Politics or the battle against AIDS? The Public Chamber considers regulatory measures for NGOs engaged in response to HIV
The Russian Ministry of Justice has drafted a bill likely to cause obstacles for foreign funded NGOs working on HIV prevention.
According to the draft, NGOs will be required to present details of current programmes to state agencies, alongside other documents about their work on HIV prevention. The material submitted will be examined over the course of a month, before being approved or rejected. Nikolai Kopenkin, head of the section for regulatory policy for non-commercial organisations at the Ministry of Justice, said that the bill is currently under discussion and will be fleshed out in line with suggestions made by specialists.
Russian Deputy Health Minister, Oleg Salagay, stated that NGOs make a vital contribution to prophylactic HIV treatment. He emphasised that they should continue working in line with current scientific methods, and highlighted the Ministry’s concern that the work they do should address existing issues in the sphere of disease prevention.
The coordination of NGO programmes is secondary to the importance of establishing criteria to assess the effectiveness of preventative programmes and successfully target specific groups or methods of treatment, the Deputy Minister also observed.
The Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor) has noted that HIV is rampant in Russia and that working with NGOs is vital in combatting the epidemic. ‘The department has considerable experience in working on projects with NGOs nationwide, with no complaints to date,’ said Razina Aizatulina head of the Division of HIV/AIDS and Viral Hepatitis at Rospotrebnadzor. She noted that the draft law deserves special attention but that, for the present, it is unclear which agency will coordinate NGO programmes. Aizatulina also added that the document does not clarify the grounds on which any decision to prohibit a particular programme might be taken.
The participation of NGOs in HIV prevention programmes is immensely important, commented Natalia Ladnaya, senior researcher at the Federal Scientific Research Centre for AIDS Prevention and Treatment at the Epidemiological Surveillance Department of Rospotrebnadzor. Ladnaya believes that half of new HIV cases affect people from vulnerable groups who are likely to benefit from prophylactic measures. NGOs have access to people from these groups and are also in a unique position to represent people who are infected with HIV but have not registered with AIDS centres, she says.
Ladnaya argues that the draft law could undermine the battle against the AIDS epidemic by obstructing the work of NGOs. Any discussion on the criteria used to assess prophylactic programmes should not centre around what should be prohibited, but around the question of how to make programmes more effective, she says. In Russia, 1.2 million people are currently registered as HIV positive. Of these, 300,000 have already died, while 978,000 are known to be living with the infection. This does not take account of people who have received their test results anonymously, Ladnaya also noted.
‘The law will affect NGOs working with vulnerable groups in the field, since essential resources supporting these organisations come very largely from abroad,’ says Denis Kamaldinov, Chairman of the board of ‘The Humanitarian Project’ (Gumanitarny proekt), a Novosibirsk voluntary organisation.
NGOs providing HIV-related services may not be in a position to cover their financial losses if they no longer receive foreign funding. Donations from private citizens and Russian businesses are unlikely to be adequate, since AIDS is not a popular cause for charitable giving, and the disease continues to carry a heavy stigma in Russia.
The Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights has expressed opposition to the draft law. In its conclusion, the Council stated that the bill created unjustifiable difficulties for the work of NGOs and hindered the consolidation of legal guarantees for health protection.
Council officials say that the bill is aimed not at fighting HIV or illegal prophylactic practices, but at NGOs in receipt of funding from outside Russia.
The draft law is politically motivated, Council member Ilya Shablinsky believes. Its authors are resisting any discussion on the grounds for prohibiting HIV prevention programmes. Shablinsky also said that today many NGOs working on HIV are listed on the register of ‘foreign agents’. State officials are not permitted to work with such organisations.
In 2016, eight charities engaged in HIV work were declared ‘foreign agents’. In 2017, ‘Choice’ (Vybor) an organisation based in Biysk, was added to the list, and in 2018 the Timur Islamov Foundation from Kazan was likewise included.
However, not all NGOs see the bill as a threat, the director of special projects at the ‘AIDS.Centre’ (SPID.Tsentr), Mikhail Konev, says. He emphasises that the state has a right to control what happens within its borders and that state supervision is normal practice – while acknowledging that it remains vital to ensure that controls do not lead to a total ban on an organisation’s activities. NGOs are forced to turn to foreign foundations because the state does not provide adequate funds, Konev adds. If the state wants to compete with foreign funding, it should endeavour to replace it.
Elena Topoleva, a member of the Public Chamber, said that the bill had provoked a broad debate, and that the Chamber would continue to watch developments closely. She added that ‘zero readings’ of the bill [with public participation and contribution] are planned. The Ministry of Health has expressed the view that the bill should act as a starting point for wider discussion on prophylactic programmes in general. A working group to debate the criteria by which the success of preventative programmes should be judged will be created, based on the conclusions of a Public Chamber meeting with the Ministry’s Coordination Council on HIV/AIDS.
The leaders of a group of NGOs working in the field of HIV have sent an open letter to President Putin, expressing their opposition to the draft law. The authors write that such non-commercial organisations are already sufficiently controlled by state agencies. The letter points out that the prohibition of prophylactic programmes and the closure of well-known NGOs would damage efforts to control the AIDS epidemic in Russia.