes.
Another issue is information. We are doing our utmost at present to ensure that every ethnic minority has its own media outlets, websites and other resources that every nation should have.
The third aspect is personnel. This includes equal access to municipal jobs and non-discrimination on ethnic grounds. We have a problem with that. I am referring to the situation in general, not in any single republic or region, be it in the Caucasus, or in the central area, or in Moscow.
The fourth issue is history. That is also an important topic, because any interpretations that engender negative stereotypes about a particular nation are absolutely inadmissible and dangerous, and can lead to enormous problems.
We could also talk about the situation in the Caucasus in general, as we had planned to. Naturally, we can do it in the context of specific republics. That's why I thought it would be appropriate to meet in one of the North Caucasus republics, which have their own achievements and difficulties.
Another matter: at the previous Council meeting we agreed to review the implementation of my instructions. There are quite a lot of them, several dozen instructions in total. Concrete decisions have already been adopted on some of them, while work is ongoing on the others. No doubt, you will have some questions about this, what has been done and what hasn’t. Nevertheless, I believe that we have achieved success in some areas, in part as a result of the Council members’ initiatives.
In May, a law was passed amending the legislation on children's rights, including the right to communicate with parents in the event of the parents being separated. This is what we have discussed.
On the basis of another initiative put forward by the Council and some Council members, the draft federal law on the basics of health protection has been adopted, which also included the rules for granting one parent the right to remain with a child in hospital during the period of treatment.
At a meeting in Yekaterinburg we discussed the topic of setting up public councils under the Interior Ministry and other agencies. I signed a relevant executive order in May.
There were some other points we have focused on, including a positive decision on payments to World War II veterans who live in Latvia. But I am sure there is a great deal more to be done and great many issues to discuss, which you will raise in your characteristically open manner today.
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First of all, thank you, colleagues, for preparing these important documents and coming here to Nalchik to discuss them. I think this is useful for our country and useful for me.
Of course we are reflecting on how to make our cooperation even more effective. Many of you noted that this or that instruction has not been carried out yet, but I think that despite the problems that still remain, there are some very positive examples too. In any case, practically all of the appeals sent to me are looked into in one way or the other, and this in itself is a good thing in that it gives the civil servants a better picture of what is actually going on, and also of course, helps to resolve some of the biggest problems.
This does not mean, though, that we have already found the optimum and ideal cooperation mechanism in this area. Of course it is neither optimum nor ideal. I agree with you completely here, and if you think that you should be more actively involved in this work, and say that we meet only once every few months, once every six months, say, and then everything comes to a halt again, this suggests that improvements probably are needed.
The Presidential Executive Office is open to cooperation, and no one has ever refused to meet or discuss different issues. If you firmly believe that such and such an issue absolutely needs discussion, my only advice is that you should be more determined in pressing the matter. If it really is an issue over and above the ordinary, I can even meet with some of you. We have a huge number of various problems in our life of course, but the issues you deal with are some of the most complicated of all, and so it is only natural that we should have the possibility of meeting and discussing these things.
I want to respond to some of the points raised. First of all, I will look through all of the documents I have received again, and give instructions accordingly. I have already issued instructions on some issues, and some others I will examine once again. Second, I am willing to come back to the issue of adopting a federal law on public control.
The only thing is, I would not want this law to just be a collection of fine intentions. We already have enough such laws, and they are largely worthless. This law, if passed, must be a law that works. The problem here is not one of civil servants and state authorities not wanting to work with the public; it is also a question of formulation and setting everything out as a law.
I am not sure what the current proposals look like, but I am willing to examine what has been done so far in this area. As I say, this must be a genuinely functioning law otherwise it would make no sense.
Turning now to the subject that is one of the main reasons for us being here today, preventing terrorism and extremism, I listened carefully to what you all said. Some of you were very critical, and many of the things you spoke about at the very least show that we do have problems, big problems too. One of the problems is to ensure respect for the law during terrorism prevention work. I hope that you do realise, however, that your task is primarily to help people and guarantee human rights, but the task of those fighting terrorism is somewhat different.
