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HRW report on Russia is clearly biased
February 12, 2013, 3:02 pm

The accusations and narrative made in the Human Rights Watch 2013 World Report about Russia’s civil and human rights record are clearly biased and so far removed from the truth that when compared to their statements on other countries, they are reduced to an exercise in the absurd.

Most striking is the report’s ridiculous and disingenuous opening claim that Russia in 2012 experienced the “worst political crackdown in its post-Soviet history”.

Right off the bat, this is patently and factually incorrect. The worst political crackdown in Russia’s post-Soviet history occurred in 1993 when then President Boris Yeltsin unleashed the military and ordered tanks to open fire on the freely elected Russian parliament and tens of thousands of protesters who resisted his neoliberal shock therapy.

Somewhere between 200 and 2000 people were killed and many more injured. Yeltsin then illegally dissolved the Russian parliament, suspended democracy, crushed political dissent, ruled by personal decree for a number of years, and – as was widely reported –  rigged the 1996 Presidential elections to ensure his victory over the vastly more popular communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov.

Western governments at the time, and HRW, then and now, ignored this little inconvenient piece of Russian history because Yeltsin’s political crackdown was in favour of Western style capitalist-liberalism.

Political protests lack unity

In 2012, Russia did see just over a half a dozen substantial anti-Putin protests, the largest of which drew about 100,000 people in Moscow, a city of 14 million people.


Anti-Putin protests in Moscow. [AP]

Protests outside Moscow were much smaller, consisting generally of a few hundred people or less in just a few locales, spread across an enormous country of 140 million.

Their views reflected about five per cent of the electorate. These protests were mostly organised by the same tired and old fractious liberal/neoliberal forces that Russians had become accustomed to and ignored for over a decade.

The protests pretty much adopted the same unpopular anti-Putin message, without any other unity or coherency. They were larger than similar protests in previous years (which had only ever drawn a few hundred), because they represented a trend briefly attractive to the young urbanite set.

But these protests also reveal promising trends in Russia’s democratic development.

It should be considered a significant step forward for Russian civil rights that the Moscow mayor’s office allowed these protests to be held without any bureaucratic hurdles and without heavy police presence.

This reveals greater opportunity for freedom of assembly and political dissent in Russia in 2012.

This should have been compared to similar situations in previous years when the old Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, threw up many bureaucratic obstacles hindering such demonstrations.

Nevertheless, the protests petered out of fashion in less than six months after they failed to gain wider traction with a majority of Russian society which did not share their political views.

Compare to the crackdown on Occupy Wall Street

It should also be noted that Moscow has approved and set up several Hyde Park-like ‘Speaker’s Corners’ throughout the city, inviting speakers and protesters to speak freely without the need to register and get approval from the authorities.

More importantly to most city residents, the protesters can now freely express their political opinion in large popular settings without closing off roads and interfering with traffic. This was yet another improvement in Russian freedom of assembly rights in 2012 ignored by HRW in their analysis.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch failed to mention the Occupy Wall Street protests across the US and UK, anti-austerity protests across Europe, and similar protests in Canada which dwarfed Russian protests in terms of scale, scope, as well as the extent of brutal political crackdown and suppression.

Last year in the US alone, over 10,000 peaceful protesters were arrested for their political dissent in just two protest movements: Occupy Wall Street and the anti-Keystone XL pipeline climate change protests right outside the White House itself.

During the US Presidential election, which is effectively and structurally restricted to just the two corporate-backed parties of power, Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein was arrested and shackled to a chair for eight hours for daring to hold a peaceful sit-in protest outside the building in which the debates were held.

Third party candidates are barred from participating in the US Presidential debates.

The whole world has been shocked by pictures and videos of police crackdowns, most notoriously represented by the ‘Pepper Spray Cop’ incident against peacefully sitting student protesters in Oakland,  and against other peaceful protesters in the US and across Europe.

