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Dr Anton Burkov

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PILnet International Fellow, 2001-2003


Article by PILnet.

Anton Burkov’s career in human rights is characterized by a deep and beautiful irony: he describes it all as a “pure accident.” “In my last year at law school, I wanted to immediately start practicing, so I began looking for internships and openings in Russia. But every place I turned to would ask me about previous legal experience. Obviously, as a student, I had none. The only place that didn’t turn me down was a human rights NGO called Sutyajnik. In a way, my entire career was shaped by that happy coincidence. I didn’t intend to work for an NGO at first. In fact, I was seriously considering commercial law. At the NGO, however, I immediately had very interesting work. Initially, I thought I would work there for about three months and then turn to the corporate world. The more I worked, though, the more I was excited by it, and the more I oriented myself toward a lifelong track in promoting human rights.”

Through his work with Sutyajnik, a human rights litigation NGO in Russia, Anton became acutely aware of the ways in which his work could impact large numbers of people in meaningful and lasting ways. The NGO took on cases that involved issues of access to justice, a broad topic that embraced everything from right to life to consumers’ rights. This tremendous variety of cases offered Anton valuable exposure to a wide range of human rights issues and lobbying approaches. “My interest was in challenging the normative acts issued by the Russian government. If I was able to effectively challenge these acts, I could influence an unlimited social circle that extended beyond what I had originally imagined when I entered law school.”

By far, the most effective—and challenging—mechanism through which Anton discovered he could affect large masses of people was the media. “It was very difficult to send a clear human rights-related message through Russia’s mass media. First, it was hard to transfer the legal language of such issues to the public in terms to which people could relate. I came up with the idea of setting up a department to work with mass media to do just that. It was the first mass media and public relations department to be instituted in a Russian NGO. And honestly, its growth was organic because we identified that there was a great need for it. We needed to train lawyers on how to organize and conduct a press conference, how to write a press release and how to conduct themselves during press interviews.” In 1999, Anton began working intensively on this mass media project. By 2002, he had set up a website with an online database that linked journalists to lawyers across Russia. Today, that same website even features an Internet radio that broadcasts interviews and press conferences as well. His success left a huge imprint on Sutyajnik.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, it was Sutyajnik that strongly encouraged Anton to apply to become a PILnet International Fellow. In fact, the NGO offered to submit Anton’s application on his behalf. “At that time, the NGO and I had many questions about issues of access to justice in the Russian context and we wanted to learn more about the international experience with the same topic.” Furthermore, there was a desire throughout Sutyajnik to expand the website from an exclusively Russian initiative to one that was more globally encompassing. “I realized that if I was away in the United States, I wouldn’t really be able to follow what was going in my region of Russia because it would be difficult to get access to local human rights news if I didn’t actively and consistently call or email specific colleagues. I wanted to create a centralized way of communicating important localized human rights updates. And finally, there was the issue of language and law. In 1996, Russia joined the Council of Europe and in 1998 ratified the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms with jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The entirety of case law was in English and if Russia wanted to use this new court, Russian lawyers needed to speak English. The PILnet fellowship would offer me a chance to really improve my grasp of the legal English language.”

Anton’s experience as a PILnet International Fellow dramatically impacted the direction of his career. He was particularly impressed by the training he received at Columbia’s Center for International Affairs. There, Anton was taught how to prepare the most effective proposals and applications for grants. “It is vital for NGOs—especially those operating outside of the US—to be able to prepare a good application in English and to be able to clearly describe the human rights issues that need to be solved.” Since his work with PILnet, Anton has become much “more interested in international human right guarantees” particularly in light of all of the materials on European standards he was able to peruse as a PILnet International Fellow. In his own words, “PILnet widened my world outlook. It wasn’t just about the projects I did or the internships I completed. It was about the other fellows and the appreciation for world affairs and international human rights that they gave me.”

Since being a PILnet International Fellow, Anton has dedicated his efforts to advancing his knowledge of international and European human rights law. He was granted a scholarship to pursue an LLM degree at Essex University. Most recently, Anton defended his PhD, which is based in large part on research he conducted while at Cambridge University. Anton’s PhD focuses on Russia’s integration into the Council of Europe’s human rights protection system, and particularly into the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom. He advocates a balanced approach to the analysis of Russia’s implementation of international law, stressing that the past decade has seen a considerable shift in Russia’s outlook on the legitimacy and importance of international legal standards and principles. Nevertheless, Anton has identified several obstacles that must be overcome if Russia is to effectively and meaningfully integrate into the Council of Europe’s human rights protection system, including the mentality of older Russian generations of judges and lawyers. To overcome the archaic views of older generations—many of whom were taught to neglect the role of international law in their own legal work—Anton intends to dedicate his efforts to training the next generation of Russian lawyers. Indeed, Anton aspires to divide his time between practicing law and teaching it at the university level. “My best teachers did not just teach us what we could read in judgments and legal texts; their lectures were based on their own experiences. That is what I intend to do for my students.”





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