The human rights situation in Russia deteriorated further in 2017, notably with regard to discrimination against and persecution of LGBT people, the right to freedom of religion or belief, and the right to freedom of expression.

The environment for LGBT people in the North Caucasus is extremely hostile. In April, reports emerged that up to 100 homosexual men had been detained and tortured by state authorities in Chechnya, and that at least three had been killed. The UK was one of the first countries to express concern. On 28 April, the then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, co-signed a letter to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urging an investigation into the reports. The Russian Human Rights Ombudswoman, Tatiana Moskalkova, agreed to investigate, but the process stalled amid further reports of persecution throughout 2017. The Minister for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan, raised our concerns with Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov on 8 December, and the then Foreign Secretary pressed Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow on 22 December. UK officials continue to monitor the situation and to work closely with NGOs which are supporting victims.

In April, the Russian Supreme Court declared Jehovah's Witnesses to be an "extremist organisation", in effect criminalising the worship of 175,000 Russians. The organisation was formally banned on 17 August. The Minister for Human Rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, condemned the decision, and called on the Russian government to uphold its international commitments to religious freedom. The British Embassy in Moscow attended court hearings.

Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly remained heavily restricted across Russia. On 26 March, hundreds of citizens, including journalists, were detained following peaceful protests. On 12 June, peaceful protesters were again arrested in large numbers. The then Foreign Secretary on 13 June called for their release.

The 'Foreign Agents' and 'Undesirable Organisations' laws continued to constrict space for civil society; in 2017, four foreign donors were designated 'Undesirable Organisations'. While the number of 'Foreign Agent' NGOs dropped in 2017, this is partly because many NGOs have either stopped accepting foreign funding or have changed their focus; 47 have ceased operations entirely. There are now around 500 human rights organisations in Russia, compared with 800 in 2014. On 25 November, President Putin extended the 'Foreign Agents' legislation to media outlets. Independent media continue to face threats, harassment and intimidation.

On 7 February, President Putin approved a bill decriminalising domestic violence. This made battery within families an administrative offence, equivalent to minor assault. Repeated offences or abuse resulting in "serious" medical harm are still considered as criminal. On 8 February, the then Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, condemned the decision. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, called the decision a "retrograde step", adding that the move "sends out absolutely the wrong message on what is a global problem".

In addition to the human rights abuses within Russia, the Russian Government continues to sanction and commit human rights violations beyond its borders, including in the illegally annexed Crimea and by its support to separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Russian authorities operating in the peninsula continued to target ethnic minority groups, particularly Crimean Tatars, with many exiled or imprisoned, and with regular raids on homes and mosques. The authorities failed to implement the International Court of Justice's April provisional measures requiring Russia to refrain from discrimination against the Tatars. Those opposed to the illegal annexation also faced arrest and detention under fabricated charges of extremism. The release of Tatar leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov in October was positive, but many Ukrainian political prisoners remained in detention, including some transferred outside Crimea to prisons in Russia. In December, we supported a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling again for Russia to uphold its obligations under international law in Crimea, and to allow access for international human rights monitors.

In eastern Ukraine, the UN estimated that by December the Russian-backed conflict had cost over 10,000 lives and had displaced internally almost one million people. Russia continued to violate its commitments under the 2015 Minsk Agreements by supplying weapons and personnel to separatist forces. Summary executions, sexual and gender-based violence and restrictions on freedom of speech were carried out with impunity by Russian-backed separatists. It remained extremely challenging for humanitarian organisations to gain access. There were widespread concerns that damage caused by the conflict to infrastructure could cause a major environmental disaster.

Increased Russian pressure in the breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, led to a deterioration in the human rights situation there, including intimidation of members of civil society organisations. Freedom of movement was curtailed further, with the closure of the Meore Otobaia and Nabakevi crossing points on the Abkhazia Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) in March. Access to land remains a challenge for farmers along the South Ossetia ABL. Education in the native language was further restricted in South Ossetia, while new identity document requirements in Abkhazia infringe civic rights. In June, we supported the Georgian UN Human Rights Council resolution requesting access for the UN OHCHR and the UN General Assembly resolution on internally displaced persons.

The UK will continue to support human rights in Russia in 2018. Together with our international partners, we will attend trials, speak out on human rights, support civil society and human rights defenders specifically, promote the importance of girls' education and press Russia to adhere to its international commitments.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.