A decade of the Ruggie Principles: World events and looming legislation are forcing investors to step up on human rights

RI’s human rights specialist Gina Gambetta reflects on recent developments on the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

June marks 10 years since the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), known by many as the ‘Ruggie Principles’ – in honour of Harvard academic John Ruggie, who oversaw their creation.

The UNGPs, which are a set of guidelines for States and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations, have provided a centre of gravity for investor discussion on human rights over the past decade, and are due to underpin a number of major new rules being developed across Europe. 

The EU’s Sustainable Corporate Governance Directive, for example, looks set to introduce mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence requirements across the bloc. The proposals currently cover Limited Liability Companies, but European Parliament has approved plans to roll them out to all corporations operating in the EU internal market, including banks and investors.

Directives (as opposed to regulations) allow EU Member States some freedom to decide how they implement rules in their own jurisdictions, and some countries are already coming up with national laws on human rights due diligence that could satisfy – or even influence – the EU requirements. 

While France has expected companies to address human rights violations in their supply chains since 2017 through a Duty of Vigilance Law, last month saw Germany’s parliament adopt a Supply Chain Act, which will apply to companies with 3,000+ employees from 2023, expanding to those with more than 1,000 staff by 2024. 

The Netherlands’ Bill for Responsible and Sustainable International Business Conduct will have a much lower threshold: it’s targeting companies with 250+ employees, or turnover of more than €40m. Crucially, the Bill – which is still under consideration – aims to include administrative, civil and criminal liability and enforcement.  

(For more on due diligence in supply chains, check out last week’s panel on the topic at RI Europe where investor action on human rights was discussed at length.)

Two sets of research this month by the Working Group on Business and Human Rights concluded that, although there has been strong uptake of the UNGPs, as well as increased investor engagement and shareholder voting on human rights, “the rise of mandatory measures [by policymakers] will undoubtedly accelerate both uptake and progress”.

The studies, which offers a series of recommendations on promoting the Principles over the next 10 years, calls on governments to “integrate respect for human rights into the mandate, operations and investment activities of institutions involved in the issuance and management of State pension funds, sovereign wealth bonds and development finance”.

Institutional investors should also require their boards of directors to commit to honouring the UNGPs across their own operations and all investment activities, the report said.

While this level of commitment is still rare, investors are becoming more vocal about human rights, with recent events like Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement throwing the issue into sharper focus in Europe and North America. 

Just last week, UK pension funds and finance bodies started pushing for the creation of a “TCFD for social risks”. The calls came as members of the £7tn Find It, Fix It, Prevent It investor initiative, led by UK asset manager CCLA, began lobbying data providers to incorporate modern slavery into ESG ratings. The group also said it would commission “a new rating tool” to help investors tackle the issue. 

This AGM season has seen a number of proposals at major banks and investors on racial equity and the treatment of workers during the pandemic (for more on how investors voted on ‘social’ resolutions, see today’s analysis here). 

And there has been a flurry of investor activity centred on human rights and geopolitics. Nearly 60 institutional investors are seeking to address “egregious human rights risks” in their portfolios from potential ties to the Xinjiang region of China, where there has been growing controversy surrounding the human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims. Earlier this month, following February’s military coup in Myanmar, 77 investors – led by Norway’s Storebrand Asset Management, US-based Domini Impact Investments and advocacy group Heartland Initiative – asked firms to outline their business activities in the country and address any potential human rights impacts. 

Millions of dollars have been pulled out of companies linked to human rights issues in ChinaBelarus, Myanmar and Israel, too – a trend led by asset owners in Northern Europe.

Against this backdrop, we’re asking for your views on the state of play for human and labour rights. To tell us whether you think these are material risks for investors, and what the financial world needs to tackle the ‘S’ in ESG, please fill in our survey here. You can remain anonymous and we will publish the results over the summer.


Ground Temperatures Hit 118 Degrees in the Arctic Circle

The ongoing climate crisis is not going to spare Siberia.

Newly published satellite imagery shows the ground temperature in at least one location in Siberia topped 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) going into the year’s longest day. It’s hot Siberia Earth summer, and it certainly won’t be the last.

While many heads swiveled to the American West as cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City suffered shockingly hot temperatures this past week, a similar climatological aberrance unfolded on the opposite side of the world in the Arctic Circle. That’s not bizarre when you consider that the planet heating up is a global affair, one that isn’t picky about its targets. We’re all the target!

The 118-degree-Fahrenheit temperature was measured on the ground in Verkhojansk, in Yakutia, Eastern Siberia, by the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel satellites. Other ground temperatures in the region included 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) in Govorovo and 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) in Saskylah, which had its highest temperatures since 1936. It’s important to note that the temperatures being discussed here are land surface temperatures, not air temperatures. The air temperature in Verkhojansk was 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius)—still anomalously hot, but not Arizona hot.

Melting Alaskan permafrost in 2019.
Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP (Getty Images)

But the ground temperature being so warm is still very bad. Those temperatures beleaguer the permafrost—the frozen soil of yore, which holds in greenhouse gases and on which much of eastern Russia is built. As permafrost thaws, it sighs its methane back into the atmosphere, causing chasms in the Earth.

Besides the deleterious effects of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the permafrost melting destabilizes the Siberian earth, unsettling building foundations and causing landslides. It also exposes the frozen carcasses of many Ice Age mammals, meaning paleontologists have to work fast to study the species that thrived when the planet was much colder. For all the talk of reanimating the woolly mammoth, one’s got to remember: the place they knew is long gone.

The same region also suffered through a heat wave that led to a very un-Siberian air temperature reading of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) exactly a year ago to the day from the new freak heat. It’s the hottest temperature ever recorded in the region. It was also in the 90s last month in western Siberia, reflecting that the sweltering new abnormal is affecting just about everywhere. And it’s not just the permafrost suffering; wildfires last year in Siberia pumped a record amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, ensuring more summers like this are to come.


Mega oil project in Russia’s far north threatens Arctic indigenous communities

Rosneft is developing a massive oil project on the Taymyr peninsula with 15 towns, a port, two airports and 800km of pipeline

Gennady Schukin has returned to his flat in the city of Dudinka, above the Arctic circle, from a 600 kilometre trip to round up his reindeer.

At this time of year in this remote north-central part of Russia, hunting and fishing are key to Schukin’s community income.

Schukin is an indigenous leader and a representative of the 11,000 Dolgan people who live on the Taymyr peninsula. Born in 1962 into a family of reindeer herders, like many other Dolgans in the region, Schukin has retained a seasonal nomadic lifestyle, split between the city and the wild.

