The meeting examined current issues concerning respect for human rights and development of civil society institutions in the regions.
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Excerpts from transcript of meeting with the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and with federal and regional human rights commissioners
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, colleagues,
I think this is the first time we are meeting in such broad format.
Our meeting is taking place in the run-up to international Human Rights Day. It is a great pleasure to see here so many colleagues who are involved in human rights work in practically every single region of our country. I say “practically every single region” for a reason which I say more about a little later, because not every region has yet established institutions to ensure protection of human rights.
Let me start by saying that one of our tasks of course is to take part in improving the norms governing international humanitarian law, but above all, we will work on developing our own legal framework in this area and building up our country’s own human rights organisations.
The Council for Civil Society and Human Rights met in this hall just recently. The results of that meeting then became the basis for instructions that I and my colleagues from the Presidential Executive Office worked on and issued just yesterday. We will definitely come back to some of these matters at today’s meeting and I would be happy to hear your views on what we need to do to improve our work in this area.
The human rights commissioners play a special part in protecting human rights of course. Nearly every region has a regional commissioner now, working in the same areas as at the federal level. Progress has been made since I met with regional human rights commissioners in the summer of 2012. But as I said, not every region has set up these institutions yet.
Let me make it very clear that it does not matter where our citizens live, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, and from Murmansk to Sevastopol, every person must have the possibility of ensuring that their rights are protected through the institution of the human rights commissioners.
The human rights commissioners are a separate organisation that is independent from the state authorities and has been invested by the state with the important mission of supporting and protecting human rights. Often, when people’s rights are violated or infringed upon, they turn to you as the final place of appeal, and they nearly always find a responsive attitude, understanding, and the desire to restore justice. This is why the number of people turning to the human rights commissioners has been growing both at the federal and regional levels.
People turn to you when they have met with deaf ears elsewhere, when the authorities fail to hear them, ignore them, or remain indifferent to their lawful demands, or when people encounter lack of respect for their lawful rights. It is good to see that in very many cases, not in all, but very often, you do succeed in obtaining a positive result.
This is work that requires a particular character and outlook, because you do not have executive functions or powers, and so your work calls for persistence, professionalism, confidence in your rights and confidence that you are doing needed work and the right thing.
Influential, authoritative and confident human rights commissioners are a big force in the regions. The regional authorities listen to you, take your views and recommendations into account, and see you as equal partners, and the result of course is that people gain, and this is the way it should be.
Unfortunately though, this situation is not the case everywhere in the Russian Federation. There have been cases of people taking a bureaucratic and formalistic approach to the institution of the human rights commissioners and appointing to this position people who are close to or dependent on the authorities. You cannot get far with this approach of course and it will probably be impossible to achieve the desired results. I therefore ask my envoys to the federal districts to make a thorough analysis of what is being done to ensure the regional human rights commissioners’ work as a full-fledged and – most importantly – independent institution.
We all need to realise the importance of the commissioners’ work. They are being guided solely by people’s interests and are protecting their rights, based on their powers, the law, and their consciences. We must value their unbiased desire, based on constant contact with the public, to bring greater order and justice to society.
In this context, let me say a few words about legislation. Meeting with [Russian Human Rights Commissioner] Ms Pamfilova recently, we discussed proposals for improving the law on human rights commissioners in Russia. This law was passed back in 1997 and is in need of updating. The plan is to raise the status and strengthen guarantees for the work of regional human rights commissioners. We discussed these matters too at the meeting in 2012. Circumstances have changed both at home and abroad since then of course. I would like to hear from you today your views on the law’s effectiveness with regard to your work and perhaps your proposals for possible improvements.
The institution of the human rights commissioners is now solidly established. There are still some things that need additional work, but the institution itself has unquestionably taken shape and established a solid place for itself in our country. It is important and society needs it. It is here that people find support in protecting their social, labour, housing, economic and political rights. We see another trend too today, however. People often seek to defend their own rights and take part in making sure they can realise these rights. You no doubt heard the Address to the Federal Assembly yesterday, in which I spoke about precisely this point.
We of course will support this positive and constructive mood in society and give people the space and freedom they need so that each individual can realise their potential. I am sure that your human rights activity aims at this same goal and that you will continue to make a big contribution to ensuring equal opportunities for all.
You have built up a wealth of experience in your work with people and you know how public support mechanisms work and how to bring people together to resolve all manner of issues and pressing problems. I hope our meeting today will be useful so that we can make the needed adjustments to our work and improve too the state mechanism for your support.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Vladimir Putin: As far as the penitentiary system goes, first of all, there is certainly a lot that needs changing, and we need to improve the legislation and practice in this area. This is in the state authorities’ interest too, and so we should work together because we do not need any conflicts here.
