Excerpts from transcript of the meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights
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President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon, colleagues,
We have a tradition to hold our meetings in one of the regions. I think this is useful because our country’s development, the development of civil society and human rights is not limited to Moscow and Moscow-based institutions but exist in all regions across Russia. I think it is beneficial to vary the venue of our meetings and I hope that today we will have a frank and productive discussion, mainly devoted to environmental issues.
The right to a clean environment is a fundamental human right, and creating such an environment is our shared task. The state cannot tackle it without the support of civil society; therefore, it is essential to launch a dialogue on this complicated issue between the Government on the one hand, and the business community and public organisations on the other. Present here today are members of the Presidential Council, experts in the field of environmental protection and representatives of relevant non-governmental organisations. I would like us to exchange opinions on what has been achieved in this area in recent years and what still remains to be done.
I have raised this subject several times at meetings of the State Council Presidium and the Security Council; we held a special meeting of the Presidential Commission for Modernisation and Technological Development of Russia’s Economy, and in June of last year we devoted a month to a series of meetings, events and conferences on environmental issues. I hope that the situation has improved since then.
The issues discussed at the time were included in the list of my instructions following a State Council Presidium meeting. At the time we talked about a need for amendments to environmental legislation, the ratification of the Aarhus Convention and the Espoo Convention. Draft laws on the ratification of these conventions will soon be submitted to the State Duma. At the very least, these are tangible results of our cooperation.
”The right to a clean environment is a fundamental human right, and creating such an environment is our shared task. The state cannot tackle it without the support of civil society.“
As part of implementing these and certain other instructions, the Government submitted to the State Duma a package of five draft laws aimed at creating modern economic incentives, the introduction of green technologies and recycling technologies and improving the efficiency of state environmental monitoring – the latter has already come into force; the draft framework for the Russian state policy on environmental development until 2030 is nearly ready and is currently going through approval procedure.
I will also note that the draft federal law on protecting the seas from oil pollution has been adopted in the first reading, but the parties concerned are not entirely satisfied with it, as far as I was informed. Let's discuss what amendments could be made to this law.
I would like to hear from you how effective you believe the decisions adopted so far have been, whether you believe there is a change for the better, and if not, then what is the reason for that (although the situation is never black and white – it is always much more colourful). In any case, what proposals does civil society have for joint efforts with the state and the business community to address the long-standing environmental problems and try to resolve some of them. In fact, the accumulated problems are very considerable, and it is clear that it will take decades to deal with them.
I am also aware of the major work you are doing to combat the unauthorised rubbish dumping and unauthorised construction in conservation areas, in support of using modern technology and closing or converting environmentally hazardous production facilities. I know that there is a great deal of online activity in this area by volunteers who joined forces some time ago to address various problems, including widespread wildfires, which were a national disaster. All these are relevant and worthy examples of the public taking the initiative and becoming engaged in useful work for the nation.
It is obvious that the repressive approach in the environmental field is not always effective. All the talk that we just have to increase the fines is misguided. It is obvious that there is a need for incentives for businesses to create modern programmes and technology, and conversion to environmentally friendly production. Our companies can understand these arguments. We cannot say that the situation has not changed, especially when it comes to large and successful companies. However, they are not too eager to take these arguments on board.
Therefore, it is important that the dialogue between environmental agencies and the business community continues, including with the active participation of the state, because the economy in our country is to a high degree private. Although some large production facilities are owned by state companies, our economy is increasingly based on private property, and we must agree on appropriate measures with the owners.
An important aspect is environmental education. It is being introduced in all regions, to a greater or lesser extent. In any case, I think we should support such initiatives.
I will now turn the floor over to Mr Fedotov, chairman of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.
PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR AND CHAIRMAN OF THE PRESIDENTIAL COUNCIL FOR CIVIL SOCIETY AND HUMAN RIGHTS MIKHAIL FEDOTOV: Mr President, colleagues,
This meeting has been planned since July of last year when, as we concluded our talks in Nalchik, you said, Mr President, “Next time, we will talk about the environment.” And so, we are here today. I am very pleased that we have gathered specifically in this plant [Novokuibyshevsky Oil Refinery].