From his urban base, Schukin told Climate Home News a mega oil development under way in the region threatens this way of life.

A few hundreds kilometres downriver along the Yenisei, on the shores of the Kara Sea, state-owned oil company Rosneft is starting to build one of Russia’s largest oil projects that will transform a vast and fragile ecosystem into a multi-billion dollar industrial hub.

Rosneft says the Vostok Oil project will tap into an estimated six billion tonnes of oil reserves across two oilfields, producing 30 million tonnes of oil in 2024 and reaching 100 million tonnes annually by 2030.

The plans include the construction of 15 towns for 400,000 oil workers, a port, two airports, 800 kilometres of pipeline and 3,500 kilometres of electrical line.

This network of pipelines, roads and electrical lines will criss-cross the Arctic tundra, a treeless expanse across which reindeers travel hundreds of kilometres.

Gennady Schukin is a leader of the Dolgan people who live on Russia’s Taymyr peninsula

Dialling in by video call from his phone, Schukin said through a Russian translator he was “scared” of the project’s impact on indigenous people.

Unless pipelines are elevated at least three meters above ground, reindeers won’t be able to travel freely across the land, further threatening their dwindling numbers.

Plans for a huge port to export the oil on tankers across the Arctic Ocean risk hindering the migration of fish upstream into the freshwater rivers and lakes of the peninsula.

“We are part of the environment so we cannot consider separating the environment and our traditional lifestyle,” he said. “It means that when they violate our natural environment, they violate our rights.”

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The melting Arctic sea ice is seen as an opportunity for Rosneft, which plans to export its oil to Europe and Asian markets through the northern sea route.

The extraction and export of billions of barrels of oil in one of the world’s most fragile environments can only pay off on a dangerously overheated planet.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), new investments in oil and gas production need to stop by the end of the year if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5C – the tougher goal of the Paris Agreement.

Oil production should decline 4% annually this decade to be consistent with a 1.5C pathway.

Russian president Vladimir Putin meets Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin in February 2020 (Photo: Press Service of the President of Russia)

But the Russian government backs expanding oil and gas production in the Arctic as part of plans to tap into the region’s resources, grow its population and boost economic growth. Under its 2035 Arctic strategy, oil production would grow by 66% between 2018 and 2035.

Russian president Vladimir Putin described the Vostok Oil project as “ambitious and promising” and one that will “strengthen Russia’s position in the Arctic”.

The strategy for Rosneft is risky. A 2020 report by Carbon Tracker found Rosneft was among the oil and gas companies most at risk of having their assets stranded because of falling fossil fuel demand as the world strives to meet its climate goal. The study found that 70-80% of Rosneft capital expenditure could become stranded under a pathway to limit global temperature rise well below 2C.

Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin is optimistic about the future. “The resource potential of the Vostok Oil project, the high quality of oil and its economic model make the project one of the most attractive targets for investment in the global energy industry,” he recently said.

Speaking at the Petersburg International Economic Forum earlier this month, Sechin said the project will produce “green barrels of oil”.

He told the conference the project’s carbon footprint will be 75% lower than the average of other major new oil projects as methane gas and wind will be used to power production. The oil’s low sulphur content, he says, means the refining process can be less emissions-intensive.

This claim is difficult to independently verify without access to the full company data, David Linden, head of energy transition at Westwood Energy Group, a consultancy group for the energy industry, told Climate Home.

But it has to be considered in the context of where Rosneft is operating. Rosneft’s emissions intensity claim works out at about 12 kg of CO2 per barrel of production. Swedish company Lundin is claiming to sell “green oil” at just 0.45 kg CO2 per barrel.

Axel Dalman, associate oil and gas analyst at Carbon Tracker, told Climate Home that while it was “perfectly possible” for Rosneft to reduce its emissions from its production process by 75%, this did not take into account the much larger share of emissions resulting from the oil being burnt.

“Calling it ‘green barrels of oil’ is quite misleading when you consider that 85% of the emissions in a barrel of oil happen at the consumption stage,” he said.

Even before the oil is burnt, environmentalists have raised serious concerns over the plans’ impact on the fragile Arctic environment, with parts of the project encroaching on a protected nature reserve.

The Taymyr peninsula is rich in natural resources including coal, oil, gas as well as nickel and copper, which are used to manufacture batteries and for which demand is projected to boom. But these extractive industries have taken a toll on the environment.

“This is one of the most polluted areas of Russia,” Rodion Sulyandziga, a prominent promoter and defender of Indigenous Peoples rights in Russia, told Climate Home.

In May 2020, an estimated 20,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked into the soil and rivers near the city of Norilsk, a few dozen kilometres east from Dudinka, after a fuel storage tank belonging to a subsidiary of Russian nickel and copper giant Nornickel collapsed.

Environmentalists described the disaster as one of the largest spills in Russia’s history that could pollute the freshwater ecosystems for more than a decade. The company has been ordered by a court to pay nearly $2bn in compensation for the spill –  the largest fine for environmental damage in Russia’s history.

The health impact on indigenous communities is long lasting as the spilled oil poisons the fish people eat, Schukin said.

Greenpeace Russia estimates this is one of hundreds of oil accidents happening in Russia every year, with Rosneft named as one of the worst offenders.

Between January and April this year, at least three major oil spills have been linked to Rosneft subsidiaries in Russia. In 2015, Rosneft was charged after a pipeline leak in Siberia resulted in oily water filling backyards and flowing out of local people’s taps.

And in 2011, a report by the government’s environmental watchdog found Rosneft responsible for 2,727 oil spills in Russia’s largest oil province of Yugra, about 75% of all oil spills in the region.

“Rosneft is a champion in oil spills in Russia,” Vladimir Chuprov, campaign director at Greenpeace Russia, told Climate Home. “Experience of Rosneft in existing oil fields shows that there are no serious signs that the company will avoid oil spill.”

A herd of reindeer in the Taymyr peninsula (Photo: Gennady Schukin)

But holding companies accountable has been difficult in a part of Russia that is closed to outsiders. Those seeking to visit the region require a special permit from the authorities, making it difficult for NGOs to monitor local developments.

“You can call your oil green as much as you like, but it’s still oil,” Simon Kalmykov, energy advisor at NGO Bellona, told Climate Home. “And the biggest threat of oil is its ability to contaminate every surface that it touches.”

