Moscow Trip an Opportunity for Leadership on Human Rights
December 12, 2012
Brazil walked away from its authoritarian past long ago, but the same can’t be said about Russia. There are serious human rights problems in Brazil, but the government welcomes input from civil society. Rousseff should urge Putin to do the same.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director

President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil should express concern about the crackdown on civil society in Russia when she meets with President Vladimir V. Putin. The two leaders are scheduled to meet in Moscow on December 14, 2012.

Russia and Brazil are members of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) association of nations with advanced economies and are often seen as rising global leaders as the power of the United States and Western Europe has waned.

“Brazil walked away from its authoritarian past long ago, but the same can’t be said about Russia,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “There are serious human rights problems in Brazil, but the government welcomes input from civil society. Rousseff should urge Putin to do the same.”

Toward the end of Dmitry A. Medvedev’s presidency, Russia adopted several important electoral reforms, as the Kremlin faced a mass protest movement demanding honest elections and an end to corruption. However, since Putin’s return to the presidency in May, Russia’s parliament has adopted a series of laws that imposed new restrictions on public assemblies and raised relevant financial sanctions to the level of criminal fines, re-criminalized libel, and imposed new restrictions on internet content.

In November, a law entered into force that requires nongovernmental organizations that engage in advocacy work and accept foreign funding to register and publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents,” a move that Human Rights Watch said aimed to demonize nongovernmental organizations in the public eye. Another law, adopted in October, expands the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalize international human rights advocacy.

Against this backdrop, government statements that criticize nongovernmental organizations and foreigners are on the rise. Smear campaigns in state-run and pro-Kremlin outlets have targeted prominent nongovernmental groups. Officials in several regions have told civil servants and others not to cooperate with representatives of foreign organizations and foreign-funded domestic groups.  Two members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot are serving two-year prison terms for a 40-second anti-Putin prank they performed in a Moscow cathedral in February. Discriminatory legislation is pending in Russia’s parliament that would ban “propaganda of homosexuality” among those under age 18.

“It would be a serious mistake for President Rousseff to ignore the crackdown in Russia, which violates basic human rights principles that Brazil has embraced in its domestic law and international treaty obligations,” Vivanco said.  “If Brazil wants to be taken seriously as a leader in global affairs, it should not be afraid to stand up for these principles when dealing with governments that flout them.”