Archive for January 11th, 2012

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A question of branding and perception? The latest HR NGO to focus on Ukraine

January 11, 2012

Once again I am presented with an NGO issue.

Regular readers will be quite aware of my views relating to how NGOs have ceased to be what they originally started out to be and are now far too aloof from the society they claim to represent.  NGO management is now a career and not a cause.  You now have to question the relationship between the NGO cause and the passion for that cause by the imported management more often than not.

The separation from the society grass roots to the NGO management that interacts with governments and other actors grows wider and wider.  A certain parallel can be drawn with politics and the disenfranchisement of society with politics ever since it stopped being a passion and started being a professional career direct from leaving university for far too many of its participants.

I could go on and on but I would simply be treading old ground.  If you are especially interested in my thoughts on NGOs and their failings (as well as nefarious roles), put “NGO” in the search facility on this blog.  Suffice to say not all NGOs fail in the points I identify historically, but a very large proportion do.

Anyway, to take a Utopian view of NGOs, one of the key requirements for legitimacy in the public domain is the perception of independence.  Overt advocacy or funding from a political or governmental source can and often does taint the image of a NGO to great detriment.

One only has to look at the lengths George Soros goes to in order to put numerous veils between his outspoken political views and the NGOs he sponsors.  He is only too aware that a great many people would automatically be extremely suspicious of any NGO directly associated with him and what its real, rather than declared, intent was.  He is not alone in this smoke and mirrors sponsorship methodology and it would not be fair to say otherwise.  Unfortunately when those veils are pulled back, society is even more suspicious of the NGO than it would have been with transparency behind the sponsors.  It becomes quite farcical when it is necessary to discover the sponsors of the sponsors of the sponsors.

This issue of independence, transparency and branding brings us to the latest development in the Tymoshenko saga.

Mr Tymoshenko, has recently secured asylum in the Czech Republic for fear of being dragged into the mire with his wife over the very questionable dealings of Somolli Enterprises in the UESU/UESL/Gazprom money matters which managed to get Lazarenko a 9 year jail term in the USA.  These events are currently being investigated in Ukraine and Lazarenko is due to be released from his US prison this year.

Anyway, of note in Mr Tymsohenko’s immediate future plans is the creation of (another) NGO dedicated to human rights in Ukraine.  Immediately there is the question of independence and neutrality as far as the public perception of a NGO goes.

To cite a specific case, the Ukrainian human rights NGO Veritas would be a good example.  This organisation is run by  a Mr A Tolopilo who was indeed a signatory to an open letter against the decision to disband the Human Rights Department within the Interior Ministry a few years ago.  However, Veritas has received a fair amount of criticism and suspicion amongst the Russian and Ukrainian language forums as it became apparent that Mr Tolopilo is far too close and cozy with the Odessa regional Minister of the Interior.  The rightful cry of conflicts of interest and questionable allegiances for a human rights activist were sounded and the NGO duly shunned by society due to such suspicions.

It would be quite wrong to besmirch Mr Tymoshenko out of hand, claiming it is nothing more than a political stunt and the NGO will last only as long as his wife remains out of power.   However many will automatically presume that this new NGO will not find any human rights abuses should his wife become Prime Minister or President in the future under her watch.

Unlikely as it is that his wife will ever hold such a position again, whether she remains incarcerated or not, actions speak louder than words, or in this case assumptions, and it would be quite wrong to prejudge how this NGO would behave in such circumstances, however the circumstances are far more politicised than those that led to severe problems for the Veritas NGO within Ukrainian society.

There is also the question of branding.  What to call a new human rights NGO dedicated to publicising  human rights violations in Ukraine?  Despite there being a lot of human rights NGOs in Ukraine already, there is not really that many limits on a suitable name.

You therefore seriously have to wonder why this new human rights NGO will be called Batkivshchyna, the exact same name as his wife’s political party.  Let’s be quite honest, the name “Fatherland” does not bring to mind the same human rights image as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Kharkiv Human Rights Group, The Helsinki Human Rights Group et al.

The name  Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) will only ever be associated with politics and his wife in Ukraine for the foreseeable future as it has been historically.

You can see pitfalls ahead using this name both going forward but also with it being associated with any human rights violations that occurred under the Batkivshchyna Party time when in power.   A quite flick through the archives of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group during the time his wife was in power immediately gives reason to avoid naming his new human rights NGO Batkivshchyna, for such matters are bound to be raised by society given such obvious associations to previous human rights violations and the lack of action to correct them.

Equally a glance at the ECfHR statisticsshow 717 judgements against Ukraine thus far of which only 4 were found in favour of Ukraine.  Unsurprisingly the 3 areas upon which Ms Tymoshenko’s appeal is based are 3 areas where Ukraine has been historically highly culpable.  (Her appeal is based upon Article 3 (prohibition of degrading treatment or punishment), Article 5 (right to liberty and security) and Article 18 (limitation on use of restrictions on rights).)

If you are wondering, there are apparently 150,000 pending applications to the ECfHR (of which Ukraine added another 3900 in 2010 (no statistics yet for 2011)).

What is also relevant when it comes to branding, during Batkivshchnya’s time in power, in 2006 Ukraine had 7000 appeals against it, in 2007 there were 4500, this rose to 4800 in 2008 and slightly declined to 4700 in 2009.  It would be wrong to state the numbers upheld during these years as a number of cases are still pending such is the ECfHR backlog.

Now you can see his dilemma of course.  Naming his new human rights NGO  Batkivshchyna keeps his wife’s predicament and her party in the public eye outside of Ukraine.  The world turns so very fast, she is yesterday’s news and today’s fish and chip wrapping before a press conference even finishes such is the incredible flow and amount of information these days.

There will be very few people outside Ukraine who really care about Yulia Tymoshenko or any events internally within Ukraine as long as Euro 2012 goes off fairly well.

Politically motivated human rights violations are an incredibly hard sell to a politically disenfranchised European public, especially when many would happily see their own political classes in jail.  For this reason there are very few people within Ukraine who care either.  As is en vogue globally, issues of political identity no longer run along society supporting a particular political party or political ideology.  It has found a reasonably solid foundation in society verses the political classes of any party or ideology.  “Us” verses the political elite at its core.

So disenfranchised are great swathes of society across many nations, the jailing of any politician for anything, rightly or wrongly, politically motivated or not, does no more than produce a smug grin from a society who feel they have been failed by their political classes.

This is apparent by Ms Tymoshenko’s jailing having raised no more than a few thousand demonstrators at any given point with some of those number no doubt paid to be there like so many political demonstrations and rallies in Ukraine.  The Tax Code demonstrations generated demonstrators many times greater.  A demonstration it should be noted, that refused to be hijacked by any Ukrainian opposition political party.

So, when it comes to the needed perception of independence for a NGO and the branding, will a human rights NGO called Batkivshchyna and opened by Mr Tymoshenko cut it with the public, or will it be immediately dismissed as an extension of his wife whom more than half of Ukraine voted against not so very long ago?

Would it stand a better chance of legitimacy with the public under a different name that at the very least, prima facie is distanced from a political party and its less than sterling human rights record when in power?

I am all in favour of human rights and the judicial process that incarcerated Ms Tymoshenko was flawed, thus on technicalities (regardless of guilt or innocence) she should not be in jail, but is this a considered policy to adopt by team Tymoshenko?  It certainly has a reasonable chance of backfiring.

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