Speaking from Murmansk, a city off the Barents Sea in northwestern Russia, Kalmykov said the scale of the project made the possibility of an oil spill near inevitable. And despite advanced technologies to clean up spills, harsh Arctic conditions made clean-up much more difficult.A spokesperson for Rosneft described Climate Home’s questions to the company as “surprising” and refused to directly respond to any of the claims put to them. Offering a general comment, they said: “As a responsible energy resources producer and a member of the UN Global Compact, Rosneft is guided by the UN sustainable development principles and goals, and in addition, pays great attention to carbon management and assistance to the indigenous peoples of the North.”

Hopes are running high the project will bring jobs and economic opportunities to an area that lies at the heart of president Putin’s plan for revitalising the economy

Rosneft promised to create 100,000 new jobs in the area as a result of the project but without the appropriate skills and training, indigenous people are likely to miss out, said Schukin.

Schukin is seeking a written agreement from Rosneft to provide education and training, commit to environmental protection, respect indigenous rights to fishing and hunting, and invest in infrastructure across the 100 indigenous settlements in the region. But no formal consultation has been held.

“We don’t want to stop any kind of economic development as a driving force for investments in the region. We, as indigenous peoples, are trying to think positively. But on the other hand, we are very concerned about the environmental impact,” he said. “The government should change completely its policy towards Arctic development. It should design an environmental strategy that puts indigenous people at the centre of the discussion.”


We invite you to sign this letter of support, in solidarity with Batani Fund and the Aborigen Forum Coalition:

In solidarity with Indigenous peoples from Russia and worldwide, we call on finance institutions and companies working with Nornickel (Norilsk Nickel) to demand respect for Indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental protection from their business partners. This includes asking green energy companies and international finance institutions to uphold Indigenous rights in the global supply chain by not sourcing nickel mined by Nornickel or financing Nornickel operations until the company demonstrates its ability to address standards set out by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

In doing so, we stand united with “Batani,” an international Indigenous fund for development and solidarity and  “Aborigen Forum,” an informal association of experts, activists, leaders and organizations of Indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation. Together with 35 other organizations and entities working with Indigenous peoples to protect Indigenous rights and the environment, the Batani Fund has sent an urgent call to both international banking and credit institutions and buyers of metals from Nornickel, including BASF, Union Bank of Switzerland, and Credit Suisse Bank.

The next industrial revolution of electric cars and clean energy should not be pursued at the price of Indigenous peoples’ rights and traditional lands. Nickel is a key ingredient in the cathodes of electric car batteries, allowing them to store more energy more cheaply. Nornickel produces one third of the global supply of nickel, and operates some of world’s largest factories for copper and cobalt. Yet, Nornickel its widely known for its failures on environmental and human rights issues, resulting in significant negative consequences for Indigenous peoples in Russia. 

The Indigenous small-numbered peoples of the Arctic have been living in the Taymyr Peninsula and Murmansk Oblast for generations. The Sámi, Nenets, Nganasan, Enets, Dolgan and Evenk communities continue to practice their traditional way of life, and depend on a healthy environment for their subsistence. These communities suffer as a result of negative impacts from Nornickel operations on their reindeer herding, hunting, fishing, and other economic and activities, as well as their physical health and well-being.

For decades, pollution from Norilsk factories has ranked at top levels for global air pollution. Publicly available information demonstrates significant reliability and reputational problems with Nornickel. In 2009, the Norwegian Pension Fund, one of the world’s largest investors, blacklisted Nornickel due to “severe environmental damage”, with other financial institutions like Actiam and Skandia following. Furthermore, the company has a well-documented history of making empty promises to improve its operations and engaging in corruption. 
On May 29, 2020, a massive oil spill occurred when a Nornickel power plant flooded local rivers with up to 21,000 tons of diesel oil. The incident was the second-largest environmental disaster in the Arctic region, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The diesel oil polluted major bodies of water, which serve several Indigenous communities as a source of drinking water and as fishing grounds. One year later, those communities still face a shortage of food and are not able to pursue economic activities like trading fish and meat, and their traditional way of life as they could before the catastrophe.

Following this oil spill, a Russian court levied the highest fine ever imposed in Russia for environmental crimes on Nornickel. However, compensation was not paid to all those affected, and not in the amount promised. Further, Nornickel has refused to engage in dialogue with Indigenous community leaders expressing concerns about its operations, and has been unwilling to include Indigenous community demands into company plans for mitigating pollution from the spill. 

These requests are particularly important to youth leaders, who are dedicated to a just transition towards an emerging green economy. It is the next generation that will pay the highest price for continuing business as usual with companies that have proven records of environmental and human rights violations. And advocating in solidarity with Indigenous peoples is part of the Green New Deal that young people are looking for in their support for more socially and environmentally responsible business practices.   

We therefore respectfully reiterate our request for companies and financial institutions to not engage in business relations or professional contracts with Nornickel until company compliance with internationally recognized social and environmental standards, including UNDRIP standards on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), can be clearly established and validated.

Sign the letter HERE

A plea to Swiss banks from the Russian Arctic

A delegation from the Russian Arctic travelled more than 4,800 kilometres to Switzerland this month. Top of their agenda was calling attention to the lasting consequences of one of the largest oil spills in their country’s history. They want Swiss banks to use their influence to push the company responsible to protect the environment and properly consult indigenous communities.

On May 29, 2020, a fuel storage tank failed, flooding two local rivers with some 21,000 tons of diesel near the Siberian city of Norilsk. The company behind that environmental disaster is Russian company, Norilsk Nickel, or Nornickel, the world’s leading producer of refined nickel and palladium.

floating dam to prevent the spread of oil fuel
 A floating dam is installed to limit the spread of oil pollution following a massive fuel spill in the Ambarnaya River outside Norilsk on June 10, 2020 AFP

“This spill is the tip of the iceberg,” says Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the independent Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North. “Pollution and disempowerment of indigenous communities didn’t start one year ago. It is a long story.”   

The 2020 diesel spill was a “social disaster” as much as it was an environmental disaster, the rights activist told SWI swissinfo.ch. It had crippling consequences for indigenous communities trying to make a living in a tough habitat through fishing, reindeer herding and hunting. It also hurt their ability to trade.

“They have to go far in the tundra to find new places for fishing, for hunting,” Sulyandziga said. “They don’t have much fish or meat because of the oil spill.  An even if they have [some], they cannot sell, because it has a special smell…profit is going down.”

