Russian ‘foreign agents’ laws breached NGOs’ rights, Court rules

14 June 2022

Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ legislation has been deemed incompatible with the rights to freedom of assembly and association by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

In a long-awaited judgment issued today, the Court ruled Russia had breached the rights of 73 Russian NGOs after their activities were restricted on the basis of the legislation.

The judgment – which came just days after the Russian parliament voted to further tighten its ‘foreign agents’ laws – could play a key role in supporting civil society to challenge the repressive legislation, which has already devastated democratic rights in the country.

It also sets an international precedent, laying the groundwork for civil society across the world to challenge current and proposed draconian legislation which could restrict their work, from Egypt to El Salvador.

“I am deeply convinced that the earlier the judgment on the ‘foreign agents’ case would have been adopted, the more it could have influenced the human rights situation in Russia,” said Tatiana Glushkova, former lawyer at Memorial Human Rights Center (MHRC).

“Unfortunately, the ECtHR delayed resolving this case — to the point that even before the judgement is pronounced we already expect it to belong more to history than to the world of law.”

Legal challenge to ‘Foreign Agents Act’

In 2013, EHRAC brought the case of Ecodefence and others v. Russia before the ECtHR alongside our Russia-based partner MHRC.

The NGO applicants argued that Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ legislation interferes with their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and that this interference is politically motivated and, in some cases, discriminatory.

The previous year, the Russian Parliament adopted a series of amendments to their laws surrounding NGOs. These amendments are known collectively as the ‘Foreign Agents Act’.

The Act, which came into force on November 21, 2012, subjects any non-commercial organisation performing ‘political activity’ and receiving foreign funding to strict inspections and reporting requirements. In practice, it has been used to severely restrict NGOs’ ability to operate.

As of the end of 2021, there were 75 NGOs registered as ‘foreign agents’ and 95 individuals and media outlets listed in the Register of Foreign Agents media. Four NGOs have been liquidated for breaches of the ‘Foreign Agents Act’.

Our partner MHRC and its sister organisation Memorial International are both applicants in the case as ‘potential’ victims, as they had not yet been targeted by the law at the time the case was submitted. In the years that followed, both organisations have faced severe restrictions on the basis of the legislation, culminating in their liquidation at the end of December 2021.

Immediately following the liquidation order, the ECtHR granted an application made by MHRC and EHRAC calling for the enforcement of the proceedings to be suspended. However, Russia has failed to comply with the request to date.

While the repressive legislation has been used for a decade to restrict civil society space in Russia, today’s judgment marks the first time the ECtHR has ruled on its compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Court rules laws violate NGOs’ rights

After delaying a judgment in the case for nine years, on June 14, 2022 the ECtHR ruled that there were multiple reasons why the ‘foreign agents’ legislation violated the ECHR.

It found that attaching the label of ‘foreign agent’ to NGOs had been ‘unjustified and prejudicial’, with the possibility to have a ‘strong deterrent and stigmatising effect on their operations’.

The Court also noted that additional reporting requirements placed a ‘heavy burden’ on NGOs while funding restrictions made them ‘unable to carry out their core activities’ and fines were disproportionate.

In all, the Court found all 73 NGOs’ right to freedom of assembly an association had been violated by the Russian authorities, a right protected under ECHR Article 11.

Disappointingly, the Court failed to rule on whether this violation was discriminatory or politically motivated. However, the ECtHR did find that Russia violated the ECHR in its failure to comply with its request to suspend liquidation proceedings against International Memorial.

“This case is fundamental to democracy and accountability in Russia – the ‘Foreign Agents Act’ has been used to decimate Russian civil society,” said Jess Gavron, EHRAC Legal Director.

“Although it is likely to be of mainly symbolic significance within Russia, the long-awaited judgment of the ECtHR will have ramifications around the world, setting a precedent relevant to states that have adopted similar foreign agent legislation.”

For more information or to arrange an interview, please email EHRAC’s Media and Communications Coordinator, Catherine Anderson, at PressEHRAC[@]