Second, the system itself must be fair and just. If a person crosses the line and commits a crime, they should be punished of course and serve their sentence, but among punishment’s many functions there is an educational dimension too. This function needs to be present, just as there must be the actual punishment and retribution dimension too, as the criminologists have noted. But all this must be in civilised and humane conditions, and the system should focus on the positive and not the negative. We all realise that there are still a lot of changes to be made. This is clear and so I am happy to support these efforts.
Regarding this idea that Russia is coming under pressure from all sides, you are exaggerating somewhat there. No one is pressuring us, they are trying to, yes, but not from all sides. Their arms are not long enough to reach us from all sides even if they’d like to. It’s true though what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, I cannot remember his exact words, but he said it was time to stand up for Russia because otherwise they’d squeeze us out for once and for good. That was roughly what he said. Of course we, like anyone who considers themselves a Russian and a patriot, must take an objective look at what is happening out there and choose the appropriate response, or at the very least formulate their own position on the situation. That is for sure.
On the issue of some people being more active, and better educated as a rule, and less active when less well educated, I think that people are all different of course. The only point that I want to get across here today is that everyone matters to us. This is the most important thing. Our words should not give rise to the illusion that some people are not important to us. For the people here today, people involved in protecting human rights, this is obviously the case. No matter who the person, their status, their health or education circumstances, job or views, everyone is important, and we must treat everyone as equals.
Finally, let me say a word about the much-debated law on foreign agents. It was never the aim at the outset to offend or humiliate anyone. You mentioned yesterday’s Address, and here you see the fact of the matter, for it was in that Address that I expressed what is my deep conviction, namely that Russia either remains a sovereign state or else there will be no Russia at all. This is tremendously important for Russia. For some little country with perhaps not even historical roots or a tradition of statehood of its own, it is not such a big thing to have been subordinate and remain so now, just moving to a new clearing. But this is not possible for Russia. If we do not have sovereignty we will dissolve, whether quietly or with tragedies on the way. But either way we cannot let this happen. This is extremely important and we must never forget it.
What was our aim when we passed this law? The aim was to prevent people abroad from using financial resources to meddle in our political life, in our internal political affairs. This was the primary objective. Why is this so important? It’s so important because when internal political developments here are paid for with money from abroad, let me assure you that no matter what they say, these people are pursuing not our national interests but their own. Sometimes these interests happen to coincide, but more often than not they don’t. In any case, we must decide our own future, organise our own lives and respond to our problems. We do have no shortage of problems, but it is up to us alone, here in Russia, to solve them.
And yet I do agree that this law is in need of improvement. We have discussed this issue many times, in this hall too. The law is not ideal and probably is not entirely in keeping with today’s demands, and so we certainly need to adjust it because some situations end up in contradiction with our original aims and purpose, so let’s reflect together on what we can do here.
Vladimir Putin: (commenting on remarks made by Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Pavel Astakhov) Of course work in this area is particularly valuable because it involves children. But strange though it might seem, I want to mention another area altogether. You referred to yesterday’s Address, in which I spoke about a healthy traditional family and a healthy nation. This is without question our priority. But there is an implicit hint here, which you noted and highlighted just now, namely, we make families of the traditional kind our priority. But this does not mean that we are going to persecute people of non-traditional orientation. You understand? People have tried to stick this label on us, even people who use criminal law to persecute people of non-traditional orientation. Some US states make it a crime, and though as far as I know these laws are not actually applied and the Supreme Court has suspended them, but they are nevertheless still on the books. We have no criminal penalties.
What was our original intention? What we were talking about was protecting children from propaganda promoting non-traditional orientation. I have said publicly in the past and will say again now that a society that cannot protect its children is a society that has no future. Perhaps these good views of ours are not very modern, but they are what they are and I think that they are right. But let me address you as people whose job is to protect human rights and say that people of non-traditional orientation have rights too. Their choice is not our society’s choice, but they are no less entitled to their rights than anyone else. I don’t know if anyone else maybe remembers, there was an excellent play staged at the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theatre called Kholstomer (Strider). The refrain running through it was “You’ll get beaten if you’re odd.” We’re not about to beat anyone. All people here have political rights, social rights, rights to employment, and no one should face discrimination. I draw your attention to this because this is your daily work. But our strategic choice is for traditional families, healthy families and a healthy nation. One does not exclude the other and does not hinder the other. I think this is a balanced approach and is entirely the right approach.
