Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: elections wielded as weapon of war

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistFriday 30 September 2022

Russians took to the polls from 9-11 September, marking the country’s first nationwide elections since it invaded Ukraine in February. Voting took place amidst an ongoing crackdown on civil society and freedom of speech that has intensified markedly since the war began.

The polls opened as Ukraine launched a major military counteroffensive in Kharkiv and Kherson. ‘Elections at this point carry a function of showing to the population that everything is “in order” in the country and the political and legal systems work as usual,’ says Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, Interim Director of the Russia Institute and Professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London.

Three-day voting periods were introduced in Russia in 2020 to minimise Covid-19 transmission but have heightened concerns of electoral fraud. Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) said it received 93 reports of potential election violations. Independent Russian election monitor, Golos, which has been labelled a ‘foreign agent’ by the authorities, recorded more than 1,700 reports of irregularities, most of which occurred in Moscow.

There were no reports of international election observation in place. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) typically observes national level elections throughout its 57 participating states and observes local elections on request. However, an ODIHR spokesperson confirmed to Global Insight that it did not receive a request from the CEC to observe the most recent elections in Russia.

The elections spanned several levels of government, including local governors in 14 regions, six regional parliaments and municipal elections in 12 regions, including Moscow. In Ukraine, voting planned earlier this month in several Russian-occupied territories was postponed following security concerns. However, so-called referenda on the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions joining Russia took place from 23-27 September. Despite global calls urging Russia against further annexations, on 30 September Russian President Vladimir Putin formally declared the four regions part of Russian territory. This followed the announcement a week earlier of a ‘partial mobilisation’ of military reservists to reinforce Russian troops fighting on the frontline in Ukraine.

In the context of war and repression against any social and political activism, opposition candidates did not have a chance

Professor Gulnaz Sharafutdinova
Russia Institute, King’s College London

Andrei Kolesnikov, a Senior Fellow and Chair of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, says the significance of the results of Russia’s elections varied considerably. ‘The gubernatorial election is meaningless,’ he says, but ‘the municipal elections in Moscow, despite the fact that many candidates were not allowed, still made sense, because some normal candidates passed and the municipal level is very important now – it is the only possible field for the opposition.’

According to official data, the results favoured the ruling party, United Russia, with pro-government candidates winning all gubernatorial seats and more than 50 per cent of the vote in five out of six legislative assembly elections. United Russia candidates were also reported to have taken 1,100 of around 1,400 seats in the municipal elections in Moscow.

The weekend of voting marked the first time that online ballots have been cast nationwide. This followed seven regions piloting e-voting in September 2021’s parliamentary elections. Despite concerns that the move to mass online voting would make it even easier for the authorities to falsify ballots, the system was rolled out across all regions after Russian President Putin signed legislation in March approving the use of e-voting across the country.

Jailed opposition candidate Alexei Navalny urged people to engage in ‘smart voting’ – a tactical strategy designed to drive votes away from the government’s preferred candidates. However, Sharafutdinova says the greater reliance on electronic voting increased the risk of vote-rigging. ‘The electronic voting that was tried in 2021 was rolled out this time as a main mechanism of controlling the results,’ she says. ‘In the context of war and repression against any social and political activism, opposition candidates did not have a chance.’

Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Institute, agrees that elections in Russia have been marred by ‘irregularities’ for some time. ‘Already last year, the September election for the Duma were considered to be marked by extensive irregularities according to the election observers and the international media covering the elections,’ she says. ‘This has been the case in recent elections including the re-election of Mr Putin. The way Mr Navalny was disqualified is only one example. There is no realistic way for the opposition to gain power through elections. And it is worth remembering that Russia has never experienced a democratic transfer of power from a rival political party.’

Despite the results, the elections can be viewed as a litmus test for domestic support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Independent Russia news website Meduza reported that nearly two dozen municipal deputies in Moscow and St. Petersburg have since signed a petition demanding Putin’s resignation.

This could suggest that domestic support for the war is waning, says Ramberg. ‘In my view that indicates that the internal criticism of Mr Putin and the war is much bigger than had been anticipated,’ she says. ‘Having in mind the powers of the security forces and the strong support from the church, opposition may have grown despite this…[and] important segments of the population may have realised the severe crimes that Mr Putin is committing in Ukraine.’