Protestors arrested during 'Occupy Wall Street' demonstrations. [Getty Images]

Protestors arrested during ‘Occupy Wall Street’ demonstrations. [Getty Images]

There have been reports in the press that spying on and suppression of the OWS protests in the US was organised and coordinated by the FBI in cahoots with local authorities, other government institutions, corporations, and banks.

In the UK, reports revealed that a special police task force had been infiltrating peaceful protests movements with undercover agents who assumed the identities of dead children, and some of whom even went so far as to have sex, get married, and have children, with some of the political dissenters they were spying on.

US protesters have been referred to as ‘terrorists and extremists’ by internal FBI documents, and as ‘domestic extremists’ in the UK, effectively criminalising and securitising political dissent in general.

None of this was mentioned in the HRW 2013 World Report, despite its resemblance to a truly Orwellian-level crackdown on political dissent and civil rights.

Why? There are completely different standards and political biases between their reporting on Russia and several other countries, and their reporting on Western countries.

Targeting Russia

HRW’s 2013 report also criticised and singled out Russia for passing legislation which increases penalties on participants and organisers of protests which turn violent.

Missing from the criticism is the fact that this measure was only proposed after the May 6 liberal opposition protest against Putin’s inauguration turned into a riot.

Some protesters destroyed property and others threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police.

Meanwhile, comparative fines and often far more severe measures, including criminal charges and prison sentences, exist and are regularly handed down for violence, disorder, and resisting arrest during protests in the US, Canada, UK, and many parts of Europe.

A flood of legislation was passed in 2012 in the US, Canada, and Europe at the federal and local levels specifically to suppress the OWS and anti-austerity protests, but this receives no mention at all from HRW.

Protest leaders in the West have also been harassed in the courts, which often side with corporations, under legislation and lawsuits such as Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

These leaders usually received disproportionate sentencing to discourage their activities.

In a similar vein, HRW’s report criticised Russia for legislation requiring organisations involved in political activity inside the country which are funded by foreign governments to register as ‘foreign agents’ (i.e. lobbyists) and annually report their finances.

However, what’s left out of the HRW report is that the Russian legislation is based on and nearly identical to the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the US which has been in force since 1938, and is often criticised for selective enforcement to target organisations and countries out of favour with the administration in power.

I have personally been an occasional activist and protester in the US, Canada, the UK, parts of the EU, and Russia in just over the last decade.

I have found that outside of the small restricted socially and politically accepted ‘capitalist-liberal democratic range’ of protest and political expression which is permitted in the West, in Russia there is far more right to freedom of assembly and political dissent and expression.

There is also far less political suppression and police brutality against such dissent and protests, than in any of the other above Western countries.

So, what we have in the case of HRW is a clear and selective national and political bias. Russia is reported on in the most negative, non-comparative, and exaggerated terms, amounting to propaganda, because the Russian government is not seen as politically ‘liberal’ or aligned with the West.

Meanwhile similar legislation is passed and far more grievous violations and abuse of human rights and civil liberties occur in the West, where HRW originates from, and this is completely unreported and ignored.


This is just another case of the West hypocritically telling Russia to ‘do as I say not as I do’. An objective and comparative analysis of the situation of rights of freedom of assembly, speech, and political dissent in 2012 would assess and conclude that in Russia the government is making gradual but marked process over previous years, while the same rights have experienced a chilling deterioration in the US, UK, and Europe.

Perhaps this bias comes as no surprise when one considers that Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, is a former federal prosecutor for the US Attorney’s Office.

HRW professes rhetorically on its website to being “dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world”.

“We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice.

“We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all,” the website says.

But how does such a statement stand up to HRW publically signing off on US and European government renditions (i.e.  global kidnapping, secret prisons, and torture) in talks with the Obama administration, saying publicly that there is “a legitimate place” for the practice.

With such a statement, HRW has completely lost all objectivity, credibility, and legitimacy to speak about human rights and civil liberties.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.