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Mikhail Fedotov: 'Human rights advocacy is the art of the impossible' (Moscow Helsinki Group)

posted 22 May 2016, 08:13 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 22 May 2016, 08:17 ]
12 May 2016

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Human Rights Council]

Speech by Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, at the 40th anniversary conference of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Given that we are all taking part not just in human rights but in the jubilee conference dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group, I would like to devote my speech to a justification of the thesis - "Advocacy is the art of the impossible." The art of the possible, as we know, is usually called politics. And there are good reasons for this. First, the policymaker will never seek the impossible, because he, as a pragmatist, knows exactly that the result will never cover the costs. Second, the policymaker will always strive not only to implement the possible but also to derive from it the maximum benefit for himself.

In human rights everything is just the other way round. Forty years ago, a group of Soviet but, by disposition, anti-Soviet, citizens formed the Moscow Helsinki Group, officially calling it a "Public group to promote the implementation of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR." Liudmila Alexeyeva remarked in her book The Thaw Generation that the name sounded "pretty ironic" (p. 292). But this concept possessed a clear logic.

Liudmila Mikhailovna wrote: "The report of the group is an expert paper, it is impossible to ignore it, as the sporadic appeals of human rights defenders are sometimes ignored. Violations of the rights of citizens listed in the humanitarian articles will cease to be an internal matter. So, using pressure from the West, it will be possible to force the authorities to engage in dialogue with us." (p. 293).

We should take notice of this symptomatic declaration: it wasn’t the West that used human rights defenders, as Soviet propaganda claimed, but on the contrary, human rights defenders used the West to protect human rights in their own country.

So what was it, politics or human rights protection? On the one hand, what was at issue was what stems directly from the Final Article of the OSCE: public oversight over the observance of the human rights by one of the participant states in the Helsinki process. On the other hand, the constitution of the Soviet Union, not to mention other legislation, did not mention human rights at all, and therefore the function of public oversight over the observance of something that did not exist, had a purely human rights character, in other words it was absolutely impossible to carry out.

Why did this initiative so stick in the throat of the Soviet leaders? This question is clearly answered by the TASS in an official statement, which is colourfully described by Yury Orlov in his book Dangerous Thoughts.

"The statement argued,“ says Orlov, “that the Soviet government is not opposed to the monitoring of its compliance with the Helsinki Accords. (This was a lie –Orlov notes). It is important, however, who does the monitoring. (This was true.) Orlov, a professional anti-Soviet, who long ago gave up science (this was a lie), is engaged in this monitoring. His group is anti-constitutional; (and this was true, according to the Soviet Constitution, every organization should be led by the Communist Party.” (p. 183).

I think would agree with the statement of the TASS of that time that the answer to the following question is of paramount significance : Who is it that is engaged in monitoring human rights? Acutally who are these people? We know their names, we know their professions: Yury Orlov, a physicist; Liudmila Alexeeva, an editor; Natan Sharansky, a mathematician; Alik Ginzburg, a journalist; Anatoly Marchenko, a worker, and so on. We know that all of them were individuals, each with their own extremely critical attitude towards the Soviet totalitarian regime. They were, in fact, people who thought in their own way, in other words dissidents. But is it one and the same thing to be a dissident and a human rights defender? Are "dissident" and "human rights defender" synonyms? I'm not sure it's so simple. 

But not every dissident is a human rights activist by a long chalk. A dissident may, for example, be a radical nationalist or a supporter of violence for the sake of achieving what they consider the public good. On the contrary, a human rights defender is always a peacemaker. He always follows the path of Mahatma Gandhi, rather than that of Ho Chi Minh or Che Guevara.

And on this path, he hones his art of penetrating the concrete wall with a tennis ball. Certainly, none of those who have been trained to play tennis ‘against the wall,’ have not observed a single instance of the tennis ball hitting the racket, then shooting up to the ‘wall’ and then, instead of bouncing back, seeping through it. We should ask ourselves: is it possible to break through a concrete wall with a tennis ball? And the answer is: No, it's impossible!

But at the atomic level, where instead of flying balls there are elementary particles, it is not only possible, but commonplace, for which there is even a special term: ‘the tunnel effect.’ On the contrary, in the everyday world, where we live every day, a ball passing through concrete through a ‘window of opportunity’ would be a real miracle. To perform such a miracle is impossible except for true masters of the art of the impossible, namely, human rights defenders.

In order to understand the art of the impossible, we must imagine the desired outcome as an event whose probability is negligible. Whether this insignificantly small likelihood materialises, depends on how the scenario develops after the point of divergence. In turn, these fluctuations which decide the development of events bear are microscopically small from the point of view of history. It is through them that the probability plays a role in events. After all, it only seems that the coin itself decides to fall heads or tails. In fact it is a random combination of fluctuations that decides the matter.

In social processes, which include the protection of human rights, these fluctuations are the result of the individual actions of people, including human rights defenders who systematically and relentlessly bombard the concrete wall of bureaucracy with the tennis balls of their open letters, statements, complaints, assessments, draft legislation, lawsuits, etc. . Moreover, there is always a little ‘crack’ in the concrete wall, which, like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, turns out to be a multi-level maze, in which ‘cracks’ appear, then disappear, sometimes leading to a dead end, sometimes opening the way in the right direction. And when our ‘ball’ unexpectedly falls into a labyrinth of this kind, with its ‘windows of opportunity,’ then small fluctuations produce great results. And the result is a very unlikely outcome that people commonly refer to as a miracle.

These subtle fluctuations have their strongest influence on the course of developments in the so-called periods of transition, which can be likened to a state of unstable equilibrium. At these times the object, that is, society, can, in theory, fall in any direction. Moreover, this ‘falling could be the result of relatively small, weak fluctuations, both external or internal. And while the possibility of a return to the original state of affairs in principle remains until the completion of the transition period, as we move towards the end of the transition period more and more powerful influences are required to turn back the process of transformation or to divert it ‘sideways.’ That is why human rights activists are so particularly essential during periods of transition, when people are so in need of a miracle.

We have lived through just such a transitional period in the past quarter of a century. But the Moscow Helsinki Group was born fifteen years earlier, during the period which is officially called that of developed socialism, and informally ‘the end of the world in a single country.’ I believe that the very phrase ‘end of the world’ contains certainty and finality, a kind of final stability, like a tram coming to the last stop on its route. Only the human rights defenders did not fall into despair in the face of the fundamental nature of this terminus, but continued to grope for a ‘window of opportunity’ in the monolith.

And the wall fell. Of course, it was not knocked down by Andrei Sakharov, but mainly by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But without Sakharov, without his ideas and his moral influence, that is, without the most miniscule fluctuations by Soviet standards, there would not have been any Gorbachev who destroyed the Berlin Wall, nor a Yeltsin, who gave Russia a new Constitution with genuine human rights.

I repeat, human rights defenders are especially needed during a transitional period. And I am very happy that there are so many very fine human rights defenders in the Presidential Human Rights Council, for whom this is not a profession but a mission that does not depend on their official position or on their membership in anything. I can see many of them here today. And it’s a pleasure for me to make way for them on the tribune.

Translated by Graham Jones