Yesterday, I carefully studied the plant modernisation plans, and came to understand that modernisation is one of the greatest keys to resolving environmental problems. Yesterday, I spoke about this with Mr Simak, who heads the Samara division of the Socio-Ecological Union. We looked at and discussed it together. Ms Skupova – the Human Rights Commissioner in Samara Region – was present as well. We were able to see everything clearly.
But to prepare for today’s meeting, we needed to talk with specialists outside of Samara as well. We had a special meeting in Altai, bringing together about two hundred people – civil activists and experts. We also talked about the fate of Baikalsk and Norilsk, solid domestic waste, nature reserves in the Caucasus, shallow rivers and defenceless forests, particularly hazardous production facilities, and specially protected territories – in other words, we covered all seven areas of Russia’s ecology. All the information we gathered is included in the working group’s report, which I will now give to you, along with the recommendations.
”The Government submitted to the State Duma a package of five draft laws aimed at creating modern economic incentives, the introduction of green technologies and recycling technologies and improving the efficiency of state environmental monitoring – the latter has already come into force; the draft framework for the Russian state policy on environmental development until 2030 is nearly ready.“
I think the situation with protecting nature from the man-made environment is best described as a vicious circle. We see that environmental problems usually result from greed, irresponsibility, sloppiness, arrogance toward others, their rights and legal interests, environmental nihilism, and finally, basic ignorance. And all those same causes make the problems very difficult to solve.
Thus, the reckless pursuit of petrodollars provokes the seizure of territories of traditional nature use. Legal nihilism breeds environmental nihilism, irresponsibility leads to oil spills, and corruption gives rise to all sorts of ills. It is more than a crime, it is embezzlement. That is why I am taking the liberty to confirm that ecology entails more than clean rivers; first and foremost, it requires clean hands and clean thoughts. Where can we find these clean hands? In civil society.
Today, we have representatives from environmental NGOs present here at this table. They are the ones conducting public environmental reviews, but people swat them away as though they were bothersome flies. They are the ones organising the very lessons on ecology that you spoke about, Mr President. They are the ones who stand in the way of bulldozers, stopping them until the prosecutor arrives. They are the ones saving old-growth forests, and are subjected to some very dubious charges, as was the case for Suren Gazaryan and his lawyer Viktor Dutlov, of beating guards and causing 120 thousand rubles’ worth of damage to two sections of a fence by painting messages like “Enough VIP cottages,” supposedly motivated by hooliganism. They are the ones who refuse to accept money from the government and private companies, collecting only charitable donations from individuals (Greenpeace, in particular, favours this ideology), because they do not want to give any cause for suspicion of bias.
We may believe Umberto Eco, who said, “Intellectual function can lead to emotionally unbearable results, because at times some problems must be solved by demonstrating that they cannot be solved. It is a moral decision to express one’s own conclusion – or to remain silent about it. Such is the drama of those who, even momentarily, take on the task of playing the ‘representatives of mankind.’” Those are the words of Umberto Eco.
Environmentalists take on task burden, not just momentarily, but forever. They say “environmentalist” is not a profession but a diagnosis. If that is true, then I think it is a diagnosis of the most useful disease, when a person suffers for all of society. You yourself, Mr President, will easily agree after you listen to these wonderful people.
The human right to a pleasant environment is guaranteed in our Constitution. But why are the residents of Monchegorsk in Murmansk Region, or Karabash in Chelyabinsk Region, or Norilsk or Nizhny Tagil deprived of this right? Don’t the fundamental laws of our nation apply to them? It turns out that they do not, because according to the Constitution, the President of the Russian Federation is solely responsible for determining the guidelines for domestic and foreign policy.
For example, it is the Head of State who approves military doctrine, maritime doctrine, information security doctrine, and doctrine for the development of Russian science. The environmental doctrine was approved by a Government resolution in 2002, but it never really came into force. The Federation Council wrote in 2009 about the fact that it has been “forgotten.”
Forgotten, despite being a strategically important document that, incidentally, was prepared with participation by environmental NGOs. And what happens? The result is that we have no doctrinal basis for developing environmental legislation. And that’s the same as writing a draft Civil Code and forgetting civil law doctrine. This cannot be. That is why one of the Council’s suggestions is to speed up the development of environmental policy guidelines and approve them at the presidential level.
