A group of veteran Russian human rights activists plan to publish an open letter calling on Russia to end its war in Ukraine, declaring it “our common duty” to “stop the war [and] protect the lives, rights and freedoms of all people, both Ukrainians and Russians”.
The “manifesto”, signed by 11 prominent activists including Lev Ponomaryov, Oleg Orlov and Svetlana Gannushkina, announces the creation of a new anti-war council of Russian human rights defenders and is the broadest collective statement against the war by Russian human rights supporters to date.
The activists say they will seek to help Russians avoid taking part in the war against Ukraine and demand that the ministry of defence releases accurate information about the number of Russian soldiers killed in the war.
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“Russian citizens are being involved in military operations on the territory of Ukraine, where they become accomplices in war crimes and die themselves,” a draft statement says. “Our first goal is to help them avoid this, relying on the constitution and Russian legislation, and to assist all those who are illegally forced to participate in hostilities.”
The activists’ second goal is to provide legal assistance to the families of Russian military personnel who “find themselves in an information vacuum”.
“There is no official updated information about the dead, about the transfer of bodies to families, about prisoners, about their release or exchange,” the letter says. “It is difficult or impossible for relatives to find out what has become of their sons and husbands, or to get the bodies of the dead.”
The manifesto comes amid increased pressure on anti-war protesters, who have been targeted with arrest and intimidation; the closure of Russian media outlets including Echo of Moscow for violating censorship laws; and new legislation for publishing “fake” information about the Russian military that can lead to up to 15 years in prison.
“Russia invaded the territory of Ukraine, starting a full-scale war unprecedented in recent history,” the letter says. “This war has neither just grounds nor a just purpose. The international court of justice of the United Nations recognised the grounds of the ‘special military operation’ declared by Russia as illegal and has demanded an immediate end to the aggression and withdrawal of troops.
“But the fighting, bombing and shelling continue, levelling cities and vital infrastructure to the ground. Millions of residents of Ukraine have become refugees, many thousands have died – both civilians (among them more than 100 children) and military personnel from both sides.”
The manifesto announces the creation of a council of human rights defenders in Russia whose goal is to coordinate the actions under the “new conditions” of working in Russia.
The signatories are some of Russia’s best-known human rights activists, including Ponomaryov, the founder of the For Human Rights NGO and a former member of the Duma, Orlov and Alexander Cherkasov of the Memorial human rights group, and Gannushkina, the founder of the Civic Assistance Committee NGO. Several signatories to the manifesto “are not listed for security reasons”.
A number of professional communities including doctors, academics and IT workers have published open letters in protest against the war in Ukraine, which began more than a month ago. Many groups have since been forced to hide the list of signatories after pressure from the government or from pro-Kremlin organisations.
Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader sentenced to an additional nine years in prison this week, has also called on Russians to attend anti-war protests. “You need to go to anti-war rallies every weekend, even if it seems that everyone has either left or got scared … You are the backbone of the movement against war and death.”
In the letter the activists write that the war in Ukraine was a consequence of a culture of impunity for human rights abuses.
“The war that has broken out in the centre of Europe is a consequence and continuation of Russia’s long-term refusal to protect the rights and freedoms of its citizens and all those under its jurisdiction – once again it recalled the unlearned lesson of the second world war: a state that grossly and massively violates human rights within its borders sooner or later becomes a threat to peace and international security,” the letter says.
“The lack of a proper reaction of the international community to these processes during the post-Soviet decades also contributed to the tragic development of events.”