Credit Suisse and UBS investment 

Nornickel has  a turnover of $14 billion (CHF12.5 billion) and a profit of $6 billion in 2019. The metals it produces are essential to the booming electric car industry. Switzerland’s largest banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, are together among the ten largest investors in Nornickel, according to the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples. They are also key lenders.

As of April 2021, UBS held shares and bonds in Nornickel worth $45 million, according to data compiled by Profundo, a Dutch research group. Credit Suisse has equity corresponding to $27 million in stocks and bonds. It has also issued $268 million in loans.   

Both banks said they do not comment on existing or potential client relationships. “We will not do business if associated with severe environmental or social damage to or through the use among others breaches of indigenous peoples,” said UBS spokesman Samuel Brandner, pointing to the bank’s sustainability report.

Credit Suisse spokesman Yannick Orto noted that business transactions with companies from sensitive sectors and industries are subject to a reputational risk review process, which considers the rights of local communities and environmental implications. “Credit Suisse regularly engages in dialogue with NGOs and other stakeholders in this regard,” he said.

Nornickel factory
 Kola Mining and Metallurgical Company, isa unit of Russia’s metals and mining company Nornickel. It operates in the town of Monchegorsk on the Kola Peninsula, above the Polar Circle. AFP

Swiss meetings about pollution 

While in Switzerland, three Russian indigenous rights activists met representatives of both Credit Suisse and UBS with help from the Bern branch of STP. But they encountered closed doors at Nornickel’s subsidiary company Metal Trade Overseas AG in Zug, a low-tax Swiss canton popular with commodity traders. They hoped these companies would take responsibility and push Nornickel to change course.

“If you invest in a company doing dodgy business that violates human rights and land rights, you should be prepared to bear shared responsibility for what is going on at the local level,” said Sulyandziga.

Around 10,000 indigenous people live on the Taymyr Peninsula, where Norilsk is located. Nornickel also has a production site in Russia’s eastern Kola Peninsula where the Saami people live. In both regions, pollution by the company is seen as a direct threat to the indigenous way of life.

“They do not want to cooperate with us,” says Andrey Danilov, director of the Saami Heritage and Development Fund who took part in a panel discussion organised by STP in the Swiss capital Bern. “This company is presenting untruthful information to its investors and the global community. So we came to inform its partners in Switzerland ourselves.”

Russia’s Norilsk smelter complex in the Arctic Circle has the highest sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the world, according to satellite data from US space agency NASA commissioned by Greenpeace. The smelters are responsible for more than 50% all SO2 emissions across Russia.

Other environmental incidents in the region include the leaking of iron oxides from Norilsk’s Nadeja plant which “turned the Daldykan river red”, according to STP. 

An industrial accident at a Nornickel processing plant in Norilsk also killed three people and wounded three others in February this year.

“The nature is poisoned, a part of the Sami soul is poisoned,” said Danilov, who describes a lunar landscape with water and land contaminated within a 30-kilometre radius of the city of Monchegorsk, home to a Nornickel refining hub. “We are already at the edge of the Earth. There is nowhere else that we go. We want to save our people and pass on what our ancestors passed on.”

Map Russian Arctic and Nornickel area

Empty gestures?

In a March 21 letter to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Nornickel acknowledged there are “legacy issues” and took “full responsibility” for the diesel spill. It claims to have collected over 90% of the leaked fuel. 

“Changes do take time, but we are fully resolved to see them through and make sure that both our employees and local communities feel safe and fully supported,” the company stated in the letter. Nornickel has also paid a record fine of around CHF1.8 billion (146.2 billion rubles) in damages to the Russian government.

In the same letter, the multinational mentions paying direct compensation worth 174 million rubles to 699 individuals whose livelihoods depend on fishing in the Lake Pyasino and Pyasina river (an average salary in Russia stands at about 50,000 rubles). It also points to cooperation agreements signed with three indigenous associations. 

“Nornickel respects the rights, traditions, long-standing values and interests of Indigenous northern minorities inhabiting the Company’s regions of operation,” the company told swissinfo.ch. “We have a long history of support for these Indigenous communities, and we enjoy close cooperation with organisations representing their interests, ensuring transparency in decision-making and that joint projects are implemented in the most efficient manner possible. 

Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the independent Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North.
 Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the independent Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North. swissinfo.ch

International Oversight

Sulyandziga says the company engages in dialogue with representatives that are under the control of the company or state, rather than the directly affected communities. He also points to the challenges of independent monitoring in such a remote region where Nornickel is the dominant player.  “The airport and all kinds of infrastructure are controlled by Nornickel,” he says. “It is not so easy to fight with a big company like Nornickel [which] is very close to Moscow.”

The activists also met with Swiss government officials during their visit. They found a sympathetic ear in Ambassador Stefan Estermann, who represents Switzerland as an observer nation on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body gathering the eight governments and indigenous representatives of the Arctic. 

“It is important that the Peoples of the Arctic are fully consulted regarding any extractive or mining activity,” he said, the ambassador said, pointing to a 2007 United Nations declaration.

He also noted the need for Swiss companies operating in the region to carry out human rights due diligence, examining “impacts that they may cause or contribute to through their own activities, or which may be directly linked to their operations, products or services or by their business relationships.”

When Russia assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May, it set sustainable development as a top priority — one that will need to be balanced against ambitious resource extraction goals. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled $300 billion in incentives for new oil and gas projects north of the Arctic Circle.

“The Nornickel industrial and environmental disaster has highlighted several challenges affecting the Arctic region,” said Estermann. 

“Economic activity is growing in the region, particularly because rapid changes are underway in the Arctic. As a result, the risk of disaster is increasing and, if a disaster does occur, the impacts and costs are quickly high, for the industry responsible, the affected populations and the fragile ecosystems.”


Maya Peoples of Belize Win Lawsuit against Belize Government for Violating Land Rights

On June 16, 2021, the Supreme Court of Belize ruled in favor of Maya land rights, upholding the community of Jalacte’s right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) on their customary lands. The court issued a decision in the case, Jalacte Village vs. the Attorney General, ruling that the government breached the Maya Peoples’ constitutional rights, obligating the government of Belize to return the lands that had been taken without the community’s consent and ordering compensation of the equivalent of $3.12 million USD.  

The court also found that the government was in breach of a consent order of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), the highest international appellate court to which Belize is party. In 2015, the Maya people won an unprecedented victory at that court, in a decision which held that the Maya Peoples of Belize hold customary land rights over the land that they occupy, which is equal to any other form of land ownership in Belize and is constitutionally protected. 

