Tribute to Irina Paikacheva, Russian human rights defender

“The places where human rights are violated by the state are not few – in the army, in prisons, in psychiatric facilities, in relation to migration, on the street, where the person is most vulnerable”. These are the words of human rights defender Irina Paikacheva, taken from an interview she had with newspaper Epoch Times. “My main job is to enlighten on matters of human rights”, shared Irina. And her mission – to make sure human dignity and personal liberties are respected by the state.

Following her passing in August 2019, we would like to give her a tribute by reminding you of her work and resilience.

The Shelter City Network was fortunate to meet Irina in 2016 when she was a guest of Shelter City Utrecht. What brought her here was her work as a human rights defender, which she started already in the 90s in her home country, Russia. In 1995, Irina established an association of women lawyers to provide free legal service to the citizens of the northwest area of Murmansk. In the memory of the citizens of Murmansk, she remains a fighter for their rights and freedoms, one who was not afraid to call upon the state for its violations. Later on she became a member of the Public Observatory Commission, a human rights watchdog in Russia monitoring cases of arbitrary detention. As part of her work for the Commission she also monitored the human rights situation in prisons in the area of Murmansk. Irina’s work for the Commission often put her life in danger, but she did not allow this to slow her down. Her stay in Shelter City Utrecht, coordinated by local organisation Peace Brigades Nederland, provided her with a space to rest and regain strength in order to continue her work back home.

Even here she did not stop being a defender and was very attentive to people in vulnerable positions within the Dutch society. Irina was primarily concerned with the conditions of prisoners in the Netherlands and expressed interest in talking to agencies within the prison system and visiting prisons within the country. Her eagerness to make a contribution also led her to share her experiences with working in the prison system in Russia. As part of a Human Rights Café organised by Peace Brigades which took place in a now closed prison in Utrecht, Irina gave a speech under the title “Women and Children behind bars”. In her speech she enlightened the audience on her efforts to improve the conditions for women and children in Russian prisons. Women’s rights were an important issue to Irina. When Irina saw the closure of a red light district area in Utrecht, she immediately became concerned with the wellbeing and safety of the sex workers. Having no safe legal space meant that sex workers would have to resort to riskier ways to work and find customers.

Photo: Irina at the red light district in Utrecht. Taken by Daniella van Bergen.

These were not the only occasions upon which Irina engaged with the Dutch society. Her concern with environmental issues, especially following the arrest of several Greenpeace members in Russia in 2013, brought her to request a meeting with Greenpeace Netherlands. Although this could not take place, Irina took several other initiatives, some more successful than others, related to improving the living conditions for minorities and migrants in the Netherlands. Irina also did not shy away from starting conversations with people on the street. This interestingly brought her in contact with a squatting community, which later on invited her to activities they organised. Irina also actively participated in activities in Dutch Universities and envisioned an exchange between Russian and Dutch professors, teachers and students in the field of human rights.

The amount of her work and impact can truly not be summarised. What can be said, however, is that Irina’s activism and optimism despite the difficulties have been an inspiration for all of us and everyone fortunate to meet her.

The network of Shelter Cities in the Netherlands is coordinated by Hague-based human rights organisation, Justice and Peace Netherlands

Photo source: @nordnewsru