Human Rights Watch Blasts Putin’s Russia

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The organization Human Rights Watch has released its 2008 World Report and an essay by executive director Kenneth Roth entitled “Despots Masquerading as Democrats” in which Putin’s Russia plays a starring role. These excerpts from the essay on Russia:

As parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2007 and early 2008 approached, the administration headed by President Vladimir Putin cracked down on civil society and freedom of assembly. Reconstruction in Chechnya did not mask grave human rights abuses including torture, abductions, and unlawful detentions.

International criticism of Russia’s human rights record remains muted, with the European Union failing to challenge Russia on its human rights record in a consistent and sustained manner. . . .

While many global leaders expressed concern over developments in Russia, such as restrictions on civil society, human rights issues remain on the margins of Russia’s bilateral and multilateral relations, with many key interlocutors failing to press Russia to reform or to challenge it on continuing problems, especially Chechnya.

The EU held two rounds of human rights consultations with Russia, meetings ultimately undermined by the lack of high-level Russian participation and adequate follow-up mechanisms. Human rights did not figure prominently in the broader EU-Russia agenda. Although the German EU presidency raised human rights issues at the May EU-Russia summit, particularly around freedom of assembly, this stance was compromised by subsequent statements made by the Portuguese presidency equating the raising of human rights issues with inappropriate “lecturing.” Due to a standstill over concerns unrelated to human rights, the EU made no progress on strengthening the human rights component of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia, set to expire in December 2007.

The United States government issued several strong statements on human rights but lacked the leverage to challenge Russia meaningfully on its worsening human rights record.

Russia has served on the new United Nations Human Rights Council since its inception in May 2006. However, the government has not fulfilled its obligation to cooperate fully with UN human rights mechanisms, including the UN special rapporteur on torture, who has remained unable to visit the country due to the government’s continued failure to allow a visit in accordance with the mandate’s terms of reference.

In March 2007 the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) took the rare step of issuing a public statement on its 2006 visits to the North Caucasus, expressing concern about torture, unlawful detention, and a failure to investigate allegations of abuses, as well as lack of cooperation and improvements by Russia. Russia remains the only Council of Europe member state that regularly fails to voluntarily allow the publication of the CPT’s reports. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe failed to reverse its misguided 2006 decision to discontinue the assembly’s monitoring mandate on Chechnya.

Human Rights Watch makes the critical distinction between “strong statements” from foreign governments, of which there have been several, and action, of which there has been little to none. The Putin regime — of which the coming Medvedev government will be only an extension — knows well from years of experience that the West doesn’t care enough about human rights and democracy to even suggest repercussions for his continued abuses.

The 2008 HRW Report discusses why authoritarian regimes around the world bother to hold elections at all when their hold on power is nearly absolute.

Karimov heads a government that has imprisoned some 7,000 people for political and religious reasons, routinely tortures detainees, and as recently as 2005 massacred hundreds of protesters in Andijan. He is hardly a democrat, and he faces no real opponents in December 2007 elections because no one dares mount a serious challenge to his rule. Even a constitutional prohibition against a third seven-year presidential term has not stood in his way.

Yet this brutal president finds utility in holding electoral charades to legitimize his reign. So do, among others, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and Vladimir Putin of Russia. . . .

Part of the reason that dictators can hope to get away with such subterfuge is that, unlike human rights, “democracy” has no legally established definition. The concept of democracy reflects the powerful vision that the best way to select a government and guide its course is to entrust ultimate authority to those who are subject to its rule. It is far from a perfect political system, with its risk of majoritarian indifference to minorities and its susceptibility to excessive influence by powerful elements, but as famously the “least bad” form of government, in the words of Winston Churchill, it is an important part of the human rights ideal. Yet there is no International Convention on Democracy, no widely ratified treaty affirming how a government must behave to earn the democracy label. The meaning of democracy lies too much in the eye of the beholder.

This is precisely why in a recent article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, Garry Kasparov explained the need for what he called “a Global Magna Carta” to unite truly democratic nations and to set standards. As long as Vladimir Putin and those like him can be called democrats (and Putin still allowed to be a member of the G-7), the word has no real meaning.