In Eastern Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic is being used to attack human rights defenders

9/6/20 - Ella Skybenko, Eastern Europe/Central Asia Senior Researcher & Representative at BHRRC

Ella Skybenko explains why during the pandemic the role of civil society is more important than ever

As we all adjust to a ‘new reality’ of living with the pandemic, this is being increasingly used by governments and many companies in Eastern Europe to perpetuate human rights abuses and intimidate human rights defenders. It seems that in COVID-19, both governments and companies now have an additional tool at their disposal to ignore or suppress any form of dissent, especially when the business interests of ruling elites are at stake. And this tool is used not only by authoritarian countries in the region, but also by potential candidates for EU membership.

A recent response by Russian authorities to the ongoing waste disposal protests is a good example of how COVID-19 is used to continue intimidating human rights defenders. The protests are among the most sustained since Vladimir Putin came to power almost two decades ago. Thousands of people in different regions of Russia have been marching against planned landfills and waste incineration plants concerned about adverse environmental and health impacts.

Protesters allege the landfills and plants are controlled by a so-called ‘garbage mafia’ that consists of officials linked to the Kremlin. In 2018, the company “Khartia”, (allegedly owned by Igor Chaika, the youngest son of the Russian Prosecutor General), won a 500 million EUR contract to handle waste disposal in the region surrounding Moscow.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the reaction of the authorities to the protests has been very harsh: Over the last two years, hundreds of protestors have been intimidated, beaten, arrested, fined or sentenced to administrative detentions. Until recently they were mostly charged with taking part in ‘illegal’ protests or disobeying a lawful order from a police officer. Since April we have seen an increasing number of reports about detention of environmental activists on charges of violating COVID-19 quarantine measures.

Another example is from Georgia. On 23 March, the Georgian government introduced a state of emergency, by adopting Resolution #181, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Three days later the Resolution was amended by adding a paragraph on rules for issuing environmental decisions. The amendment restricts the ability of the public to participate in two stages of environmental decision-making: scoping opinions and environmental decisions on projects that are subject to Environmental Impact Assessment.

Meanwhile, since 26 March the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture has released statements for more than 20 planned projects, some of which are highly controversial, including the Abastumani Bypass Road project in Adigeni Municipality. These decisions have triggered an immediate reaction from civil society. The NGOs Green Alternative and Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) issued a letter calling on the Government of Georgia “to suspend the ongoing decision‐making processes on planned projects during the period of the state of emergency”.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has recently renewed environmental permits for controversial Neretvica River Small Hydropower Plants without notifying local NGOs or residents. According to the Aarhus Center, the concept of “renewed” environmental permit does not exist in the Federation’s Law on Environmental Protection. This means the assessment process should have been started from the very beginning again, but this did not happen.

In April and May, the Republic of Srpska authorities exempted two companies (Marvel and Delaso) from carrying out environmental impact assessments for some of the upper Neretva hydropower plants and the Hotovlje hydropower plant. The environmental inspectorate said it was unable to conduct a site visit to the Hotovlje plant because of COVID-19. In response to these actions, local NGOs have filed lawsuits against relevant ministries in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska (the entities comprising Bosnia and Herzegovina) for non-compliance with law when approving the construction of five small hydropower plants.

In Azerbaijan, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) decided to keep workers on oil rigs for over a month, working twice as long as usual, due to COVID-19. The company said it was a necessary measure to prevent the spread of the virus. The move was severely criticized by the NGO Oil-Workers Rights Protection Organization. The Director of the NGO, Mirvari Gahramanli, plausibly argued that the company’s decision violates the rights of offshore workers enshrined in Azerbaijan’s Labour Code, since pandemics are not listed among exceptional cases when overtime work is permitted. She urged the company to review the decision.

These are just a few examples of how governments and businesses across Eastern Europe use the COVID-19 pandemic as a blatant excuse to pursue interests that often result in significant harm to workers, human rights defenders, and local communities. In this new reality, the role of civil society in protecting and advancing human rights in the private sector has become more important than ever.

Ella Skybenko is Eastern Europe/Central Asia Senior Researcher & Representative at BHRRC