RUSSIAN FEDERATION: Utmost Concern Over New Bill On Non-Commercial Organisations (NCOs)
Paris-Geneva, July 6, 2012 – The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) expresses its utmost concern over the tabling of a new bill on non-commercial organisations (NCOs) which – if adopted – would significantly undermine the capacities of the civil society to operate in the Russian Federation.
On June 29, 2012, pro-governmental party “United Russia” Members of Parliament submitted to the Duma a bill entitled “Introducing Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in Part Regulating Activities of Non-commercial Organisations, which Carry Functions of Foreign Agents”.
The bill aims at amending six federal laws, including the Laws “on Public Associations”, “On Non-commercial Organisations”, “On Counteracting Legalisation (Money Laundering) of Incomes received in a Criminal Way, and Financing Terrorism”, as well as the Code of Administrative Penalties, the Criminal Code and the Code on Criminal Procedure.
If adopted, the bill will represent a major additional setback to the enjoyment of human rights in the country, and would blatantly violate the most basic international human rights standards on freedom of association.
NCOs receiving foreign funding labelled as “foreign agents”
The new bill provides that all NCOs wishing to receive foreign funds from foreign sources in order to carry out any kind of “political activities” shall first register with an “authorised government agency” within the Ministry of Justice. Such organisations would then be officially labelled as “NCOs carrying functions of a foreign agent”.
Overly wide definition of “political activities” carried out by “foreign agent NCOs”
The current text defines “political activities” as actions “dedicated to changing state policy” and “influencing public opinion relating to changing public policy”. This vague definition could potentially allow the Russian authorities to target all advocacy activities carried out by human rights NGOs which by definition purport to influence public policy and public opinion in an attempt to improve respect of human rights standards.
Undefined registration procedure for “foreign agent NCOs”
The registration procedure for “foreign agent NCOs” is not described in the current version of the bill. It is only mentioned that such procedure is to be defined by the “authorised government agency”. The Observatory fears that this might result in the imposition of burdensome and complex procedures, in an attempt to further hinder the conduct of legitimate human rights activities.
Tight control over the actions and publications of “foreign agent NCOs”
The bill also provides that as soon as an NCO is labelled as “foreign agent”, its activities shall be placed under the strict control of the “authorised government agency”, as it would be requested to:
- undergo annual audits
- maintain separate accounting of assets generated through local and foreign sources
- submit activity reports twice a year
- submit financial reports every quarter
No information is yet available regarding the format and the content of such reports, which shall be later determined by the “authorised government agency”.
Furthermore, anybody or any entity that would reproduce documentation of “foreign agent NCOs” would in turn be considered itself as “foreign agents”, even if no foreign funds were received by the latter to finance the publication of the materials.
Disproportionate monitoring of - and interference in - the activities of foreign NGOs with registered offices in Russia
The bill submits the Russia-based registered offices of foreign organisations to two new major requirements, i.e.:
- to undergo annual independent audits by a Russian auditing company and submit the audit report to the “authorised government agency”;
- to undergo any further audits decided / conducted by the “authorised government agency” itself.
The “authorised government agency” will have the right to publish all such reports as well as the activity and financial reports of foreign organisations operating in Russia on its website, and to provide them to the media.
Disproportionate monitoring of the foreign funds received by Russian offices of foreign NGOs
Under the terms of the bill, special controls will be imposed on all transfers received by NCOs from foreign sources above 200,000 Rubles (4,928 Euros). No information could be obtained as of what such controls would encompass and how they would be carried out.
Extensive powers to sanction and suspend the activities of NCOs
The bill provides that the Government shall have the authority to suspend the activities of any “foreign agent NCO” for up to 6 months if the latter fails to register as a “foreign agent” while receiving foreign funding and conducting so-called “political activities”.
The bill also introduces the following harsh penalties:
- up to 50,000 Rubles (1,232 Euros) for individuals and up to 1,000,000 Rubles (24,639 Euros) for NCOs failing to submit “information required by the law”.
- up to 500,000 Rubles (12,320 Euros) for individuals and up to 1,000,000 Rubles (24,639 Euros) for organisations which conduct activities without being registered as a foreign agent when such registration is required.
The bill further amends the Criminal Code to introduce a penalty of either up to 2 years of imprisonment or up to 480 hours of corrective work for individuals who do not fulfil their responsibilities under the law while acting as “foreign agents”.
Consequently, NGOs will then have to choose between registering themselves as “foreign agents” or be heavily penalised under criminal law for not doing so. The Observatory fears that labelling human rights defenders and social activists as “foreign agents” for receiving foreign funding would seriously harm their image and credibility, and dissuade the population from trusting and confiding in them and their work, and acting on their advice.
The Observatory denounces the provisions of this bill, which blatantly violates international and regional human rights standards relating to freedom of association, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) ratified by the Russian Federation, as well as the 1998 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and in particular Article 5 (on the right “to form, join and participate in non-governmental organisations, associations or groups" and “to communicate with non-governmental or intergovernmental organizations”) and Article 13 (on the right “to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means”). As emphasized by the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights defenders, the Declaration protects the right to receive funding from different sources, including foreign funding.
The Observatory is all the more concerned that such a bill is being presented only three weeks after the adoption of another piece of legislation which restricts the right to conduct peaceful assemblies and demonstrations in the country.
The Observatory therefore strongly urges the Russian Members of Parliament not to adopt this bill and withdraw it, and, generally, to conform in all circumstances with international human rights law, and in particular with the best practices defined by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association in his first report to the UN Human Rights Council.
For more information, please contact:
FIDH: Karine Appy/Arthur Manet: +33 1 43 55 25 18
OMCT: Isabelle Scherer: +41 22 809 49 39
 See UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Commentary to the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, July 2011.