“This is very important for all Maya communities. We have a duty to ensure that we protect the rights that we fought for in the court of Belize,” shared the President of the Toledo Alcaldes Association, Domingo Ba, in a press conference following the court decision. Cristina Coc, spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance and the Toledo Alcaldes Association, continued, “One more time, the court of Belize have agreed that the Maya people, have agreed with us, that we own our lands, through our customary use and that we can manage our lands through our customary decision making processes.” 

Photo courtesy of Maya Leaders Alliance.

The land in question included 31.36 acres near the Guatemalan border of Southern Belize, where the government had usurped land to expand a road leading to the Guatemalan border and build a border checkpoint. This land is under customary use, and therefore ownership, of the Maya village of Jalacte. The case was originally filed in 2016 by the traditionally elected representative of the village, “First Alcalde” Jose Ical on behalf of the village and by a second claimant, Estevan Caal, on whose land an agricultural border checkpoint was constructed.

The evidence presented to the court is that Caal held “individual customary proprietary right” to parcels of village land used by him based on Jalacte’s collective property rights. At no time were the villagers consulted nor compensated for the taking of the customary land.

In the court’s decision, Chief Justice Arana wrote: “This case should never have arisen. The defendants, that is the government of Belize, were aware of Maya customary land tenure along the route of the road in Jalacte. They were aware that agricultural lands would be damaged and compensation would be needed. They were aware of the Maya fears that the new road would increase pressure on their land tenure by outsiders. And they were aware that it was a constitutional violation to ignore Maya customary rights of Jalacte.”

Photo courtesy of Maya Leaders Alliance.

Since the Caribbean Court of Justice’s 2015 decision, the traditional governance structure of the Maya people, the Toledo Alcaldes Association, with technical support by the Maya Leaders Alliance and Julian Cho Society, have been working with the government, with varying degrees of success, to negotiate an implementation plan for the decision and put it into practice.

“The Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) and the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) congratulate the village of Jalacte on their resilience and unity as they awaited a decision in their case in the Belize Supreme Court concerning the compulsory acquisition and use of their lands by the Government. One more time, the courts of Belize sided with the Maya People that they are owners of the land they live on. The TAA and the MLA remain committed to a swift and meaningful implementation of the CCJ Consent Order,” the Maya Leaders Alliance shared on social media.

Part of that implementation order is the development of a Free, Prior and Informed Consent protocol. This has been in progress since 2018, when the government of Belize and the Maya people entered into the December 2018 Agreement, considered a roadmap for implementing Maya land rights in accordance with the Caribbean Court of Justice decision was finally reached. This FPIC protocol is based on a previously established consultation framework established by Maya traditional leadership, which has set an example for many Indigenous communities around the world. Although now in a final draft, the FPIC protocol has been unable to advance due to objections by the Belizean government denying the authority of the traditional governance structure of the Toledo Alcaldes Association, although this violates Indigenous Peoples’ established right to self-determine their own forms of governance. The Toledo Alcaldes Association is the traditional form of governance of the Maya people that has evolved over time, uniting the elected and customary leaders of the Maya communities to represent the interest of Maya Peoples. 

Spokesperson Cristina Coc notes that cases like Jalacte vs. Attorney General will continue to arise in the absence of an established and agreed upon policy around the protocols for obtaining the community’s Free, Prior and Informed Consent, according to their traditional decision making protocols and governance structures, before development or infrastructure projects are undertaken on their lands. 

“Many of the complaints from our villages fundamentally rest on the absence of an FPIC protocol. Many of these incursions by third parties… of the government itself, is because there is an absence of an FPIC protocol that could guide how they should engage with the Maya communities, consult them, seek their Free, Prior and Informed Consent, how that will result in benefit sharing agreements that would be important to preserve the livelihood, health, and enjoyment of the Maya Peoples’ lands,” Coc declared.

Coc emphasized that Maya Peoples continue to seek dialogue and cooperation with the government: “We, the Maya people, the customary leaders, continue to be open to dialogue and good faith relations with the government of Belize. We call on the government to come to the table with us and to meaningfully implement the affirmed rights of the Maya people of southern Belize.”


Siberia, Protest and Politics: Shaman Alexander in Danger

In 2021 a modest long-haired Sakha man named Alexander Gabyshev was arrested at his family compound on the outskirts of Yakutsk in an unprecedented for Sakha Republic (Yakutia) show-of-force featuring nine police cars and over 50 police. For the third time in two years, he was subjected to involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Some analysts see this medicalized punishment, increasingly common in President Putin’s 4th term, as a return to the politicized use of clinics that had been prevalent against dissidents in the Soviet period. Alexander’s hair was cut, and his dignity demeaned. By April, his health had seriously deteriorated, allegedly through use of debilitating drugs, and his sister feared for his life. A private video of his arrest (possibly filmed by a sympathetic Sakha policeman) shows police overwhelming him in bed as if they were expecting a wild animal; he was forced to the floor bleeding, and handcuffed. Official media claimed he had resisted arrest using a traditional Sakha knife, but this is not evident on the video. By May, a trial in Yakutsk affirmed the legality of his arrest, and a further criminal case was brought against him using the Russian criminal code article 280 against extremism. Appeals are pending, including one accepted by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

What had elicited such official vehemence against an opposition figure who had dared to critique President Putin but whose powers and influence were relatively minor, compared to prominent Russians like Aleksei Naval’ny? How did a localized movement in far-from-Moscow Siberia become well-known across Russia and beyond? 

In his 2018–2019 meteoric rise to national and international attention, Alexander Prokopievich Gabyshev, also called “Shaman Alexander,” “Sasha shaman,” and “Sania,” came to mean many things to many people. For some, he is a potent symbol of protest against a corrupt regime led by a president he calls “a demon.” For others, he has become a coopted tool in some part of the government’s diabolical security system, set to attract followers so that they can be exposed and repressed. Some feel he is a “brave fellow” (molodets), “speaking truth to power” in a refreshingly articulate voice devoid of egotism. Others see him as misguided and psychologically unstable, made “crazy” by a tragic life that includes the death of his beloved wife before they could have children. Some accept him into the Sakha shamanic tradition, arguing his suffering and two–three years spent in the taiga after his wife’s death qualify him as a leader and healer who endured “spirit torture” in order to serve others. Others, including some Sakha and Buryat shamans, reject him as a charlatan whose education as an historian was wasted when he became a welder, street cleaner, and plumber.

