Anatomy of Injustice: Roadmap for the International Community

By Jean-Paul Marthoz

The struggle for human rights demands the exertion of internal and external pressure. If Russia has seemed resistant, it is not as impervious as it might seem.

Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia


From the fight against apartheid to the mobilization against Latin American military regimes in the 1980s, human rights campaigns proved most effective when they linked external and internal pressure.

This formula is not easily applied to Russia. Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, internal democratic opposition has been marginalized, most media have been muzzled, and nongovernmental organizations have been severely restricted.

At the United Nations, Russia has used its status as a permanent member of the Security Council and has built coalitions in the Human Rights Council to shield its human rights record from serious inspection and to insulate itself from international condemnation. Moscow has also exploited rifts within the international community, in particular within the European Union. The “war against terror,” the resurgence of Russian power (especially in its “near abroad”), and the Kremlin’s oil- and gas-leveraged diplomacy have provided Western leaders with arguments for cautious accommodation.

Yet Russia is not such an isolated country, noted leading human rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko. “The Russian authorities know that they have to pay some attention to the reaction of the international community.”

The problem, writes Sinikukka Saari, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, “has not so much to do with a lack of instruments, but the will to use them.” Many European institutions have remained timid in the face of Kremlin resistance. Rankled by rulings from the European Court of Human Rights that “highlight corruption, torture, and other official misconduct in Russia,” New York Times correspondent Clifford Levy reported in March, the Kremlin has pushed back, notably by blocking court plans to streamline procedures.

Some European leaders are becoming concerned that tolerance of human rights violations in Russia is weakening key institutions such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe. “In recent years,” Saari noted in a 2006 report, “Russia has been attacking these organizations, claiming, for instance, that the OSCE should move away from its human dimension emphasis.”

What could lead European governments to be more vocal? “The realization that it is in their own, best national interest to have a more democratic Russian neighbor,” replied Hensmans. “We have to convince our own governments that the EU’s main policy objective of assuring stability and predictability in Russia does not mean the downplaying of human rights. On the contrary, an undemocratic Russia is a threat to international stability.”

The view among most European human rights groups is that Brussels should adopt a more proactive policy that makes reinforcement of the rule of law in Russia a strategic priority. On the eve of the EU-Russia summit in May, Human Rights Watch concurred: “EU leaders should build on President Medvedev’s recently expressed readiness for human rights reform. The EU should jump at this chance to work with him.”

For advocates, it means building stronger coalitions among free expression and human rights organizations to target all forums—the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and UNESCO—where Russia has pledged to abide by international norms. That the killings of prominent journalists have yet to lead to major public mobilizations in Europe reflects in part the weak and intermittent links between European and Russian civil societies. “Developing this interaction should be the priority of international human rights groups,” said Aude Merlin, a Russia specialist at Brussels University.

The approach also requires going beyond U.S. or European groups that can be easily dismissed as “Western interventionists” and reaching out to civil society organizations and independent media in countries such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, emerging powers in parts of the world where Russia wants to be seen as a reliable partner.

The reinforcement of civil society in Russia itself is another priority. International human rights groups have advocated the lifting of Russian restrictions on nongovernmental organizations and an increase in international assistance to Russian civil society.

Elena Klitsounova, author of a working paper published by the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, suggests that international groups should “frame the human rights message in ways that are appealing to Russia’s public.” That could be done by insisting that freedom of the press and human rights are not “foreign impositions” but key elements to every citizen’s security and prerequisites for sustainable and fair development.

Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist and writer. A foreign affairs columnist for Le Soir (Brussels), he teaches international journalism at the Université catholique de Louvain. He is a former European press director of Human Rights Watch and is a senior adviser for CPJ’s Global Campaign Against Impunity.

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