Kolesnikov previously worked for several leading Russian publications and is the former managing editor of Novaya Gazeta. He says media outlets are continuing to overcome government censorship to increase awareness inside Russia of what’s happening in Ukraine. ‘The free media works partly from abroad, you can read them through a VPN, and YouTube, which has not yet been blocked, is very popular,’ he says.

Novaya Gazeta has been designated as a ‘foreign agent’ and in September a Moscow court revoked the newspaper’s licence to publish inside Russia. Kolesnikov says the newspaper and other independent media will continue to counteract Russia’s attack on the free press. ‘The situation is very difficult, but nevertheless, another site has started up,’ he says. ‘I'm sure it too will be blocked, but this game is played by all independent media, opening new projects or sites every time.’

Image credit: Police on street in Moscow, Russia. March 12, 2022. Igor/AdobeStock.com

Myanmar: IBAHRI releases report and webinar

Friday 30 September 2022

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) published a report entitled Crackdown on Human Rights Defenders, Opposition, and the Right to a Fair Trial in Myanmar on 2 September. The report sheds light on the deteriorating situation in Myanmar since the coup d’état on 1 February 2021 and was produced with the contributions of, and upon consultation with, numerous independent experts. This report highlights the severe undermining of the principle of separation of powers and the rule of law in Myanmar and the analysis reveals that many individuals have been, and are currently being, denied their right to a fair trial. Read the report here.

Following the release of the report, the IBAHRI put out a statement on 11 September raising concerns about the sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi. Given the age and health disorders of Myanmar’s ousted elected leader Suu Kyi, the harshness of the recent three-year jail sentence with ‘labour’ or ‘hard labour’ handed to her for purported election fraud in Myanmar’s 2020 polls is of particular concern to the IBAHRI. The statement condemns the extra prison term and previous sentences against Suu Kyi, which would see her imprisoned for 20 years. Read the full statement.

The IBAHRI hosted a webinar on 22 September entitled ‘Human rights in Myanmar’. The panel discussed the impact of the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar on human rights and the subsequent crackdown on lawyers, judges, political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders. These human rights violations add to the long litany of atrocities perpetrated by the military against the Rohingya. Now that the military is in power, the chances of the Rohingya seeing justice and accountability in Myanmar are zero and the Rohingya face a heightened risk.

Watch the webinar recording

IBAHRI calls for creation of a dedicated accountability mechanism for Afghanistan


The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) released a joint letter on 7 September, which called for the creation of a dedicated accountability mechanism for Afghanistan with regards to the rights of women and girls. The letter, which was co-signed with 14 other organisations, addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council and calls their attention to ‘the deplorable state of human rights in Afghanistan and in particular the absolute lack of accountability for gross and systematic human rights violations and abuses’.

The letter asks the Council to establish an accountability mechanism with a specific mandate. The letter advises that this mechanism address four specific areas:

  • to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of human rights law amounting to crimes under international law in Afghanistan, including against women and girls;
  • to collect, consolidate and analyse evidence of such violations and abuses, including their gender dimension, and to systematically record and preserve all information, documentation and evidence consistent with international law standards, in view of any future legal proceedings;
  • to document and verify relevant information and evidence, including through field engagement, and to cooperate with judicial and other entities, national and international, as appropriate; and
  • to identify, where possible, those individuals and entities responsible for all alleged violations and abuses.

Read the full letter

IBAHRI condemns suspension of sitting judges in Kiribati

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHR) has issued a statement condemning the suspension of three Court of Appeal judges by the Kiribati government. The suspensions have escalated the judicial crisis that Kiribati is currently facing, as the country is now without a functioning High Court jurisdiction, thus posing a critical threat to the right to access to justice and the rule of law.

Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, IBAHRI Co-Chair and Immediate Past Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, said that ‘a fully functioning, independent judiciary is fundamental to the rule of law’ and that the IBAHRI ‘strongly opposes any action that threatens this as in the case of Kiribati’. IBAHRI Co-Chair Mark Stephens CBE also added that ‘the IBAHRI urges the government of Kiribati to respect the separation of powers and ensure independence of the judiciary by complying with due process and court orders’.