In particular, this fundamental document must reflect the presumption of environmental danger of any planned economic activity and the subsequent obligation for independent environmental assessments and monitoring to be conducted with essential participation by the public. This was already said quite well in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992. “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Today, the famous Russian habit of relying on a bit of luck may be too costly.
It is critical for the guidelines to establish the principle of government contribution to making civil society more environmentally friendly in the spirit of that same Rio Declaration, which states, “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.” In my view, the concept of Open Government is just perfect for achieving this goal.
We should also spell out the concrete measures that are intended to increase the efficacy of civil participation in key areas. First of all, it is imperative to create legal conditions that will allow citizens to participate in the adoption and implementation of environmentally significant decisions through surveys, public hearings, referenda, and expert assessments.
A simple example. Beginning in 2007, our Council has been working on the conflict surrounding the Khimki Forest. And I saw for myself that in order for citizens’ opinions to be taken into account even slightly when making environmentally significant decisions, they had to organise and hold rallies, clash with police, get their arms and legs broken, and hold pickets in front of the bulldozers. But people shouldn’t have to be heroes to be virtuous. Your involvement was necessary, Mr President, in order for the cries of public indignation to be heard.
”It is important that the dialogue between environmental agencies and the business community continues, including with the active participation of the state.“
But let’s be completely honest. When the Council brought together the defenders of the Khimki Forest and their opponents from Rosautodor at a round table last year, we suggested they work together to prevent the unlawful felling of trees in the Khimki Forest. Everyone nodded their heads and said, “yes, of course,” but nothing was done. Unfortunately, dialogue is still not popular as a means to resolve problems.
Second, we should take advantage of the alternative civil service in places engaged in environmental policy. In 2000–2005, the Natural Resources Ministry submitted requests for 15 alternative civil service positions in forest stations and 21 at an aviation forest protection base, but only seven people were sent. After 2005, no more requests were made for alternative civilian service members from the Ministry at all, despite the fact that there is insufficient personnel at nature reserves and in national parks.
Third, the Council feels it is important for the guidelines to support environmental and public movements, as well as charitable activities. In particular, our Council suggests that we use the experience of certain foreign nations where citizens have the right to direct some of their tax money themselves, and channel it toward supporting environmental NGOs.
Fourth, we propose that the guidelines talk about creating conditions for developing the traditional environmentally balanced nature use by native minorities. We have the term “Territory of Traditional Nature Use (TTP).” But how is it implemented? In 2009, the Government noted the need to amend the Federal Law On Territories of Traditional Nature Use with the goal of creating model territories of traditional nature use of federal significance.
This was a good idea. What happened? Nothing, zero, no amendments were made. On the contrary, when I looked at the list of sites that were offered to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection in 2010 as sites to be provided for geological exploration by subsoil users, I found nine territories of traditional nature use. I have a question: has oil and gas extraction really become a form of traditional land use among the minority ethnic groups of the North?
Fifth, the guidelines must open the door to a major increase in information transparency and environmental accountability for all major companies in the interest of developing socio-environmental monitoring, which should include public inspections. Unfortunately, in the last decade, the actual role of public assessments and monitoring efforts has only decreased, while the length of fences enclosing hazardous production facilities and unlawfully occupied territories has grown astronomically.
Russia is increasingly becoming a nation of fences. That is why, in working on the draft federal law on public monitoring in the Russian Federation, our Council included specific provisions and paragraphs on mandatory public assessments, mandatory public evaluations, public discussions, initiatives, and so on. The Council feels certain that the guidelines must replace the Environmental Doctrine of 2002, but hopefully, not repeat its unfortunate fate.
We feel that the positions laid out in the Environmental Doctrine must serve as the guidelines for the environmental policy approved by the President and become the doctrinal basis for creating the Environmental Code of the Russian Federation.
Legal experts know that similar comprehensive codes are based on the principles of classifying existing legislation. We already have a whole bunch of isolated federal laws on ecology. I feel it is time to think about creating a Code by codifying them.
The great Mahatma Gandhi once named the seven greatest social sins in modern civilisation. They all relate to our environmental situation: politics without principle, commerce without morality, wealth without work, knowledge without character, science without humanity, pleasure without conscience, and worship without sacrifice. I would add an eighth sin: production and consumption without self-restraint.
