Moscow Helsinki Group activities for freedom of conscience and secularism
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Moscow Helsinki Group is the oldest Human Rights organisation now operating in Russia. MHG was established on May, 12, 1976 with the aim to carry out control over Soviet government activity in the sphere of human rights, preventing its attempts to humiliate the freedom of people. At these very difficult years of totalitarianism this was a tiny and very courageous group of people that dared to raise their voices against the government and the communist party’s absolute power. They proclaimed the highest value of the rights of each individual, the freedom of thought and movement, the illegality of state officials’ arbitrariness. It was called Moscow Helsinki Group as the group meant to remind the Soviet State, that on August, 1, 1975 the Heads of the USSR having signed the Concluding Accord of the Conference on the Security and Cooperation in Europe, held in Helsinki, assumed obligations to follow the international standards on human rights. The standards that they later seemed to forget when inconvenient, that needed to be reminded and controlled by people.
So from the very beginning of its existence MHG deals with revelation of Human Rights violations and exercising a pressure on authorities to make them fulfill undertaken international obligations in this sphere. Now the positions of Human Rights defenders in Russia being much stronger than in the Soviet time (although yet far from safe) the Group has broadened the topics of its activity, working in the areas of: monitoring all kinds of Human Rights and freedom violations, legal assistance to the victims of state arbitrariness, spreading the information in all countries of the former Soviet Union, education and awareness-raising for the people to know about their rights and freedoms, support to other Human Rights NGOs, activists and small groups throughout Russia. MHG makes all the possible efforts for reinforcement and promotion of civil society in Russia and the neighboring countries, more than 100 regional Human Rights organizations participate in joint projects with MHG.
Freedom of conscience and expression in Russia
The importance of these basic freedoms is obvious to the people of the free civilized countries, used to live in the world where the information on any topic is spread and accessed freely, where the state does not interfere in the areas of privacy. This is unfortunately now only a difficult to achieve ideal for the country I am living in. The states intrusion to the freedom of conscience is only one aspect of the problem.
It is no secret that the Russian government’s officials favorite religion is Orthodox Christianity. This trend has its impact for all Russian people in everyday life. It is hard to spread any information on the city streets in Russia (such as leaflets, printed advertisements in large quantities) without getting a special state officials’ approval. But the promoters of orthodox religion have never had any problems with that. Typical everyday scene: near a church in the central part of Moscow a group of people is approaching the people passing by with orthodox-christian brochures. And the fact that causes my misunderstanding is not that they do it, but that I have only a small and very risky chance to have the same opportunity to promote my own values. Try to go out with brochures, leaflets or even a single poster about for example freedom of conscience – you will most probably face big problems (arrest, confiscation of documents, search of your pockets and personal belongings, sometimes being threatened and beaten by the police). Examples of such treatment are mass: numerous cases of police violence for the organizers and participants of the “Marches of Dissent”, etc.
The freedom of public manifestations in Russia, that exists on paper (the Law on public assemblies) is in reality only a myth. Numerous applications to organize an event in Moscow undergo a severe control of the law-enforcement officials on their main idea and slogans. If the event is devoted to one of the approved by state topics – no problems will arise. On the contrary, if you are unlucky to express any of the divergent from the state line ideas, you will be suggested either to cancel your event, or to organize it somewhere in a deserted place – like suburbs or a remoted district. Try to insist – the police will come to the place of your meeting and arrest the participants. A good example is the fate of all the MHG-actions organized each second month of the years 2009-2010 with the only slogans “We demand the freedom of assembly” “Article 31 of the Constitution”. The police has each time arrested the participants, the posters were confiscated.
One of the ways left to express opinion in public in Russia is the Internet, where the state yet has not managed to interfere.
The Russian Orthodox Church has no such problems. Orthodox processions march freely through the central streets of Moscow. The government’s officials orderly attend the church services, the scenes where they stand praying being broadcasted in the central television. The state even cares to take special efforts to ensure the mass attendance by people (especially young) of the church processions. That is another example of state’s intervention in private life: forcing the people to go where they do not want and associate themselves with the confession they do not feel eager to belong to. Several examples were discovered by our monitoring group quite recently: a document was published in the internet by someone from the staff of the Moscow State University of Design and Technology – where the representatives of the Moscow local government imperatively demand the rector to delegate 80 participants to the youth orthodox procession headed by the patriarch of Russia. Several students have also written in their blogs that they have been threatened by their uni’s administration to obligatory attend the officially optional classes on the topic of orthodoxy.
A new initiative of government to strengthen orthodox ideology started in the years 2007-2008. In many regions of the country the subject named the “Basics of Orthodox Culture” was introduced at schools. Started as an optional course, gradually it became obligatory for more and more schoolchildren. So that in the year 2010 an experimental federal programme was introduced in 18 regions making this subject obligatory in classes of state schools for around 250 000 children. This measure – completely ignoring parents’ discontent, public protests and a great number of citizens’ applications against the new subject. On the results of opinion-polls held by independent NGOs in 13 regions of Russia only about 30% of respondents were in favour of religious subjects at school.
What does MHG do?
In this situation Moscow Helsinki Group finds it important to take all available measures to protect secularism and the freedom of conscience and expression.
A big public campaign was started for the freedom of opinion. This includes every-two-months meetings for the freedom of meetings each 31st date of a month for Article 31st, a big number of printed editions on these topics, media-company and legal help to all those whose freedom of opinion has been violated.
MHG also continues the collect of the information of all those cases, where the rights and freedoms have been violated, analyzing this information and spreading it to the media, international community and the responsible government officials. MHG lawyers also lead a number of court-cases in this sphere. For the freedom of conscience several open appeals were made from MHG to the government with demands to cancel the subject “Basics of Orthodox Culture” in schools.
As a group working actively with the youth we also organize education and awareness-raising activities in this field – such as open discussions, seminars, spreading printed educational materials. For example film-festivals in Moscow and other cities of Russia, where discussions to promote diversity of cultures, to counteract xenophobia and totalitarianism take place. Another educational activity will be held in Moscow in the end of July – the international Summer School of Human Rights, it defends the right of every individual to freely choose his values, to express these values and be independent from any state ideology.
In order to strengthen the positions of those thinking freely MHG and its members actively support all kinds of civil associations and coalitions, such as the All-Russian Civil Network, the international Youth Human Rights Movement, the international Coalition Against Hate – those networks strengthening the civil society and enabling people to find the like-minded persons, express solidarity and collectively protect those in need from the state’s pressure. The youth section of MHG consider it highly important to maintain contacts with freethinkers of all countries and the International Assembly of Young Freethinkers, and I am really proud to be a delegate from MHG at this meeting.