Read the full statement

IBAHRI calls for release of Russian lawyer who criticised the invasion of Ukraine

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has issued a statement calling for the release of Russian lawyer Dmitry Talantov, President of the Bar Association of Udmurtia, after he was arrested following comments he posted on his social media in April, criticising the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Charged under a new Russian law, Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code, that targets ‘public dissemination of knowingly false information about use of the Russian Armed Forces abroad’, Talantov – who was arrested in June in Izhevsk and later transferred to Moscow – had his detention extended from August to September, reportedly did not have access to his lawyer during questioning and is being held in poor conditions without any medical assistance.

IBA Executive Director Dr Mark Ellis has said that ‘the criminal prosecution and pre-trial detention of Dmitry Talantov is an indisputable violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, adding that ‘although the [Russian] Federal Bar has failed to act in support of Mr Talantov’s release, more than 500 members of Russia’s legal profession have signed a petition defending Mr Talantov’s professional accomplishments and expressing outrage at this criminalisation of expression’. He further stated that ‘in what is a repressive political and legal environment these professionals should be applauded for their integrity and bravery’.

A former Director of the International Division of the Russian Federal Bar Association, Pavel Maguta, said ‘the targeting and systemic persecution of lawyers by the Russian state forms a worrying trend […] it is crucial to speak publicly about this case and the generally disgraceful situation faced by the legal profession in Russia’.

Read the full statement

IBAHRI calls for immediate release of French-Palestinian lawyer from detention in Israel

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has called for the immediate release of Salah Hammouri, a French-Palestinian lawyer and human rights defender, who was arrested by Israeli authorities in March.

According to Israeli authorities, the order for Hammouri’s ‘administrative detention’ is based on ‘secret’ information. Detainees in administrative detention are alleged to have plans to commit a future offence, based on undisclosed evidence. Due to the nature of the type of detention, Hammouri’s legal representative is unable to access the evidence in order to challenge it. It is reported that there are currently over 700 Palestinians in administrative detention.

IBAHRI Co-Chair Mark Stephens CBE has said that ‘the vagueness of “secret evidence” as a policy undermines international fair trial principles […] Israeli forces are holding Salah Hammouri in detention arbitrarily, with no regard for his due process rights’. Last year in October, Israeli forces revoked Hammouri’s permanent residency status in Jerusalem due to an alleged engagement with ‘terrorist’ activities. The Israeli government also designated Hammouri’s organisation, where he worked since 2014, as a ‘terrorist organisation’, thus impeding their ability to defend Palestinian prisoners.

Stephens has emphasised the IBAHRI’s calls ‘on Israeli authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Salah Hammouri from Hadarim Prison, reverse the order to revoke his residency status […] and end the systemic harassment and persecution against Hammouri and other Palestinian lawyers and [civil society organisations]’.

Read the full statement


IBAHRI issues joint statement on Elchin Sadykov


On 16 September, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and Media Defence issued a joint statement in support of Azeri human rights lawyer Elchin Sadykov and his client, journalist Avaz Zeynalli. The statement is signed by Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, IBAHRI Director and Alinda Vermeer, CEO of Media Defence.

The statement raises concerns around the recent criminal procedure initiated against Sadykov: ‘The manner of Mr Sadykov’s arrest and detention raise serious concerns with regard to the legitimacy and lawfulness of the procedures brought against him and their compatibility with international human rights standards.’

The IBAHRI and Media Defence recommend that ‘Mr Sadykov should be released immediately and respect for his rights and liberties must be ensured, in line with international human rights standards’. This echoes an earlier statement from the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, which asked Azerbaijani authorities to allow human rights defenders to carry out their work safely and freely.

Read the full statement ​​​​​​​

Climate justice: Prioritising ‘loss and damage’ essential at COP27 talks

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 4 October 2022

Severe flooding devastated Pakistan in late August, killing more than 1,500 people, causing billions of dollars in damage and affecting more than 15 per cent of the country’s population. As global leaders prepare to gather in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (‘COP27’) in November, there are growing calls for high-income countries to shoulder the burden of climate-related losses and damages.

