On Politics, Policy and the Law

<< No 9 (242), 6 March 2017 >>

♦  Andrey Yurov —  changing the situation for the better  ♦

Many political activists come to the School of Human Rights. During seminars, they realize that the defence of human rights is not about politics. Someone once said to me at a seminar: “All of a sudden I realized that it’s possible to be a human-rights activist and be engaged in human rights and to keep politics separate.” In this person’s mind, until then, the two had always fallen into the same category.

One of my main tasks as a trainer is to draw a clear boundary between the concepts of “politics” and “policy”. It’s one and the same word in Russian – “politika” – but two different words in English. By “policy” I mean the social policy that we are actually engaged in. I always try to emphasize that we’re not part of a struggle for power, that isn’t our realm. That is another type of activism.

Changing the situation for the better, however, under any government, is precisely what we’re about. We monitor courts, prisons, police activities, and the environment – in short, anything that answers to basic societal needs. We establish different relationships with government officials: our task is not to overthrow them; we are trying to forge a partnership with them and together change the world for the better. This is, of course, a rather unusual approach. People are predominately used to rallies and demonstrations: “Down with so-and-so!” and “We demand this-and-that!” But establishing long-term partnerships is incredibly complicated, which is why we try to explain to young activists that being an active citizen is, first and foremost, about responsibility and day-to-day work. Figuratively speaking, an active citizen is a “trainer of those in power.”

The police won’t change by themselves, overnight. This will happen only when we work with them every day. It’s a task not only for professionals, but also for all citizens.

Over the years, the term “social magic” has caught on in our community. It means that the police have come to be a bit more competent and act more kindly to citizens in daily practice; that is, they approach a person, politely greet them, and explain why they have approached them, without using phrases like, “Hey, you, come over here.” This is how reality is changed. It’s unusual and complicated, and it forces many people to think deeply about what they are doing.

No quick solutions

Someone said to me at a seminar: “It’s easier to go to a rally three times, so that after this everything changed.” Of course! Everything will change quickly and your conscience will be clear. In these situations, it’s very difficult to explain that the police have changed because people have been working with them for twenty years have gradually changed them. We have, as they say, a deep Slavic soul: we want everything to be done instantly and in the ideal way. However, there is a lot of intellectual and educational work to be done if we are to train constructive and engaged citizens who are ready to work for a long time to achieve the desired changes.

All proverbs to the effect that laws are only made for the poor or the simple-minded in fact are nothing more than an attempt to say that there are laws, but they exist for idiots, and real life is different. This is the separation that exists in many people’s minds between real life and the law, the idea that the law does not help us in our daily life, but rather is something that disrupts our lives. This legal nihilism is a difficult thing. It means it will take years to change people’s attitudes and change institutions. I understand that it’s difficult to trust the justice system while it’s in this state. However, it is important to understand that the system is the way it is precisely because of our attitude towards it. It’s a vicious circle. […]

The author is a human rights activist, a training specialist at the International School of Human Rights and Civic Action, an expert of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council

Moscow Helsinki Group
Excerpt from hragents.org, 21 February 2017