Russia fights back, Western rights groups weaken

The Russian government, along with China, Iran and other major violators of human rights, has adopted an aggressive defense strategy. Post-modernism has simultaneously weakened the human rights community in the West

My way, or the rights way
Aaron Rhodes
On 27 January 2014 11:19

How can Russia legitimately criticize the European Union’s human rights record, in light of Russia’s own brutal treatment of dissenters, discrimination against homosexuals, and interference with independent media and civil society? 

A report issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry accused EU member states of numerous violations of human rights, including, inter alia, discrimination; violations of the rights of minorities, migrants and refugees; violations of privacy in the form of surveillance on citizens; and restrictive visa policies limiting freedom of movement.

The report also referred to xenophobia, racism, aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism in the EU. These are attitudes, tendencies, and political orientations that can lead to violations of human rights, not state policies, but the Russian Foreign Ministry, like the majority of international human rights institutions, confused them with human rights violations.

Russian society also suffers from xenophobia, racism, and nationalism, and the government commits most of the human rights violations attributed to the EU, as well as many more.

The Russian government, along with China, Iran and other major violators of human rights, has adopted an aggressive defense strategy to counter chronic criticism by the EU. The report is obviously a clumsy attempt to put the EU itself on the defensive, to obscure Russia's own human rights crisis, and to shore up Russian pride.

The report is thus likely to be dismissed as little more than a bad-faith political attack, especially in view of Russia’s own problems -- a case of “the pot calling the kettle black.”

In fact, the proper functioning of the international human rights system depends on serious dialogue about human rights among states, and on the exchange of constructive criticism. Russia’s report, as officials pointed out, echoes reports of a number of international bodies and human rights groups. Most of the criticism has a basis in reality.  

And why shouldn’t Russia produce human rights reports about other states? As far as that goes, why should not Russia-based human rights groups monitor human rights from offices in Europe and the United States, just as Western groups monitor Russia?

The fact that a state violates human rights does not of necessity invalidate that state's observations about the situation in another state.  Even some of the charges made by North Korean representatives against Western states are true, regardless of what motivated them.    

At the same time, any state report on human rights, not just those of authoritarian states, and even the reports of international governmental organizations like the Council of Europe, should be suspect as reflecting a political agenda, and thus lacking objectivity and independence.

The US State Department's annual human rights report is a useful document, which reviews the human rights situation more widely than any other such report. But every year, it is attacked as biased by states that are heavily criticized.

The fact that the report is not framed in terms of international law does not help. In any event, it is difficult to believe that a government’s evaluation of human rights practices could be independent of the complex array of political, economic and historical factors that enter into foreign relations. 

The value of civil society in monitoring human rights conditions, on the other hand, is that civil society groups are not intrinsically influenced by political interests and subject to bias. The Moscow Helsinki Group, which was established in 1976 and later destroyed by the KGB, placed itself squarely outside politics, and sought to guide its observations by a strictly detached, scientific ethos.

The credibility of such influential formations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International rests on the degree to which they can detach themselves from political agendas and motivations, and from other prejudices.

But, in recent years, the civil society human rights community and its ethos of political neutrality have grown weaker. Under the influence of a “post-modern” approach to law, politics and reality, fewer people believe in the possibility, or the desirability of objective social scientific research.   

Meanwhile, human rights has become a growth industry for governments and international organizations. More and more governments produce reports on other governments, some of which mimic those of nongovernmental organizations.

State structures gobble up scarce resources that ought to go to civil society if donor organizations want credible research, but sometimes donor organizations don’t understand this. The pressure to fund hungry bureaucracies is leaving civil society out in the cold.

Local European human rights organizations are weak, and vulnerable to domination by political parties, because funding organizations, including the EU itself, only support civil society in countries where they see major threats.

Once a state joins the EU, it is wrongly assumed that its citizens are free from the threat of human rights violations.

Russia's report contains some truths, but the larger truth is that human rights facts and political power must be separate if there is to be an objective, factual basis for evaluating governments.

The EU needs to evaluate Russia’s report at face value, and also commit itself to assisting the work of independent nongovernmental monitoring, including those that focus on conditions in the EU itself. That would be the most appropriate response to what Russia has done.

Aaron Rhodes is a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007

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