‘The problem that we are facing is so vast and the scale is so big that we’ve never seen the like of it before,’ says Hina Jilani, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a member of The Elders. ‘We realise very well that this would have been a big challenge for any government, even if they were well resourced and the economy was not in a shambles like it is right now in Pakistan.’

Pakistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has warned that flood damage to infrastructure and the costs associated with rehabilitation could exceed $10bn. In the wake of the flooding, the International Monetary Fund issued a $1.1bn bailout to help the country avoid defaulting on its debts.

Jilani, who saw first-hand the impact of the flooding in Sindh, the worst-hit province, says the crisis has also brought into focus the need for developed nations to offer debt relief to countries such as Pakistan. ‘The reality is that countries like ours have no carbon footprint and yet we are suffering because others have made even larger and more dangerous mistakes than we have’, she says. ‘Rather than the calls coming from those who need the help, it should come from countries who have the ability to defer or cancel debts.’

Pakistan’s leaders called on the US to extend the $128m in debt relief promised to the country under the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative. The US agreed to extend the relief in September, but also urged the country to seek debt relief from China, its single biggest creditor. ‘Perhaps Pakistan is not the only country that needs this kind of help desperately, but it’s proportionate to the problems that we are facing’, says Jilani. ‘Everywhere there must be some concentration on helping out and giving space to these countries to help themselves so that they can release resources from debt servicing.’

Rather than the calls coming from those who need the help, it should come from countries who have the ability to defer or cancel debts

Hina Jilani
Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Loss and damage – the challenge of how to alleviate the world’s poorest nations from the most extreme impacts of the climate crisis in a manner that is fair and equitable – continues to be one of the most contentious issues in global climate negotiations.

The devastation caused by Pakistan’s floods has increased pressure on developed nations to establish a dedicated fund to compensate countries for climate-driven losses and this is set to be a key talking point at COP27.

Harjeet Singh, Head of Global Political Strategy at the Climate Action Network, has been campaigning heavily to ensure this issue remains front and centre at the upcoming talks. ‘It is the most important issue, and we’ll continue to put pressure on policymakers to make sure that we get a lost and damage finance facility’, he says.

Singh says it’s vitally important in the context of the continued failure by wealthy nations to meet previous financial pledges. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates that high-income countries have fallen almost $17bn short of delivering the pledged $100bn in climate finance a year by 2020. The OECD estimates that the donor countries’ collective target will not be reached until at least 2023.

Singh says this has only highlighted the need for loss and damage to be firmly on the COP27 agenda. ‘There’s still this shortfall and the majority of the money remains on loan, which means that we are not helping developing countries to adopt a greener pathway’, he says. ‘We have to look at this in the wider context of how we’ve failed on mitigation, we’ve failed on adaptation and where we have reached is climate impacts are everywhere and people suffering loss and damage.’

There has been some growing awareness internationally of the immediacy of the problem. In September, Denmark announced it would direct more than $13m in ‘loss and damage’ support to the Sahel region in north-western Africa and other areas that have suffered an impact, marking the first time a UN member state has pledged to compensate communities affected by the climate crisis.

That same month, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told members of the General Assembly in its annual gathering in New York that developed countries needed to tax windfall profits of fossil fuel companies and direct that money ‘to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis; and to people struggling with rising food and energy prices’.

The concept of a ‘just transition’ must be central to climate negotiations going forward, says Andrea Forabosco, Energy Transition Officer of the IBA Oil and Gas Law Committee and Senior Counsel on energy transition issues at Shell International. ‘A key area of focus for COP27 and COP28 is going to be on an energy transition that is fair and equitable for developing countries, which is one of the key dimensions of a “just transition”’, he says.

Forabosco says companies will need clearer objectives if they are to decarbonise their operations successfully. ‘It’s only if the entire system shifts that there’s going to be a positive outcome’, he says. ‘The trend is for more clarity on what exactly organisations are supposed to do and higher expectations. Eventually it will be a discussion on how organisations are going to deliver and on how they are going to become more sustainable.’

Image credit: Pakistan floods in the SWAT valley. trentinness/AdobeStock.com