Resolution condemning sweeping crackdown on freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

FIDH, meeting in Taipei (Taiwan) from 21 to 25 October 2019 for its 40th Congress,

Stressing that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reinforced by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and that it is closely linked to the right of peaceful assembly (Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 21 of the ICCPR) when applied to protests, pickets, rallies, marches and demonstrations;

Expressing alarm about critical decline in freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly that has spanned a number of Eastern European and Central Asian countries where the authorities designed a myriad of liberticidal laws and have recourse to a toolkit of harmful practices to suffocate civil society and stifle dissent voices;

Highlighting that the hurdles hampering the right of peaceful assembly throughout the region:
• Legislation in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan prohibits citizens to hold peaceful assemblies without authorisation, the authorities of the respective countries routinely deny permits for peaceful gatherings, and unauthorized protests end up in mass arrests and fines of protesters;
• In Azerbaijan under 2016 amendments, the right to free assembly is contingent on not violating ‘public order and morals’, unsanctioned gatherings can draw a harsh police response and fines for participants;
• An introduction of legislation restricting peaceful rallies in occupied Crimea resulted in the arrest of over 350 peaceful protesters between 2014 and 2018;
• In Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova the right of peaceful assembly is legally guaranteed but inconsistently upheld in practice (ex., use of excessive force against peaceful protesters by Georgian authorities on June 20, 2019; violent interference by police and temporary detention of hundreds of individuals during April-May 2018 mass anti government protests in Armenia);

Condemning all violations against human rights defenders (HRDs) in retaliation for voicing their protest, including:
• intimidation and harassment, including judicial harassment and physical assault, murder, as well as arbitrary detention and convictions including on trumped up charges, ill-treatment and defamation in a view to stigmatise and discredit HRDs,
• criminal prosecution of human rights defenders for involvement in activities of ‘undesirable organizations’ (Russia, Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code);
• restrictions on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the legislation of many Eastern European and Central Asian countries that erodes both local and foreign human rights groups, including by prohibiting foreign funding, imposing onerous reporting obligations, introducing harsh penalties for noncompliance (Belarus, Crimea, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan), requiring government approval for grants (Azerbaijan), labelling NGOs as ‘Foreign Agents’ thus stigmatizing civic activities (Russia, Armenia);

Expressing grave concern at violations against human rights lawyers, environmental law activists, historians, targeted by authorities for expressing their dissent:
• Armenian authorities filed a lawsuit against several human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers for raising public awareness on the environmental and health risks connected to the gold mining operations under the guise of combatting ‘slandering information’.
• Belarus authorities systematically harass environmental defenders protesting against the battery plant construction in Brest;
• Crimean human rights lawyer Emil Kurbetdinov was judicially harassed for a Facebook publication that allegedly contained extremist content;
• Ongoing arbitrary detention and judicial harassment against Russian historian Yuri Dmitriyev for his dedicated efforts to memorialize the victims of Soviet-era human rights repressions;

Condemning the violent crackdown on freedom of speech and freedom of media across the region, whereas authorities harass, arbitrarily arrest and detain, impose restrictions, subject to fines, criminally prosecute, and otherwise seek to silence journalists who are critical of the authorities and who expose human rights violations and corruption;

Recalling that anti-terrorist and anti-extremism laws are systematically misused by Russian and Central Asian authorities to harass political opposition, religious minorities and civil society at large;

Recalling further that libel and insult, but also “insulting the honor and dignity of the President” remain a criminal offence in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, defamation is also criminalized in Georgia.

Noting with concern the tightening grip of governments over online expression in most countries of the region — the list of liberticidal practices includes, but is not limited to, websites’ blocking, censoring of content, imposition of bureaucratic hurdles on online media, criminal proceedings against journalists and human rights activists for expressing their dissent online, sanctions for dissemination of ‘fake news’ and calling for participation in protests;

Determining that the situation regarding freedom of expression and right of peaceful assembly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is critical and is likely to remain so, unless and until civil society, economic actors, neighbouring States and international organizations would engage in a concentrated effort to defend these rights more resolutely,

• Urges the authorities of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan to put an end to all human rights violations, including intimidation, harassment, torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, committed against individuals for exercising their freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly, and ensure accountability in this regard;

• Calls upon the respective States to immediately release all political prisoners arbitrary detained for voicing their dissent, shedding light upon human rights violations and otherwise peacefully exercising their legitimate rights;

• Requests the States to repeal laws that interfere with their obligations as regards freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association and assembly, under international human rights law, including the laws restricting the activities of non-governmental organizations, and human rights groups in particular, namely, law on ‘unregistered civil organizations’, ‘foreign agent’ law, law on ‘undesirable organizations’, and other laws violating the right to freedom of association;

• Urges the States to comply with Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as with all relevant resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council on the right to freedom of opinion and expression;

• Encourages the States to foster a safe environment conducive to enjoyment of freedom of expression and right of peaceful assembly by all, without discrimination and with consideration for persons facing systemic inequalities;

• Encourages neighbouring States to continue to assist local human rights groups and civil society organizations struggling to promote and protect freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia;

• Encourages economic actors operating in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to comply with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, resist governments in breach of international standards on freedom of expression or assembly, and work towards creating a safer environment conducive for the expression of one’s opinions;

• Calls upon all citizens to voice support for the activities of human rights defenders and civil society organisations working in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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statement