But to support a ‘tally of corpses’, as one of you put it, would be a road to nowhere. Of course, when we are talking about fighting terrorism, fighting the crimes committed, right on the front line, as it were, all kinds of outcomes are possible, including lethal outcomes, with terrorists being killed. But this is not what we should be aiming for. This idea of ‘an eye for an eye’, and this notion that after any terrorist attack (and unfortunately, they have happened and still can) we will simply liquidate the terrorists, and the more the better, is a thing of the past now.
We cannot simply kill all those who spread the seeds of terror, but need to try to educate them and return them to our society. This is the hardest task of all, because this is always a question of choice, a question of the responsibility they bear in the eyes of the law for the acts they have committed, and also a question of the tact and desire with which the various regional heads are willing to pursue this work. It is far from guaranteed that these efforts will score them any political points. Indeed, the opposite is possible, because people will say, ‘they took up arms to fight against people, fight against the lawful authorities, and now you are letting them return to our midst?’ And so this is a question of choice.
At the same time, I certainly do not want to see this whole issue turned on its head, because my position is that it is our law enforcement agencies who are fighting criminals, and not that our law enforcements agencies are full of criminals who are doing nothing but stopping Russia’s people from living a normal life. We would lose our law enforcement system altogether if we all started thinking this way. Yes, they are human beings and they have their faults, just as do the regional governors. But we all have to understand just what a sensitive issue this is, otherwise we could end up going too far. I think this is very important.
On the question of consultative councils attached to the regional governors that could do something to facilitate civil society cooperation on this issue, I think this is a potentially useful idea and I would support it, all the more so as I have already asked the regional governors to set up special councils that include representatives of the law enforcement agencies. I believe that our regional heads could certainly set up these kinds of consultative bodies.
Whatever the case, it is obvious that the people on these councils should be not those who speak soothing words to the authorities, but those who, first, are actually working on these issues, and second, hold these matters genuinely close to their hearts.
On the question of changing the laws on family matters and children’s affairs, I listened to all of your remarks, and I can say straight out that I do not agree with everything you propose. This is my choice, not because I think your proposals are harmful, but simply because our views differ on some of these issues. For example, I do not think we need to establish an agency dedicated specifically to children’s and family affairs. The more bureaucratic agencies we set up, the worse things get. If you set up a whole new ministry, you can consider the entire efforts doomed from the start. And this is even more true when we are dealing with such sensitive issues.
Yes, of course we want human rights protection activity. We need the children’s rights commissioner and the human rights ombudsman, this council too, and all the other organisations that are selflessly helping us in this work. I visited St Petersburg recently and met there with people from the NGOs helping sick children. This was not a discussion for the faint of heart, but it was a useful discussion, and for me, and probably for them too. And so I think that rather than putting our effort into setting up new bureaucratic organisations, we should concentrate on strengthening the human rights component we already have, and develop the NGOs working in this area, especially those with a social focus.
On the matter of economic crimes, you no doubt have heard what I had to say about the investment climate. I think it is very problematic, and I do not want excessively stringent responsibility for the various economic actors to end up affecting the investment climate. But I do not agree with people who say that we have not done anything to change the situation. I say this if only because I, for one, have certainly been trying to change things. You know very well that our Criminal Code was always excessively repressive. This was true during the Soviet years and in the post-Soviet period too. I am trying to do something about this, and I can tell you for sure that I am putting more effort into this than Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin put together. This is not to suggest they did anything they should not have, but simply, I am addressing this issue, and they did not.
This does not mean that everything has been done now, and that an amnesty is not possible. Amnesties, of course, are something that come under the State Duma’s powers, although ultimately, the decision to grant an amnesty is a reflection of the authorities’ policy overall. We should look at which categories an amnesty would apply to. But there is absolutely no ignoring that our criminal law, after decades of inertia, is finally changing and advancing. My hope is simply that you will all do more to help me in this work, help me with your advice and the positions you take.
