Russia

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated in the country, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their concerns. Official harassment of independent NGOs continued and in many instances intensified, particularly of groups that focused on election monitoring, exposing corruption, and addressing human rights abuses. NGO activities and international humanitarian assistance in the North Caucasus were severely restricted. Some officials, including the ombudsman for human rights, regional ombudsman representatives, and Mikhail Fedotov, who was the chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council until late October, regularly interacted and cooperated with NGOs.

Authorities continued to use a variety of laws to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of domestic and foreign human rights NGOs (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

Officials often displayed hostility towards the activities of human rights organizations and suggested that their work was unpatriotic and detrimental to national security. For example, on May 15, the head of the Federal Prison Service, Gennadiy Kornienko, called human rights defenders who brought cases to the ECHR that involved abuses taking place in prisons “odious persons.”

Authorities continued to apply a number of indirect tactics to suppress or close domestic NGOs, including the application of various laws and harassment in the form of prosecution, investigations, fines, and raids (see sections 1.e. and 2.b.).

Authorities generally refused to cooperate with NGOs that were critical of their activities or listed as a foreign agent. International human rights NGOs had almost no presence east of the Ural Mountains. A few local NGOs addressed human rights problems in these regions but often chose not to work on politically sensitive topics to avoid retaliation by local authorities.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Authorities refused to cooperate with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism rapporteur investigating human rights abuses in the Republic of Chechnya in 2018 and did not permit him to visit the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Some government institutions continued to promote human rights and intervened in selected abuse complaints, despite widespread doubt as to these institutions’ effectiveness.

Many observers did not consider the 126-member Civic Chamber, composed of government-appointed members from civil society organizations, to be an effective check on the government.

The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) is an advisory body to the president tasked with monitoring systemic problems in legislation and individual human rights cases, developing proposals to submit to the president and government, and monitoring their implementation. The president selects some council members by decree, and not all members operated independently. On October 21, President Putin overhauled the HRC, replacing its head, Mikhail Fedotov, with Valeriy Fadeyev, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party. Officially, Fedotov was dismissed because he had turned 70, the age limit for service in the government. President Putin could have issued a waiver that would have allowed him to stay on, leading human rights activists to speculate that authorities wanted an HRC head who would be more loyal to the president and less critical of restrictions on political freedoms. Some members of the HRC who were well-respected human rights defenders were also dismissed at the same time as Fedotov, compounding observers’ concerns.

Human rights ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova was viewed as a figure with very limited autonomy. The country had regional ombudsmen in all its regions with responsibilities similar to Moskalkova’s. Their effectiveness varied significantly, and local authorities often undermined their independence.

Serbia

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases without overt resistance from the government. While government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to their questions, at times government bodies selectively ignored freedom of information requests. Civil society groups were subject to criticism, harassment, and threats from nongovernmental actors, including progovernment media outlets and a number of suspected government-organized NGOs that vocally participated in government consultations with civil society. Actions likely to draw this response included expressing views critical of the government, contrary to nationalist views regarding Kosovo, or in support of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Threats, vandalism, and attacks aimed against civil society organizations did occur and were rarely investigated thoroughly or prosecuted. The new Law on Free Legal Aid potentially limits these organizations’ ability to provide free legal aid in some traditionally important areas for human right protection, such as defamation suits and misdemeanor offenses.

In September human rights activist Dobrica Veselinovic received a prison summons for failure to pay a fine he received for organizing a 2016 “Let’s not Drown Belgrade” protest in response to the illegal demolition of residential and commercial buildings in Belgrade’s Savamala neighborhood, despite having a receipt showing the fine had been paid. Civil society organizations claimed that the 30 cases underway surrounding these protests and the summons Veselinovic received were part of a government campaign to pressure and silence activists and NGOs.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government bodies dedicated to the protection of human rights included the Office of the Ombudsman, Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, and Office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. All three bodies were active during the year and issued reports for parliament’s review, but parliament did not review their annual reports in plenary sessions in accordance with the law.

The Office of the Ombudsman was responsible for identifying problems within state institutions and making recommendations on remedies. The ombudsman continued to operate branch offices in three municipalities with significant ethnic Albanian populations. The ombudsman facilitated citizen complaints regarding violations of the human rights of members of national minorities, children, persons with disabilities, persons deprived of their liberty, and persons experiencing discrimination based on gender by state administrative bodies or any other entity entrusted with public authority. Vojvodina Province had its own ombudsman, who operated independently during the year.

The commissioner for the protection of equality has legal authority to bring civil lawsuits against businesses and government institutions for violations of the antidiscrimination law. The commissioner’s office reported a 20 percent increase in complaints in 2018, the most common being on the application of a law on financial support to families with children and complaints about accessibility by persons with disabilities.

The commissioner for information and personal data’s term expired in December 2018; outgoing Commissioner Rodoljub Sabic’s final report criticized the government, stating, “By refusing to cooperate, the competent or supervised authorities often made it difficult, even impossible, for the commissioner to either undertake legal measures or these measures had no effect.” A new commissioner, Milan Marinovic, was confirmed by parliament in July, but opposition parties did not participate in this process due to their continuing boycott of parliament.

South Africa

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Although created by the government, the South African Human Rights Commission operated independently and was responsible for promoting the observance of fundamental human rights at all levels of government and throughout the general population. The commission has the authority to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas, and take sworn testimony. Civil society groups considered the commission only moderately effective due to a large backlog of cases and the failure of government agencies to adhere to its recommendations.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future