As for your areas of work, you mentioned them briefly, but I know that you personally and your colleagues are working hard and actively to protect children’s rights. I hope very much that this will continue. Of course we will analyse everything that you have given me, and we will try to support you in all of the areas in your proposals.
Vladimir Putin: Regarding the Federal Law on the amnesty, I don’t know what stage its examination is at right now. That’s being honest with you, I really don’t know. But overall, why not? This is the sort of thing that needs to be transparent, with clear procedures that have been worked through by the legislators and put to broad public discussion. We have all we need to do this. We have the internet too and the needed procedures, and so I think that this certainly could be implemented.
On the idea of a broad amnesty to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Victory [in World War II], I am in favour of an amnesty, but the thing is, for a start, we cannot make these amnesties too frequent otherwise there won’t be anyone left in the prisons. That’s not the issue of course and maybe it would be a good thing if there were no one left there. It’s been a long time since I visited any prisons, but I have seen such places and know what they are like, and there is no question that we must keep very close watch on the situation there. The people there have ended up there through various circumstances, which we will not discuss now, but they have rights too, they are our citizens, and we must certainly take a humane attitude towards them. At the same time, we must also not forget the rights of victims of crime.
Imagine that someone has committed a crime and there are victims, and next day they see this same person walking down the street again. How would people react to this and to our policy in this area? All good things should come in measure. I support an amnesty, but we need to take a balanced approach.
Finally, what if we introduce criminal penalties for breaking the law in the areas that come under human rights organisations’ area of work and send someone to prison, and then tomorrow there’s an amnesty and the person is free again. We shouldn’t make any hasty decisions here. We need to return good and fit people to society, though I do agree that amnesties are necessary.
Finally, regarding Sisyphus’ labour, as we know, Sisyphus was punished by the gods for his bad behaviour and he pushed his rock up the hill only to see it go tumbling back down again. As far as I understand it, the human rights organisations and activists see their work not as a punishment but as a pleasure, as their destiny, vocation and mission. I therefore have great respect for all you said, but on this point I would permit myself to debate with you.
Vladimir Putin: I would like to point out two things in light of yesterday’s Address.
The first is capital amnesty, and I hope that this will be an effective measure to combat offshoring and fighting to de-offshore the Russian economy. And here, I would simply like to tell all the nation’s entrepreneurs that we will certainly need to pass a measured law on this matter, and I will personally monitor its execution, ensuring that nobody violates it. We will react immediately to any possible violations, going as far as making personnel decisions, because either we are doing this properly, consistently, firmly, going all the way with it, or nothing will work out. That is how the Cabinet, the Presidential Executive Office, the Prime Minister, I myself and everyone else see it. And we intend to deal with this in the most serious way.
And finally, most importantly, I am sure you were the ones to draw attention to that. The key message of the Address as regards its economic part – and this Address was, of course, focused primarily on developing the economy – the main signal was that in modern conditions, we are not opting to introduce any extra and often ineffective regulation, although it is certainly necessary and it will be where it should be. But ultimately, the most important thing we are focusing on is freedom of enterprise. And we expect that by implementing this spirit of entrepreneurial freedom, implementing the corresponding instruments, we will be able to make a significant step forward in developing the national economy.
Vladimir Putin: Everything pertaining to the law on so-called international agents has only to do with the government’s desire to protect itself from the foreign states’ intervention in our domestic politics. And if officials at various levels, from local to federal ones, try to use it to protect themselves against criticism from NGOs and human rights activists on any topic, then that is simply an instrument of self-protection for officials and an instrument for protecting their activities, which are often inappropriate or even illegal. Naturally, we will fight this, and we are already doing it.
That is why I created this Council and support its work; that is why we are meeting today. But this is not easy work, because it is pointless for human rights organisations to try to achieve justice through bureaucratic instruments; we need to support the initiative and the human rights organisations themselves. I repeat again, we are indeed working on this, including today.
Now with regard to restrictive trends in the media. Naturally, I also hear about this, but I do not see us having any real trends. Just look, for example: the western experts themselves are saying that western media create a parallel reality with regard to in Ukraine. What is that? It is an order from the authorities, and the media are carrying out that political order. I suppose we have something similar in certain areas. Is that good or bad? It’s bad. If the press wants people to believe it, it should remain objective, providing information about events and developments comprehensively. They can, of course, comment on them as well, but then it should be made clear that it is an author’s personal opinion.
We certainly have a lot to do. But I repeat, that is the purpose of your organisation. Thank you very much.
Unfortunately, I need to continue on my programme. In conclusion, I want to wish you a happy upcoming holiday: Human Rights Day.
Thank you very much for your work.