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Moscow News, February 25, 2004

Ombudsman Prepared to Fight

Interview with Vladimir Lukin by Valery Vyzhutovich

Question: Shortly before your election, you met with the President. He no doubt shared with you his ideas of the ombudsman's duties. Did he make any recommendations?

Lukin: We had a thorough, stimulating conversation. The President stressed that the human rights commissioner should maintain his independence. The President vowed to do everything in his power to make sure that this institution is not purely ornamental and that it is respected both by the powers that be and by society at large.

I am also convinced that independence is the principal condition for effective performance in this office. An ombudsman that is unduly admired by the ruling authorities is a bad ombudsman: This means that instead of defending citizens' rights, he simply goes through the motions. This is definitely what I am not going to do. The ombudsman is duty bound to tread on the authorities' pet corns.

Question: Are you ready to come into conflict with the ruling authorities as one of your predecessors did in his time?

Lukin: Will I be necessarily in conflict? This can hardly be an end in itself. There are two extremes here. Either the ombudsman heroically challenges the ruling authorities or he kowtows to them in everything. Both models are counterproductive. In the first instance a bureaucratic padding is bound to emerge between him and the authorities, effectively crippling all his efforts. In the second, the ombudsman will fall short of his official and public purpose.

Question: So the ombudsman is merely an intermediary between society and the political establishment?

Lukin: He can also be a go-between, but I would rather say that he should be society's advocate.

Question: Now, isn't the Presidential Human Rights Commission just this kind of advocate? How do its functions differ from those of the ombudsman, and isn't there some overlapping here?

Vladimir Lukin: The Presidential commission is not an independent body. As indicated by its title, it assists the head of state. The President is also an ombudsman in a sense - insofar as he is the guarantor of constitutional rights. I don’t believe there is any real risk that functions are overlapped and duplicated. I have already met Ella Pamfilova (Chair of the Presidential Human Rights Commission. - V.V.). We discussed in detail possible lines of our interaction.Generally speaking, I do not think that there can be too many structures defending human rights, especially in Russia. There can only be too few.

Question: Indeed, it would be wrong to say that there are too many in this country. Consider this: Although the law does not prescribe, neither does it proscribe that ombudsmen be elected at a regional level. How many do we have?

Vladimir Lukin: Twenty-seven. Although we know only too well the feudal ethics of local bosses. Nowhere are human rights so flagrantly and brazenly violated as in Russia's remote corners. Now, I have just been on the phone with Sverdlovsk region. Authorities there have decided to deal with the homeless. They are ready to provide them with medical services, feed and clothe them. This is certainly praiseworthy. Yet it is absolutely impermissible to round up these people and force them into special camps - something that is reportedly being done there. I am going to check out what is actually happening.

Generally, it would be a good idea to have an ombudsman in each Federation component. But with this proviso: He must not be dependent on the local authorities. Yet even if there are human rights commissioners everywhere, this does not free me from my responsibility to monitor the human rights situation across the country.

Question: Say, in Chechnya, right? The office of the President's special envoy for human rights in this republic was recently abolished. Are you ready to take on these duties?

Lukin: I certainly am. Chechnya is a part of Russia. Protection of human rights in the republic comes within my jurisdiction. It is not a matter of who is guilty and who is innocent there. If human rights are violated, I am obligated to intervene, regardless of the political rationale behind a particular violation. This said, a local human rights commissioner can also be elected in Chechnya. I believe that this will happen, sooner or later.

Question: Don’t you feel that over the past four years the human rights situation in Russia has seriously deteriorated?

Lukin: It is difficult for me to judge. I do not have enough facts at my disposal.

Question: How come? What about the closure of "uncooperative" TV channels or the series of "espionage" cases or the Yukos affair or the lap-dog courts?

Lukin: Naturally all these developments do raise concerns in society. However, the human rights problem in Russia is not confined to a handful of high-profile cases, the closure of a TV network or the latest scandal over yet another oligarch. It goes much deeper than that, affecting as it does the relations between Russia’s citizens and the ruling authorities. It is a problem of legal awareness or more frequently a lack of such awareness. At this level, I do not know if anything has actually changed for better or worse. Yet I am sure that the principal task is to ensure that citizens are aware of their rights and uphold them, and that the authorities reckon with them.

Question: Have you already defined priorities in your future activity?

Lukin: It is difficult to talk about priorities here. Defence of political rights is just as important as, say, defence of social or economic rights. Defence of the rights of women, ethnic minorities, and pensioners - the list could go on and on. All these issues merit equal attention.

But it should be understood that the ombudsman's powers are not boundless. Consequently I am not in a position to go and raise the subsistence level, but I can raise this issue with the legislative and executive branches of government. The subsistence level is the material realization of the right to life.

But what I intend to begin with is children's rights - what with rampant homelessness and juvenile crime. The recent murder of a nine-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg by a group of local skinheads is a wakeup call for all of us.

Question: Are you going to intervene in politically-motivated court cases?

Lukin: Only if human rights are violated during a trial. Say, a defendant is denied legal counsel. There can be no interference in judicial investigation itself, let alone attempts to influence the outcome of a trial. The ombudsman simply does not have such powers.


See also:

Human Rights

Moscow News, February 25, 2004

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