HRD Interview: Nataliya Tomilova, Member of Shakhterskaya Semya NGO, Kazakhstan
Can you share the kinds of threats and attacks you have experienced as a result of your work on business and human rights? How were companies involved in this?
Of course, they are directly involved. It is easy to fabricate a case against any person. There will always be witnesses who have seen, heard and can write a statement and give false information. Nobody will investigate into this false information, even if you have thousands of witnesses who say otherwise. You certainly know how it happens, how all these cases are cooked up.
What has been the response of other NGOs to the attacks you have been experiencing? How about the general public? The international community, including buyers from and investors?
NGOs reacted violently and, thanks to their reaction, they (ArcelorMittal) have withdrawn the civil suit in the case against Shakhterskaya Semya. They were forced to withdraw their lawsuit, because, basically, it was impossible to prove that I was the organizer.
I was offered assistance from international organizations, including legal assistance, but I did not accept it, because here in Kazakhstan there were enough associations that stood up. Our (Kazakhstani organizations) came to the trials, covered them; that is why I accepted their help. I am very grateful for their help.
Are businesses cooperating with civil society when concerns are raised about their operations? Can you share some positive examples, if there are any?
Yes, they cooperate, but only with those that they themselves choose and who are loyal to them. They invite them to conferences, round tables. For those with whom they do not want to communicate and collaborate, the access is denied under various excuses.
They’ve collaborated with us, with Shakhterskaya Semya NGO, only under forced circumstances. There was an occasion when I was invited to London for the EBRD reporting conference. There, enterprises were reporting on their projects, for which they’ve received money from the EBRD. There were participants from many countries. ArcelorMittal JSC reported, and I was also given the floor. I presented the data provided by the miners: lack of water, tools, etc. And after my report, they became interested and then, when ArcelorMittal JSC had reporting conferences, I was also invited. Since I have always presented facts that do not correspond to their optimistic reports, this practice was later stopped and I was no longer invited .
The companies publicly declare that they cooperate with civil society, but from our own experience we know that when you go to their head office in Temirtau, they would not let you in. It is a restricted area, it is impossible to get in there easily.
I had to constantly prove that I am the employee's representative. The procedure is being carried out incorrectly on the part of the mines, although they know about our public association and are obliged to communicate directly with us. There is an unspoken order not to let me into any mines. Strictly. If I go to one of the mines, then everyone is already phoning, notifying about it. They are not allowed - under the threat of dismissal - to let me in, and especially into the Lenin mine. Probably, it is due to personal enmity. But we have support from employees of all mines.
Have any investors or companies supported human rights defenders beyond their operations?
I cannot answer. No one supported us personally.
What role does the government play? Is it supportive of human rights defenders? Or do you feel pressure from the government?
It supports publicly, behind the scenes – it does not. There was the "Law and Order" project that we won. Financial support was supposed to be provided, however, in order to receive this money, it was necessary to comply with a number of conditions that I considered unacceptable for the freedom of activity of a public association.
I believe that any organization that respects itself, in particular a human rights organization, should not take money under the condition of playing by the rules of those who give this money.
What do you think the government or investors/companies can do to improve the protection of human rights defenders?
To support financially, to interact without any conditions. Sure, at first glance it seems that human rights defenders bring some inconvenience to the company. I have offered ArcelorMittal Temirtau several times and said that it is even beneficial for them. Because it is always possible to find a way out of any situation and to achieve success, if a dialogue is conducted in a correct way, and actions are taken exclusively in the interests of a victim or an employee of a particular organization, one can always reach such a compromise that will be beneficial for both an employee and a company. This can be done.
What can international organizations and community do to help protect human rights defenders on the ground?
First, they disseminate this information. Secondly, international organizations, I know, provide assistance. The fact that they are protesting and doing their job is also support. I know that they respond to every illegal arrest and detention. I know that they provide assistance, do everything possible to support human rights defenders. And I do not know what else they can do.
What drives you to do your work? How do you think it contributes to achieving corporate accountability for human rights abuses?
Since childhood, I have not liked injustice; I’m a lifelong fighter for justice. When I saw how they treat the widows of miners, what humiliations they go through, I realized that someone should do something, so that there would be no such injustice. And then, witnessing all that injustice and how they treated the miners who brought wealth to these companies, ArcelorMittal Temirtau and Kazakhmys, and in what situation they (the miners) were, I could not stand aside. It is a sense of duty, a sense of justice and a great desire to help people. When I see the result, it also makes me go ahead. I think that every human rights defender is driven by this. I saw great decency in them. They are driven by a sense of injustice, people’s indignation. When you see the result, it is very inspiring. But even in case of defeat, you also look for ways out, how to achieve, learn, communicate, share experiences, and adapt practices. Such a person will never pass by.
Our activity did not allow them to run wild. If it was not for us, there would have been even more rampant violations; a person would have been deprived of rights completely, especially in such large companies. But public, human rights activity still holds them back.
From the outside, they [human rights defenders] seem to be defeated, but internally, these companies listen and correct something. I think the government should understand this and should actually develop tactics for communicating with human rights defenders.
The government also has a selective approach. When some kind of a council was organized, Shakhtyorskaya Semya was not invited, although they know very well about us and our activities.