Environmental nihilism causes enormous damage – no less damage than the absence of tyre reprocessing plants or used battery collection points. Thus, we suggest placing the greatest emphasis on creating an environmentally conscious culture in our society.
The last thing I would like to bring up is a quotation from the UNESCO 1997 Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations: “Each generation inheriting the Earth temporarily should take care to use natural resources reasonably and ensure that life is not prejudiced by harmful modifications of the ecosystems and that scientific and technological progress in all fields does not harm life on Earth.” On a strictly legal basis, UNESCO’S declaration does not obligate anyone to do anything. But it does not release this generation from its responsibility to future generations.
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Dmitry Medvedev: Today’s conversation has assured me of at least one thing: we cannot progress without each other and have no choice but to cooperate. Sometimes, we have sharp discussions and sometimes we have misunderstandings between – in the broader sense of the word – the authorities and the people striving to protect the environment. But we cannot ignore one another, and that is precisely why we should continue a proper working dialogue which may at times not be easy but nevertheless ultimately productive. I view today’s meeting through that same perspective.
We are at an oil refinery. You have expressed different opinions on how well it is modernising. But let me point out that not everyone wanted to tour it. Perhaps because they didn’t want to get involved in publicising something they do not support as later their names may be used as demonstration of their approval of operation of an environmentally unfriendly enterprise. Colleagues, I still think it would be right to look at what is being done here. Otherwise, all our talks regarding the environment too often end up analysing incidents that are well-publicised but yet very minor in terms of environmental damage, which is really too sad.
I think that the main focus for environmental impact should be aimed at situations like this one. Here, we have heard about Norilsk Nickel – and I completely agree, this is a real [environmental] problem. But when the whole country is involved in discussions over the Khimki Forest, it only benefits the publicity interests of a few individuals. I personally got involved, and I’m glad that it was checked out and so on, but you cannot compare [motorway construction through] Khimki Forest to the damage that a particular plant can inflict.
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You must keep hounding the authorities regarding major environmental problems. I fly throughout the country, no doubt, more than anyone present here, and I really see what is happening; this includes places that are just frightening to see. So those are the places where we must sound the alarm and demand that the authorities take responsibility for the current situation, as well as fixing the damage done by our predecessors. And when we are addressing other problems, I will certainly issue all the necessary instructions. It is wrong if the environmental community and environmental activists are harassed. It’s sad and each and every such fact must be given our attention, although you know, frankly speaking, things like this happen in other nations too, when particular environmental activists find themselves under scrutiny by the authorities.
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Colleagues, all of us at this table are realistic people. This will not be easy for anyone. And let’s admit a fairly obvious fact to one another. Environmentalism has not become as fashionable in our country as it has, for example, in certain European nations. And, strange as it may seem, not just in European states, but in some seemingly underdeveloped places as well. You also know that there are both rational and irrational reasons for this. It is not just the fault of malicious authorities or malicious businesses that are destroying nature.
There are other reasons. We have many resources. People are not accustomed to calculating our natural wealth. Indeed, this is an issue existing at a subcortical level. Our wealth is our downfall, in this sense. So we must do everything to ensure that every citizen of our nation naturally absorbs an environmentally-minded way of thinking and environmentally-focused perception of a wide variety of problems from the very beginning and makes it a daily part of their lives. In this regard, those of you present here have just as much responsibility as the authorities. You use your sharp speeches and complaints toward the authorities to get them moving. I hope you will share your educational mission with the authorities since in my view, all of us must be equally responsible for the general state of life in our country as we are all citizens of this state. True, the authorities have their responsibility and do not have the right to eschew it, but our own, personal civil responsibility is no less important.
That is precisely why I am calling on all of you – colleagues from environmental organisations and my colleagues from the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights – to give this issue some very serious attention and address not only the publicised, high-profile cases that have serious influence on public opinion, but also the frightening, absolutely unacceptable events that nobody is paying attention to; there are far more of them. I am very much asking you to hear what I am saying.
Thank you very much.
I would like to say to all members of the Council that I purposefully refrained from opening now a discussion on other issues for entirely obvious reasons. We will certainly meet and discuss all the other matters concerning the Council’s activities. My term as President is drawing to a close, but our life together is not over, and our meetings are not ending – they will continue.
As I promised, I will personally review all of the materials I have received today.