Poking with the human rights stick

Critical human rights reports from Western agencies have long been the source of consternation among Russian officials. At the end of last month, the Russian Foreign Ministry launched a counterattack, publishing a report highlighting supposed violations in the West. Oliver Bullough was surprised at how readily the document conflated issues of rights and common diplomacy.
Oliver Bullough
20 January 2012

Moscow loses patience

For years, Russia has tolerated the State Department’s annual criticism of its human rights situation, but not any more.

It was in April that Moscow finally lost patience. If America would not stop poking it with the human rights stick, it said (though not in precisely those words), Russia would pick up the stick too. It appointed a human rights commissioner and promised to publish probes of its own.

Its first publication, a ‘Report on the situation concerning human Rights in certain states’ came out last month [link in Russian]. It is extremely revealing, though not perhaps for the reasons its author, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s new Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, intended.

‘The idea is to show that problems in the sphere of human rights and democracy are present in all states. No one is ideal,’ Dolgov explained to Kommersant Vlast after the report was published on the Foreign Ministry web site.

‘We do not accept attempts to persistently and intrusively teach us democracy. Sadly, some of our partners have used such tactics. It is of course important for them to carefully read the Russian report.’

If they do read the report, carefully or otherwise, they will find that many of its general concerns – domestic violence in Finland, detainee abuse in Britain, anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe – are identical to those in its American rival. Many of the sources are the same too. Dolgov’s document is studded with references to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.

This is strange, since the Foreign Ministry criticises those international human rights groups almost as much as it does Washington. One of Dolgov’s first statements, last May, was to attack Amnesty for its ‘politicised’ decision to name Mikhail Khodorkovsky a prisoner of conscience.

‘We do not accept attempts to persistently and intrusively teach us democracy. Sadly, some of our partners have used such tactics.’

Konstantin Dolgov, author of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Human Rights Report

It is not these general issues that make the American and Russian reports interesting, but rather the individual cases they pick up on. The State Department lists dozens of cases in an overwhelming barrage of information: murdered girls; bullied conscripts; intimidated trade unionists. Dolgov has clearly decided to copy the approach, right down to the bare minimum of text formatting used to present it.

But he gets it terribly wrong.

Perhaps because he was a professor in the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic academy rather than a human rights researcher, Dolgov focuses on diplomacy. That means his examples are often not rights cases at all, but perceived insults to the Russian government.

Target USA

The United States of course is his main target, and occupies the first 17 of the English-language version’s 79 pages. Much of that is perfectly valid criticism of Guantanamo Bay, gun laws, racism and more. It is all very general, and breaks no new ground, but it is welcome and seems motivated by the best ideals. When he comes to specific cases, however, he betrays very different impulses.

‘Extraterritorial application of American laws … leads to violations of the basic rights and freedoms of Russians, including arbitrary arrests and abductions from third countries, ill-treatment, criminal prosecution based on the basis of evidence given by false agents and doubtful evidence (cases against Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko are the most striking examples),’ the report said.

If Bout and Yaroshenko are really the best examples he can come up with, you’d be forgiven from wondering what Dolgov actually means by ‘basic rights and freedoms’.

Bout, known as the ‘merchant of death’, was convicted in November of gun running, and awaits sentencing in a US jail. Campaigners accuse him of selling weapons used in many of the most gruesome wars since 1991. Russia was furious about his extradition from Thailand, where he was arrested, possibly because he used to work for the security services. It is peculiar for a human rights report to champion the cause of a convicted arms smuggler, but perhaps not as strange as Dolgov’s second example.

Yaroshenko was arrested in Liberia with four tons of cocaine in 2010, extradited to America and convicted. Quite how his case qualifies as a human rights violation remains unclear from Dolgov’s report, though Washington’s failure to inform Moscow before fly him to America explains the annoyance felt in the Foreign Ministry.

Such annoyance is certainly the only way to explain Dolgov’s decision to highlight the case of Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer who exposed massive corruption, was arrested by the police officers he was investigating, held for almost a year without charge and left to die in pre-trial detention. The scandal features in the State Department report, which alleges that the police probe into the death is going slowly because ‘important people are implicated’. Washington has since barred officials involved in the case from entering the United States in an attempt to spur them into action.

In a paragraph of great tastelessness, Dolgov decides that America is the real villain in the Magnitsky affair, and criticises its ‘provocative political games’. The treatment of top Russian officials, he informs the world, ‘violates the presumption of innocence principle’. If any sentence condemns his report outright, it is this one.

But the report does not stop with the Americans. It goes on to tackle the European Union, once more covering traditional ground – the problems faced by Roma, by Muslims, the rise in intolerance and xenophobia, domestic violence. Again though, while the general themes are decent, the specific cases suggest a definition of human rights violations at odds with almost everyone else’s.

In the State Department report, every country is analysed under a series of set headings, which are based on the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here, there is no such structure, and specific examples tend only to appear when Russia is involved in some way.  Sweden, which does not normally feature large in human rights reports, gets a swipe for failing to extradite two Chechen refugees, for example.

