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The evidence gathered and presented in this report shows that Russian policies toward abandoned children impose an invidious discrimination due to their status as orphans or "social orphans." This effectively relegates them to an underclass, in clear violation of the fundamental principles of international human rights treaties to which the Russian Federation is obligated.

The stigma of abandonment or disability, when deepened by an official diagnosis of mental retardation, subjects Russian children to prejudicial stereotypes of ineducability and inherited deviance. These, in turn, spawn a cycle of institutional neglect and further debilitation, resulting in the denial of such fundamental rights as education and health care; the right not to be cruelly punished and degraded; the right to vote; and in some cases, the right to life.

This violation of human rights is a product of state action, be it by official policy, or by disregard for Russian and international legal standards. In either case, the consequence is the violation of orphans' civil and political rights; to remedy it, the Russian authorities must first ensure that a child's rights are respected without discrimination of any kind.

There are clear, practical measures to address the discrimination due to status as orphans—or disabled orphans—that would cost the Russian Federation relatively little. These include:

· prohibiting medical personnel from frightening parents into abandoning infants with birth defects;

· actively promoting state support for alternatives to institutionalization, such as state aid to parents or relatives rearing disabled or abandoned children; foster families; and local and international adoption;

· undertaking a serious public education effort to raise awareness on the rights and potential of abandoned children and children with disabilities;

· prohibiting the official diagnosis of retardation or oligophrenia in infants until they are old enough to be evaluated adequately;

· abolishing any barriers to civil rights posed by the diagnosis of debil (light oligophrenic), and removing from identification papers and passports indicators that the bearer was an orphan or institutionalized child;

· issuing strict orders to the three ministries involved in custodial care to halt corporal and cruel and humiliating punishment, as well as the use of dehumanizing language in front of orphans, and ensuring that perpetrators of such violations will be investigated and disciplined.

In addition, the Russian government should immediately authorize the establishment of an independent oversight committee of experts in child development, who would be mandated to visit institutions without prior notice, and empowered to impose sanctions when they documented malfeasance and neglect.

The moment is overdue for the Russian authorities to respect their many commitments to the protection of children, including the ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the passage of important civil and criminal laws pertinent to minors.

Human Rights Watch recognizes the economic difficulties facing the Russian government as it navigates the turbulent waters of post-communist transition. But Russia is not a land entirely razed by war, nor is it ravaged by drought and natural disaster.

To the contrary, a visit to Moscow and some other cities dramatically demonstrates a sector enjoying considerable prosperity, a tax base that has so far succeeded in eluding government collectors. The international community should insist that Russia meet its obligations to its most vulnerable citizens as vigorously as it insists on compliance with international arms control treaties.

In the coming months, thousands of Russian children risk being abandoned and homeless at a pace quickened by the recent collapse of the Russian financial system. The solution is not to build new institutions for abandoned children. In the long run, the Russian Federation must plan to close down those institutions gradually, and provide practical support to struggling families.

Until that can be accomplished, the authorities, urged by the international community and the advocacy groups from their own citizenry, must take every measure to abolish the cruelty and neglect that stunt the lives of orphans in their care.

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