x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Russia's watchdogs of human rights receive their just reward

The European Union has given the Russian group Memorial its top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize For Freedom of Thought.

From left, Oleg Orlov, Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Sergei Kovalev accept the 2009 Sakharov Prize on behalf of the human rights group Memorial.
From left, Oleg Orlov, Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Sergei Kovalev accept the 2009 Sakharov Prize on behalf of the human rights group Memorial.

Ambivalence about human rights workers runs deep. Wherever they toil, the same questions are invariably - and often acidly - asked: Who do they think they are? Who gave them the right to criticise? In the extreme, we tend to admire them posthumously but find them inconvenient and nettlesome, even seditious, while they are alive. Such is the case of Natalia Estemirova, a researcher for Memorial, the Moscow-based human rights organisation.

From her bullet-pocked apartment building in the Chechen capital of Grozny, Estemirova criss-crossed the dystopian southern Russian republic doing what authorities were unable or unwilling to do: documenting with meticulous attention to fact and detail the savageries committed by rebels, mercenaries, thugs and government security forces. To the bereaved, the 50-year-old single mother was a glimmer of light in an almost unimaginably bleak landscape. To those she incriminated in acts of torture, summary execution and other atrocities, she was a confounding, infuriating presence.

"She wandered the ruined republic wearing a skirt, blouse and heels, lipstick on, carrying her purse and presenting a straight face, perhaps warmed by a slight smile, to masked gunmen and victims alike," recalled CJ Chivers, who chronicled Estemirova's work for The New York Times. Thus with such remarkable calm did Estemirova meet face-to-face with those whom she accused of crimes, including Ramzan Kadyrov, the authoritarian, Kremlin-installed Chechen president whose alleged government-run torture centres she was investigating. One imagines her, therefore, facing her death with the same equanimity.

On a Wednesday morning in July, four men seized Estemirova as she left her flat. They forced her into a white Lada but not before she managed to shout that she was being kidnapped. They drove her to a remote place, shot her three times in the chest and once in the head and dumped her body on to the roadside. Her wrists showed signs of being bound. Her murder was scarcely noted in Russia's state-dominated media, which had long since stopped paying attention to the catalogue of horrors in Chechnya that Estemirova was almost single-handedly responsible for compiling. A mere 150 people reportedly turned up at her memorial service in Moscow, a city of 10.5 million.

This week, the 27-nation European Union attempted to redress this neglect when it honoured Memorial, the group for which Estemirova worked, with its top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize For Freedom of Thought. In accepting the prize on Wednesday on behalf of Memorial, Sergei Kovalev, a former political prisoner, said the honour belonged to "our dead friends, comrades-in-arms, kindred spirits," especially Estemirova.

He also mentioned Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer, who was shot dead in the streets of Moscow in January and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who also exposed widespread human-rights abuses and corruption in Chechnya. She was shot and killed three years ago in the lift of her apartment building. In awarding the prize, named after the Russian physicist and human rights champion Andrei Sakharov, the European Parliament President, Jerzy Buzek, said that despite being proud that he could hand over the honour, he also was left with "bitterness that it is necessary to award this kind of prize in Europe".

In a year marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mr Buzek's chagrin has been widely shared. Yet if there is one lesson that has been learnt in the post-communist era it is that democracy does not automatically spring up when capitalism takes root, despite confident predictions to the contrary. In Russia, as in Singapore, China and elsewhere, human rights are widely viewed, despite their enshrinement in international law and treaties, as a "western" influence, rather like a foreign consumer good that does not comport with local tastes.

Yet the emergence of an international human rights movement in the past half-century has demonstrated that police forces, armies, judges and legislators are, in the long run, more effective when their actions are scrutinised by human rights advocates, as well as whistle-blowers and investigative reporters. Mr Kovalev and others have argued that memory and history are better served, too. In fact, Memorial was founded to document crimes committed under the regime of Josef Stalin when, according to the Russian historian Ray Medvedev, 20 million people died in labour camps, forced collectivisation, famine and executions.

Nevertheless, Stalin's popularity endures in Russia. Last year opinion polls showed that at least 50 per cent viewed his role in history as positive. That is one reason why Memorial's members have been harassed and persecuted, and forced to turn their attention to post-Soviet barbarities, as well. Estemirova, a former history teacher, understood the link. With her work to document the crimes of the present for fear they would be lost in the miasma of history, she wanted to give her country - "my motherland ... the victim," she said - an opportunity to redeem itself and step into the modern world.

There is little doubt that she knew what could happen. "In Russia ... the decision to be a really good person is an active, brave and life-changing one. To stand out against the autocratic, bloody, corrupt regime means a totally different life, and maybe a shorter one," wrote one unnamed commentator at the time of her death. Yet like other top human rights investigators, Estemirova chose to straddle two worlds. One is a world of sometimes incalculable brutality; the other, a world in which human rights and the dignity of the individual are respected. What makes them worth honouring - even posthumously - is that they refuse to ignore or rationalise the first, and refuse to surrender their dream of the second.