These and many other interpretations are debated by my Russian and non-Russian friends with a passion that at minimum reveals he has touched a nerve in Russia’s body politic. It is worth describing how Alexander, born in 1968, describes himself and his mission as a “warrior shaman” before analyzing his significance and his peril.

Alexander’s Movement

Picture Alexander on foot pushing a gurney and surrounded by well-wishers, walking a mountainous highway before being arrested by masked armed police for “extremism” in September 2019. Among over a hundred internet video clips of Alexander’s epic journey from Yakutsk to Ulan-Ude via Chita, is an interview from Shaman on the Move! (June 12, 2019):

I asked, beseeched God, to give me witness and insight….I went into the taiga [after my wife had died of a dreadful disease ten years ago]….It is hard for a Yakut [Sakha person] to live off the land, not regularly eating meat and fish….I came out of the forest a warrior shaman….To the people of Russia, I say “choose for yourself a normal leader,… young, competent”….To the leaders of the regions, I say “take care of your local people and the issues they care about and give them freedom.”…To the people, I say “don’t be afraid of that freedom.” We are endlessly paying, paying out….Will our resources last for our grandchildren? Not at the rate we are going… Give simple people bank credit.. . Let everyone have free education and the chance to choose their careers freely.. . There should not be prisons….But we in Russia [rossiiane] have not achieved this yet, far from it…Our prisons are terrifying….At least make the prisons humane…. For our small businesses, let them flourish before taking taxes from them. Just take taxes from the big, rich businesses….For our agriculture, do not take taxes from people with only a few cows….Take from only the big agro-business enterprises.[1]

In this interview and others, Alexander made clear he is patriotic, a citizen of Russia, who wants to purify its leadership. “Let the world want to be like us in Russia,” he proclaimed, “We need young, free, open leadership.” While he explains that “for a shaman, authority is anathema,” he has praised the relatively young and dynamic head of Sakha Republic: “Aisen [Nikolaev] is a simple person at heart who wants to defend his people, but he is constrained, under the fear of the demon in power [in the Kremlin].” Alexander acknowledges the route he has chosen is difficult, and that many will try to stop him. Indeed he began his “march to Moscow” three separate times, once in 2018 and twice in 2019, including after his arrest when he temporarily slipped away from house arrest in December 2019, was rearrested and fined.

Alexander’s 2021 arrest, described in the opening paragraph, was hastened by his refusal to cooperate with medical personnel as a psychiatric outpatient, and further provoked when he announced he would once again try to reach Moscow, this time on a white horse with a caravan of followers. His video announcement of the new plans, with a photo of him galloping on his white horse carrying an old Sakha warrior’s standard, mentioned that he would begin his Spring renewal journey by visiting the sacred lands of his ancestors in the Viliui (Suntar) territories, “source of my strength.” He encouraged followers to join him, since “truth is with us.”[2] A multiethnic group of followers launched plans to gather sympathizers in a marathon car, van and bus motorcade. Their route was designated to pass through the sacred Altai Mountains region of Southern Siberia. What had begun as a quirky political action on foot acquired the character of a media-savvy pilgrimage.

At moments of peak rhetoric, Alexander often explained that “for freedom you need to struggle.” Into 2021, he hoped to achieve his goal of reaching Red Square to perform his “exorcism ritual.” But his arrests and re-confinement in a psychiatric clinic under punishing “close observation” conditions make that increasingly unlikely, especially given massive crackdowns on all of President Putin’s opponents, including Aleksei Naval’ny and his many supporters. One of Alexander’s most telling early barbs critiqued the “political intelligentsia,” who hold “too many meetings” and do not accomplish enough. He told them: “It is time to stop deceiving us.” Yet he repeated in many interviews that numerous politicians in Russia, across the political spectrum, would be better alternatives than the current occupant of the Kremlin.

Among Alexander’s most controversial actions before he was arrested was a rally and ritual held in Chita in July 2019, on a microphone-equipped stage under the banner “Return the Town and Country to the People.” After watching the soft-spoken and articulate Alexander on the internet for months, I was amazed to see him adopt a more crowd-rousing style, asking hundreds of diverse multiethnic demonstrators to chant, “That is the law” (Eto zakon!) even before he told them what they would be answering in a “call and response” exchange. He bellowed, “give us self-determination,” and the crowd answered, “That is the law.” He cried, “give us freedom to choose our local administrations,” and the crowd answered, “That is the law.” His finale included “Putin has no control over you! Live free!” Only after this rally did I begin to wonder who, if anyone, was coaching him and why. Had he changed in the process of walking, gaining loyal followers, and talking to myriad media? The rally, with crowd estimates from seven hundred to one thousand, had been organized by the local Communist Party opposition. Local Russian Orthodox authorities denounced it and suggested that Alexander was psychologically unwell. Alexander himself simply said, after his arrest, “It is impossible to sit home when a demon is in the Kremlin.”

How and why was Alexander using discourses of demonology? He seemed to be articulating Russian and Sakha beliefs in a society that can be undermined by evil out of control. When he first emerged from the forest, he built a small chapel-memorial in honor of his beloved wife and talked in rhetoric that made connections as much to Russian Orthodoxy as to shamanic tradition. He wore eclectic t-shirts, including one that referenced Cuba and another the petroglyph horse-and-rider seal of the Sakha Republic. Once he began his trek, he wore a particularly striking t-shirt eventually mass-produced for his followers. Called “Arrive and Exorcise,” it was made for him by the Novosibirsk artist Konstantin Eremenko and rendered his face onto an icon-like halo.

Another popular image depicts Alexander as an angel with wings. He has called himself a “Holy Fool,” correlating his brazen actions and protest ideology directly to a Russian iurodivy tradition that enabled poor, dirty, beggar-like tricksters to speak disrespectful truths to tsars. His appeals to God were ambiguous—purposely referencing the God of Orthodoxy and the Sky Gods of the Turkic Heavens (Tengri) in his speeches. During his trek, and in some of his interviews, he has had paint on his face, a thunderbolt zigzag under his eyes and across the bridge of his nose that he calls a “sign of lightning,” derived from his spiritual awakening after meditation in the forest. He has claimed, as a “warrior shaman,” that he is fated to harness spirit power to heal social ills. While his emphasis has been on social ills that begin with the top leadership, he also has been willing to pray and place healing hands on the head of a Buryat woman complaining of chronic headaches, who afterwards joyously pronounced herself cured.

