“Human rights will always be on the table, I said” [President Putin]. It’s not just about persecuting Russia when it violates human rights. It’s who we are. How could I be President of the United States of America and not speak out against human rights violations? “
In June 2021, US President Joe Biden presented himself to reporters on the manicured lawn of Villa La Grange in Geneva and re-committed the US to a relationship with Russia that put human rights first. He promised that the US would “address basic human rights, because this is us, this is us”.
The US President’s meeting with Putin and the subsequent press conference followed the resumption of American reintegration into the UN Human Rights Council months earlier. During the council meeting, the US joined a declaration signed by 45 states, which highlighted the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia, which was manifested at the time in the arrest and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Perhaps more importantly, the signatories of the declaration called on Russia to respect its obligations under international human rights law and, as a member of the Council, to adhere to the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.
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Due to the efforts of the Russian authorities to criminalize human rights work, there has never been a more dangerous time to be human rights defenders or dissenting voices in Russia.
Over the past decade, the Russian government has steadily and strategically tightened the noose around independent civil society and human rights defenders. Peaceful protest is effectively forbidden. Freedom of association has been almost completely eroded by the introduction of draconian laws against NGOs. Independent media outlets have been shut down and journalists have been targeted for abuse of anti-terrorism laws. Human rights defenders face an ongoing campaign of harassment, intimidation, physical assault, smear campaigns, arbitrary detention and criminal prosecution.
In the North Caucasus, human rights organizations have documented ongoing human rights abuses, including torture, enforced disappearances, unfair trials and relentless assaults on sexual and gender minorities. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights found late last month that the Russian authorities had failed to effectively investigate the murder of Natalia Estemirova, a prominent researcher for Memorial human rights organization who had documented human rights violations in the North Caucasus for years.
The Russian authorities are not just targeting independent civil society and human rights defenders. With a law from 2015, which was expanded this year, the Kremlin is also targeting international human rights organizations by assigning a so-called “undesirable” designation and banning their work in Russia. This makes it illegal for any Russian organization or individual anywhere in the world to work with these groups.
While the Russian authorities criminalize human rights work at home and deny human rights defenders the opportunity to engage internationally, they are erecting a virtual wall across the country to hide their human rights violations from international scrutiny.
Even so, courageous men and women document, report and fight human rights abuses across Russia. They do this despite the incredible risks involved. Even those seeking to expose historical human rights violations by the Soviet authorities continue to conduct research despite a coordinated campaign of human rights violations against them. It is high time the US stood side by side with these people and organizations, fully recognizing the scale and extent of human rights violations in Russia, and setting up international bodies to hold the Russian authorities accountable.
As the Human Rights Council meets in Geneva this week, the Biden administration has the opportunity and responsibility to take the lead in the United Nations’ highest human rights body. In private, the member states recognize the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia and are ready to assume their responsibility for it. But American leadership will be crucial.
Since rejoining the council in an unchallenged 2020 election, Russia has tried to thwart action from Belarus to Hong Kong. However, the Russian influence on the council is often overestimated. When it faced a challenger for a seat on the council in 2016, it lost. Russia regularly loses votes in the Council when it puts forward amendments to weaken resolutions, as it did with all of the amendments it proposed in the recent debates on Belarus. There is a leadership vacuum in the Council on Russia, and the US must address that vacuum.
In the short term, the US must issue a joint statement at HRC48, citing the deteriorating situation for human rights defenders and organizations in Russia, highlighting the need for the Council to review Russia’s human rights record, and warning against more formal action by the Council if Russia is to be adopted does not take immediate action to reverse alarming human rights trends in the country. Individual states and the international human rights community stand ready to support such urgent and timely measures.
An expanded engagement by the Biden government must also include a longer-term strategy for responding to Russia in the Human Rights Council. Such a strategy should reflect the intention to continue the use of formal accountability in the framework of the UN Human Rights Council should Russia continue to ignore calls to end human rights violations.
The Biden government must expand the use of sanctions against individuals at all levels of national and sub-national governments responsible for human rights abuses. It must provide visa support to human rights defenders and their families at immediate threat, and support the use of other multinational bodies such as the OSCE to put further pressure on the Russian authorities to stop their attacks on independent civil society and human rights defenders.
President Biden took an important step in Geneva to support Russian human rights defenders. His government must now follow specific measures.
Dave Elseroad is Head of Advocacy at the Human Rights House Foundation.
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The views expressed on UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its employees, or its supporters.
the of the Eurasia Center The mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the west to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the east.