As part of an international conference to celebrate the presentation of the first Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in Strasbourg on September 29, RFE/RL Russian Service
Director Irina Lagunina moderated a panel discussion on "Human Rights NGOs Under State Repression," in Prague on October 2.
During the conference, which was organized by the Vaclav Havel Library and the Charter 77 Foundation and titled “Civic Society: Freedom is Not to be Taken for Granted,” Lagunina was joined on the panel by Pavol Demes of the European Endowment for Democracy in Slovakia, Rasul Jafarov of the Human Rights Club in Azerbaijan, Alexander Verchovskij from the Center for Information and Analysis in Russia, Tamara Mackiewicz, a human rights activist in Belarus, and Adam Bodnar of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland.
The speakers discussed the challenges faced by non-profit and non-governmental organizations in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes, specifically addressing the distinct obstacles in their own countries.
“Recently, authoritarian regimes have begun exerting pressure on civil society not only through jailing and harassing human rights activists, but also through more elaborate measures,” Lagunina said.
The panelists discussed recent legal steps taken in Russia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus to impede the work of human rights groups, such as requiring the groups to register as “foreign agents,” forbidding foreign funding many such groups depend on for their survival, and requiring unreasonable membership numbers.
Demes and Bodnar discussed the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe over the course of nearly 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, and emphasized the need for former Soviet satellite states with a more developed civil society to show solidarity with countries still struggling under authoritarian regimes.
The conference was held in honor of the inaugural Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize winner, jailed Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski
Vaclav Havel was the first post-revolutionary president of independent Czechoslovakia in 1989, and the first Czech president in 1993. He was also a renowned playwright, poet and essayist whose name is synonymous with peaceful resistance to authoritarianism and commitment to individual liberty and dignity.