During his trek, on camera and off at evening campsites, Alexander fed the fire spirit pure white milk products, especially kumys (fermented mare’s milk), while offering prayers in the Sakha “white shaman” tradition that he hoped to bring to Red Square for a benevolent ritual not only of exorcism but of forgiveness and blessing. He chanted: “Go, Go, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. Go of your own free will . . . Only God can judge you. Urui Aikhal!” He expressed pride that some of the Sakha female shamans and elders have blessed his endeavor.

Resonance and Danger

Russian observers, including well-known politicians and eclectic citizens commenting online or on camera, have had wildly divergent reactions to Alexander, sometimes laughing and mocking his naïve, provincial, or perceived weirdo (chudak) persona. But some take him seriously, including the opposition politician Leonid Gozman, President of the All-Russia movement Union of Just Forces. Leonid, admiring Alexander’s bravery, sees significance in how many supporters fed and sheltered him along his nearly two-thousand-kilometer trek before he was arrested. Rather than resenting him for insulting Russia’s wealthy and powerful president, whose survey ratings have plummeted, Alexander’s followers rallied and protected him with a base broader than many opposition politicians have been able to pull together.

As elsewhere in Russia, civic society mobilizers, whether for ecology protests, anti-corruption campaigns or other causes, are becoming savvy at hiding and sharing leadership.  By 2021, Alexander had become one of many imprisoned oppositionists, whose numbers throughout Russia have swelled beyond the prisoners of conscience documented when the great physicist Andrei Sakharov was exiled to Gorky in 1985.[3]

Alexander, despite being subdued beyond recognition after multiple arrests, has affirmed that he was hoping for “neither chaos nor revolution, [since] this is the twenty-first century.” He advocates for his followers an “open world, [of ] peace, freedom and solidarity,” one where all people believing in benevolent “higher forces” can find them. His significance is that he is one of the credible politicized spiritual leaders to emerge from Russia in the post-Soviet period, when in the past twenty years the costs of independent leadership have become increasingly dire, self-sacrifice is increasingly necessary, and multi-leveled community building with horizontal interconnections is increasingly risky.

Whether or not defined as religious or shamanic, the bravery and force of individuals willing to risk everything to change social conditions is awesome, transcending and human wherever we find it. Far from insane, these maverick societal shape-changers, tricksters and healers may represent our best power-diversifying hopes against systems that pull in directions of authoritarian repression. Perhaps once-populist power consolidating leaders like Vladimir Putin, who warily watch their public opinion ratings, are insecure enough to understand the deep systemic weaknesses that oppositionists like Alexander Gabyshev and Alexei Naval’ny expose, using very different styles along a sacred-secular continuum. President Putin’s insecurities magnify the importance of all political opposition, creating vortexes of violence and dangers of martyrdom in the name of stability.


[1] Many Alexander videos have disappeared from the internet, and others are private access. The series “Shaman idet!” [Shaman on the Move], and “Put’ shamana,” [Shaman’s Path] are especially relevant, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1jE71TAqZw, July 22, 2019 (accessed 6/18/2021). Shaman idet! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPrb_1nWXtE, June 12, 2019 was accessed when released and 3/19/2020. See also “Shaman protiv Putin” [Shaman vs. Putin], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfTEtiqDf6U, June 24, 2019 (accessed 7/3/2019); “Pochemu Kremlin ob”iavil voinu Shamanu—Grazhdanskaia oborona” [Why Did the Kremlin Fight the Shaman- Civil Defense] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7OVy2ROASQ  (accessed 3/15/2020); and Oleg Boldyrev’s BBC interview September 24, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0LaLhkKj2g  (accessed 3/15/2020).

[2] Alexander described plans for the aborted 2021 journey: youtube.com/watch?v=YK0LlFAjx3E (accessed 1/15/2021).  See also https://meduza.io/en/news/2021/01/12/yakut-shaman-alexander-gabyshev-announces-new-cross-country-campaign-on-horseback (accessed 6/4/2021).

[3] This Soviet and post-Soviet imprisonment comparison comes from brave opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, himself poisoned twice, in a human rights review for the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/heightened-political-repression-russia-conversation-vladimir-kara-murza (accessed 6/18/2021).  


Inuit-a unique experience of development


June 30, 2021, at 10 am New York time, will be held an international webinar “Inuit-a unique experience of development”, organized by the International Indigenous Fund for development and solidarity “BATANI”.

The Inuit are the indigenous people of the Arctic who live in four countries – Denmark / Greenland, USA, Canada and Russia.

This webinar will aim to introduce Indigenous peoples from different regions of the world to the experiences of the Inuit people in various aspects of their livsfe and work.

At the same time, the uniqueness of such an experience will lie in the fact that the representatives of this people (politicians, businessmen, public and state leaders) will talk about self-government, the social and economic development of their people, and will share their personal experience of participation in the life of their people. The uniqueness of the Inuit experience also lies in the fact that, living in different countries, they were able to build and develop their own self-government bodies, build their own economy, build their own relationships with the governments of these countries.

And at the same time, Inuit are active internationally, promoting the rights of indigenous peoples in international instruments, showing solidarity with indigenous peoples from other regions of the world. Inuit are an important part of the international negotiation process related to climate change and biodiversity conservation.

To participate, please fill out the registration form: https://forms.gle/BTXivEBQCn9NPbqv5

A link to participate will be sent two days before the meeting to all registered participants. Simultaneous interpretation in Russian and English will be provided at the meeting.


Dalee Sambo Dorough, PhD Chair / INUIT CIRCUMPOLAR COUNCIL

Dr. Dorough has a long history of direct involvement in the discussion, debate, and negotiation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). She was an active participant in this work from 1984 up to the adoption of the UNDRIP on September 13, 2007.  Dr. Dorough was also a direct participant in the two-year revision process of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 107, which resultedin the adoption of C169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries on June 27, 1989, by the ILO. She also specializes in Alaska Native self-determination and has extensive experience in the administration, management and coordination of statewide, national and international organizations as well as estimating and oversight of federal, state, and private construction contracting as the former President of Yellowknife Construction, Inc.

Tove Søvndahl Gant, Expert Member and rapporteur of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Greenland.

