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Human rights report on Russia spurs new debate
February 8, 2013, 4:11 pm

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. [AP]

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. [AP]

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) ‘World Report 2013’ has spurred a massive debate in Russia after condemning the country for unleashing “the worst political crackdown” against civil society since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The report alleges that Russia is silencing opposition, breaching the freedom of assembly, association and expression and discriminating against sexual minorities.

Criticism ranges from palliative care to abuses in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Russia’s stance on Syria is also subject to harsh criticism from HRW.

“The leading Western countries and several Arab states imposed sanctions in an effort to curb the government’s atrocities, but Russia and China have blocked a unified international response with their multiple vetoes in the United Nations Security Council,” said the report

“Russia and China deserve blame for their obstructionism, yet other governments have not put enough pressure on them to make them end their indifference to countless atrocities.”

The BRICS Post spoke to some observers in Russia and some felt the report was not ‘fair’, and that HRW’s criticism of Russia’s role in Syria might be the motivation for the ‘damning’ observations.

Some questioned why HRW had commented on a foreign policy issue, when its mandate was to report on human rights in Russia.

Here’s what those commentators told TBP:

Russian orphans barred from adoptions by Americans

Dmitry Babich, political commentator with the Voice of Russia

dmitryI think that the reason why Russian Duma’s deputies made a linkage between the Magnitsky Act and adoption of children by Americans is easy to explain from a media point of view.

American media, when reporting on Russia, usually dwells on the human rights’ violations during protest rallies and on the endless Magnitsky saga. Russian television in its reports from the United States devoted a lot of time to the theme of mistreatment of Russian adopted children.

So, members of the two parliaments live in different media worlds and they sincerely don’t understand each other’s motives; both problems are real, but they do not represent ALL of Russia’s or America’s lives, they largely serve the purposes of negative PR.

From the point of view of the Russian elite, Americans were the aggressors, since they FIRST attacked with their Magnitsky Act and they were the ones to replace the largely positive media coverage of the Gorbachev period by frequently denigrating reports on the “shadow side” of Russian life.

That is certainly true, but the deputies did a disservice to Putin and Russia by their choice of retribution. Professional Putin-haters inside Russia and outside it immediately seized the opportunity, trying to position the Russian leader as “the enemy of orphans number one.”

Tightening legislation on protests

Mark Sleboda, senior lecturer and researcher in the international relations department at Moscow State University

sleboda_0HRW’s 2013 report also criticised Russia for passing legislation which raised the fine on participants and organisers for protests which turn violent, only passed after the May 6 protest against Putin’s inauguration which turned into a riot, with some protesters destroying property and physically attacking and hurling Molotov cocktails at police, although comparative fines and often far more severe measures, often including criminal charges and prison sentences, exist and are regularly handed down for violence and disorder during protests in the US, Canada, and many parts of Europe.

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

Protest leaders in the West have also been harassed in the courts and received disproportionate sentencing to discourage their activities.

Nonprofit groups required to register as “foreign agents” 

Peter Lavelle, host of CrossTalk at RT 

Peter_65The recent law requiring non-government organisations in Russia to register with the authorities as “foreign agents”- if they receive funds from abroad – has been misunderstood.

The Russian legislation is very similar to laws and statutes on the books in western countries, sometimes going back more than half-a-century.

Russia has merely caught up with their western peers in this regard; these new laws are not only sensible, but also needed to protect Russia’s sovereignty and domestic security.

When the Soviet Union came to an end in 1991 foreign organisations entered Russia with little or any official permission and could function under their own rules and regulations.

Now this has been changed. As far as requiring a NGO to declare its sources and from where, most states in the world have an interest in knowing who and what organisation is peddling influence within their societies.

“Gay propaganda” ban

Public opinion polls describe the vulnerable situation best. A 2010 poll conducted by Levada Centre revealed that 74 per cent of Russians are opposed to same-sex relationships. Another poll conducted last spring by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), found that 86 per cent of Russians are ready to support the gay propaganda ban.

Is acceptability of same-sex relationships a rarity in Russia then? Reasons could be different, but the percentages reveal the real sentiment behind political claims.


The keyword behind reactions to the report is distrust after years of mainstream press reporting, editorials and opinion pieces that have increasingly portrayed Russia as the hub of a “venal regime”.

Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch’s director of the Europe & Central Asia division, said “Russia’s civil society is standing strong but with the space around it shrinking rapidly, it needs support now more than ever.”

These sweeping statements dismissing debate will increasingly be questioned now in Russia.

Daria Chernyshova

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