You have raised the issue of Magnitsky’s case. I will just briefly say on this matter that I already instructed the investigators and the Prosecutor General’s Office to gather all the evidence related to this case and go through it all once more. I have also sent your document out to these bodies.
There is one thing that worries me. The Magnitsky affair is a tragic case of course because a person lost his life. Judging from all of the evidence, what we could call criminal actions do seem to be involved, because at the very least we have something that should not have happened: people should not die in prison, because if they are ill, they should be released from prison for treatment, and then have the court decide their fate later. But I would not want the problem of the large number of people sitting in our prisons, not always justly and deservedly, to be reduced to this one case alone. The thing is, I get the impression at times that there are only two problems in our country worthy of the attention of human rights activists, the prosecutors, and ultimately the president too – the Magnitsky affair, and the Khodorkovsky affair. These are big and serious cases of course, but I think we are to see deeper at the same time.
By the same token, our environmental problems do not boil down to the Khimki Forest alone. I have visited a number of places where the situation is frankly dire. If you take a number of our Siberian regions, for example, there is no life out there and there are masses of environmental problems that have built up. But we don’t hear a peep about this. Instead, we hear everyone talking about just this one issue of the Khimki Forest.
I would like you therefore to give all of these matters a bit more attention.
Regarding the law on the police force, it is good that you brought this matter to my attention, because I did not know that the laws drafted and submitted by the president do not go through the anti-corruption expert evaluation procedure first. I think that all laws should go through this procedure. We can make the required changes here. This is easy to do. It is a different problem that these evaluations do not always identify all the problems, but it is better to have them than not to have them, because they at least make it possible to identify and deal with some of the problems. I am ready to look into the problems you think exist in the Law On the Police Force. Moreover, I made it clear from the start that this is not an ideal law. It is a law that we passed in order to carry our reform in our Interior Ministry and police system. We must look into what can be changed and improved. Indeed, I imagine that we will continue to find yet more examples of things in the law that do not work quite as we hoped.
On the subject of extremism, its nature, and the legal side of the whole matter, there are also things to think about here, issues that you raised. Extremism, after all, is not about a way of thinking, but about action. If we broaden the concept beyond actual action, we would end up with serious consequences. But at the same time, we have laws in place now, and we are to respect them while they are in force. Nevertheless, if there are things that require changing, changes can be made.
I believe in general that the canons are important of course, but there are things that change and develop, and our thinking changes and develops too. People spent a long time convincing me, for example, not to abolish criminal liability for what was termed ‘smuggling of goods’. Dating from back in the Soviet times, undeclared goods of any sort brought across the border was seen as a crime. This is not the case elsewhere in the world, where people can be charged only with violating customs rules in such cases, or for traffic of restricted or non-civilian goods, for example. Not so here, where it applies to socks, keys, watches, whatever you want. I quote this example because it was one of the stereotypes, but never mind, we changed it, and we are examining the draft law now.
The same goes for a number of the other solidly established conventions still in place. For example, people can still be charged with slander and defamation under our criminal law. But do we need these provisions? I don’t think so. These are not the kind of actions that should be punished in the severest way, in other words, through the criminal law. But when I was working on the draft law that would change this, people said to me, ‘but what if someone slanders another person, are you going to deprive them of the chance to call their attacker to account under the criminal law?’ In short, there are plenty of these stereotypes as far as our laws are concerned, and this applies to our criminal law, our criminal-procedure law, the legislation on the legislative process itself, and other types of legislation.
I want this kind of work, meetings such as this today, to continue in targeted fashion, because you discuss all these issues not just with me, I hope, but also with my colleagues during trips such as this. This is important for the situation in the Caucasus, and in the country in general. Perhaps we could hold the council’s next meeting in one of the places where the environmental situation is most serious, but not in the Khimki Forest. I can show you hundreds of places on the map where you endanger your health just by going there.
This is something that needs the broader attention of the various environmental organisations. I met with environmentalists recently, and this was a useful meeting too. I think this could be a good thing for our council to do. I want to thank you all sincerely for your work. Instructions will be coming.