Ms. Tove Søvndahl Gant is an official of the Government of Greenland, where she is a senior advisor at its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As an official of the Greenland Government and in close cooperation with the Danish government, she has followed all key UN processes pertaining Indigenous peoples for three decades. From 2014-2020, Tove was seconded to the Human rights division of the European External Action Service in Brussels. Besides holding the portfolio on indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide, she was also responsible for a range of other human rights files such as, inter alia, the combatting of racism and xenophobia, non-discrimination, the rights of persons with disabilities and human rights and environment. In August 2021, Tove will move to Iceland to take up the post as the Chief of the Greenland Representation in Reykjavik.

Pita Aatami, President Makivik Corporation, Canada.

“A tireless symbol of Inuit progress and sovereignty in the North, Pita Aatami has shaped policies that have uplifted and strengthened social, economic and political progress for the Inuit that will serve for generations. The broad range of his policy leadership in the North, in business, education, politics, social progress and community development, and the broad impact of the causes he has championed and of his approach to championing those causes makes him a great leader.” Recipient of the Order of Canada 2020; Honorary member of the CIERA Arctic Research of Laval University, In 2007 – Hero of the year of Reader’s Digest, Recipient of the Gold Award of the Canadian Environment Awards in Environment.

Dialogues about Rights

Director of the Batani Foundation Pavel Sulyandziga discusses the 30-ty years process of negotiations between the Udege indigenous community and authorities on the creation of the «Bikin» natural park in Primorsky Krai. The guest of the YouTube broadcast «Dialogues about Rights» is a prominent Russian environmentalist Alexandr Lebedev, the director of the environmental NGO «Brok» and a member of the Sosnovka coalition.

Russian activists demand action on Nornickel spill

One year ago a fuel storage tank at Norilsk-Taimyr Energy’s Thermal Power Plant No. 3  failed, flooding rivers in northern Russia with up to 17,500 tonnes of diesel oil. Indigenous representatives from Russia’s Far North recently visited Switzerland’s capital to demand action from the Swiss-based subsidiary of the company responsible as well as banks who invest in it.

Gennady Schtschukin, a representative of the Dolgan people, and Andrey Danilov, a delegate from the Sami people on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, appeared at an event in Bern hosted by the Society for Threatened Peoples to discuss the fallout from the second-largest oil spill in modern Russian history. They called on Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), the owner of the power plant whose subsidiary has its headquarters in the Swiss canton of Zug, to work more closely with their communities to improve the situation. 

Nornickel and Swiss banks

Nornickel is the world’s leading producer of refined nickel and palladium with a turnover of $14 billion (CHF12.5 billion). The metals it produces are essential to the booming electric car industry. Switzerland’s largest banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, are together among the ten largest investors in Nornickel, according to the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples. 

In a March 21 letter to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Nornickel acknowledged there are “legacy issues” and took “full responsibility” for the diesel spill. It claims to have collected over 90% of the leaked fuel. 

In the same letter, the multinational mentions paying direct compensation worth 174 million roubles (CHF2.2 million) to 699 individuals whose livelihoods depend on fishing Lake Pyasino and the River Pyasina. It also points to cooperation agreements signed with three indigenous associations. 

As of April 2021, Switzerland’s largest bank UBS held shares and bonds in Nornickel worth $45 million, according to data compiled by Profundo, a Dutch research group. Credit Suisse has equity corresponding to $27 million in stocks and bonds. It has also issued $268 million in loans. 

While in Switzerland, Danilov and met representatives of both Credit Suisse and UBS with help from the Bern branch of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP). But they encountered closed doors at Nornickel’s subsidiary company Metal Trade Overseas AG in Zug, a low-tax Swiss canton popular with commodity traders. 

SWI swissinfo.ch spoke to them about the responsibility of governments and transnational corporations towards small indigenous communities, Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and how last year’s disaster unfolded.

SWI swissinfo.ch: Why did you come to Switzerland?

Andrei Danilov: The reason for our visit was the company Norilsk Nickel. More precisely, the company’s failure to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and its violation of environmental norms in Russia. Our aim was to make the international community aware of the fact that the company does not respect the rights of indigenous people. 

So we came to inform the partners (of Norilsk Nickel) in Switzerland ourselves, but they refused to meet us. 

SWI swissinfo.ch: How serious was the Norilsk Nickel accident?

Gennady Schtschukin: Even President Vladimir Putin spoke personally and brought the issue to the federal level. But they concealed [the catastrophe] for two days. After that, they had to organise the decontamination of the affected areas and take measures to prevent the fuel from going further. Of course, they managed to remove most of it [from the environment], but a lot of it landed at the bottom of the river. And it’s very difficult to remove from there.

The ecological disaster was visible even from space. SRF-SWI

SWI swissinfo.ch: What led to the disaster? Outdated infrastructure and equipment? 

Gennady Schtschukin: It’s all about the old technologies left over from the Soviet Union. They are still in use. Everything is taken out of the ground in terms of minerals, and this happens until the old machinery just begins to crumble. On May 29, 2020, that boiler burst. I’m not an environmental engineer, but I can say that after the affected areas were cleaned and reclaimed, there were no fish. That means the clean-up work was not well done.  

It’s quite possible that Norilsk Nickel simply does not have the appropriate technology. In this case, part of the responsibility lies with governments. And we’re not just talking about penalties, we’re talking about special programmes to protect indigenous communities and the consequences must be financed by the state. Because otherwise we simply will not have means of livelihood. We will not have fish; we will not have meat. We will not be able to survive in Arctic conditions. 

SWI swissinfo.ch: What is life like in Russia’s Far North, and what’s the potential for dialogue with the government and companies operating there?

Andrey Danilov: Russia’s two-year presidency of the Arctic Council starts right now. There are a lot of documents and regulations including the Arctic Development Strategy until 2035, but they do not even mention indigenous people and their interests! These documents mention corporations, but nothing at all about people. 

Companies and other entities which get money and tax breaks for “development” in the region just end up siphoning off resources from the Arctic and do not even think about entering a dialogue with indigenous peoples. The documents say that they “can” have a dialogue but do not oblige anybody to do anything. 

In the Soviet era, attention was paid to indigenous peoples because it was politically important for the whole country. It was necessary to say: “Look how our state protects the small communities of the North, no one can go there and do whatever they want without an agreement with the local population and authorities”. And now everything is given to corporations.

SWI swissinfo.ch: Do you think your coming here to Switzerland will have any effect? 

Gennady Schtschukin: I’m sure of it. Our partners [at the Society for Threatened Peoples] have taken us under their wing and are watching our security. They will turn to certain local companies that invest in projects implemented [in our regions]. In general, they will address the issues related to the situation of indigenous peoples [of the Russian Far North]. So, I think there will be a result!