The largest portion of bile in the 47 pages devoted to the European Union is reserved for those states with Russian minorities -- the three Baltic States, which get 16 pages between them, and Finland, which gets five.

Dolgov highlights a series of child protection cases in Finland. It would seem the only reason why he does is in each of them one of the parents was Russian: it is hard to understand otherwise how they belong in a human rights report. In the ‘Rantala case’, for example, social workers took a half-Russian child into care; then his mother Inga spirited him away to Russia and refused to give him up.

‘Inga does not plan to return to Finland where she has to appear before court on charges of inflicting bodily harm on her son, which was the main reason why the boy was taken away from his parents,’ the report states, without acknowledging that Russia’s role in shielding an alleged abusive parent makes the boy’s current situation at best extremely troubling.

Moving on to the Baltic States, where there are indeed serious concerns about the status of ethnic Russians who have lived there since communist times, Dolgov fumes at length about the locals’ lack of gratitude to the Soviet Union.

‘If this report is anything to go by, the Foreign Ministry does not consider human rights to be universal, but to depend on one’s citizenship. If that is how Russian diplomats think, it is hardly surprising that they bridle when the State Department questions how Russia treats Russians.’

‘Of special concern is the policy continued in all three Baltic states to rewrite the history of World War II…  the equalisation of Nazi and Soviet regimes, attempts to glorify Nazis and their local collaborators,’ he wrote. He even singles out a book, Bloodlands by Yale history Professor Timothy Snyder, for criticism. It was praised as a work of near-perfect history by many critics, but is rejected as biased by Dolgov for comparing the terrors that Joseph Stalin inflicted on Eastern Europe with those of the Nazis.

He tied the Baltic States’ attempts to re-interpret the results of World War Two for themselves to a growth in neo-Nazi activity, and linked it to mistreatment of ethnic Russians. The problems started with schools, he said.

‘In the view of local Russian experts, they give a one-dimensional overview of the centuries-old Russian history with a focus on Ivan the Terrible, Peter I, Lenin and ‘bloody’ Stalin. The school history curriculum consciously portrays an unattractive image of Russia which people should be afraid of,’ Dolgov wrote.

He favourably quoted accusations by an ethnic Russian member of the Latvian parliament that the school policy, which means some Russian speakers attend non-Russian-language schools, was equivalent to genocide.

By this stage in the report, it has become clear what specific violations really worry the Russian Foreign Ministry: the extradition of Russians anywhere but to Russia; the non-extradition of people to Russia; criticism of Russia’s actions either present or past; perceived persecution of any Russian speaker, whether they do or do not hold a Russian passport.

10 pages on Georgia

And that is abundantly clear in the pages devoted to Georgia. Although Georgia is not one of the ‘developed democratic states’ that Dolgov said he would describe, it earns 10 pages in the report, thus coming second only to America for sheer volume of criticism. Dolgov dashes through the standard attacks on Georgia, including admittedly some important allegations concerning its treatment of ethnic minorities, before getting to the heart of his complaints.

‘Russian citizens, primarily ethnic Georgians, coming to Georgia on private business, become targets of provocations and abuse by Georgian special services. Different spying scandals that are being invented become more and more far-fetched,’ he wrote.

There follows a list of cases in which Georgia has jailed Russian citizens for drugs offences, weapons offences or spying. The convictions may be unfair, and in fact they probably are, but it is telling that Dolgov did not detail a single case involving a non-Russian. In fact, this section gives the final proof that this report is not about human rights at all, it is about Russians’ rights. And that suggests why Moscow still cannot understand the criticism it faces.

If this report is anything to go by, the Foreign Ministry does not consider human rights to be universal, but to depend on one’s citizenship. If that is how Russian diplomats think, it is hardly surprising that they bridle when the State Department questions how Russia treats Russians. It is not, they might think, any of America’s business.

We have been here before. In the 1980s, the Soviet government finally got fed up of constant criticism of its human rights abuses. Those were the days of the refuseniks, of Sakharov in Gorky, and of the psychiatric incarceration of dissidents.

Soviet diplomats had previously rejected criticism as interference in their internal affairs but, at the Ottawa human rights conference in 1985, they changed course. They compiled their own dossiers on healthcare, anti-Semitism and maternity benefits, and used them to counter attack the west. Those were valid concerns, as are many of the issues raised by Dolgov, but the tactic did not work. It just encouraged the western experts into thinking the Russians wanted a dialogue, when they wanted nothing of the kind. Then, as now, they wanted everyone to shut up.

In April, , when the State Department produced its latest report, the Russian Foreign Ministry suggested that its ‘US partners abandon the practice of publishing such provocative research’. The State Department, of course, has not done so and it is hard to imagine this unfortunate report shaming it or anyone else into silence.


Thumbnail photo of Russian Foreign Ministry (cc) Flickr/madcowk

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData