The November E.U.-Russia summit comes at a critical moment in the E.U.-Russia relationship. The European Union will have to reconsider its current policy toward Russia. It must determine on what terms to engage with Russia and what role human rights will play in that engagement. Human Rights Watch believes the European Union has no choice but to make human rights and the rule of law essential elements of any further and enhanced relationship with Moscow.

In recent years the Russian government has undermined human rights and the rule of law at home and in this regard degraded its obligations in the context of its E.U. relationship. It has refused to sign summit joint statements that include reference to the human rights crisis in Chechnya and attempted to bully the E.U. into dropping important human rights issues from its bilateral discussions.

There could never be a more important time for the European Union to stand firm on human rights principles and the rule of law as the basis of its relationship with Russia. Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin the Russian government has eliminated independent television media, marginalized the political opposition, and made no progress on such long-standing human rights problems as police torture and violent hazing in the army. President Putin himself has led a broadside attack on Russian nongovernmental organizations. In the aftermath of the horrific slaughter of innocent children, their parents and teachers in Beslan, President Putin proposed reforms that will further concentrate power in the Kremlin and eliminate political pluralism but will do little to promote the purported aim of curbing terrorism.

The internal armed conflict in Chechnya, now in its sixth year, shows no sign of abating and instead is increasingly spreading to other areas of the Northern Caucasus. Chechen armed groups commit unspeakable acts of terror in Chechnya and other parts of Russia, and Chechen fighters assassinate civilians they deem to be “collaborating” with the federal government. Russia’s armed forces also continue to commit grave breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law— including forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions—with almost complete impunity in a climate of lawlessness and chaos.

To bring stability to the Northern Caucasus, the Russian government needs to build trust among Chechen civilians. But abuses by its own forces and its failure to establish a meaningful accountability process for such atrocities alienate the very people Moscow needs to reach and persuade that there can never be an excuse for acts of terrorism no matter the political goals and grievances.

In response to Russia’s failure to fulfill its human rights and rule of law obligations and its fierce resistance to accepting a frank and sincere dialogue in this regard, the E.U. has too often allowed its own public statements to be weakened and failed to establish clear and verifiable human rights and rule of law benchmarks in the context of implementing its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and its Russia Strategy. We believe it is essential for the E.U. foreign ministers to reflect accurately—in both their statements and in concrete E.U. policy— the dire human rights situation in Russia and the failure of the Russian government to comply with the most fundamental E.U. human rights and rule of law standards. Now is the time for E.U. foreign ministers to stand firm on principles that founded the relationship with Russia in the E.U.-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement: “Respect for democratic principles and human rights as defined in particular in the Helsinki Final Act.”

We therefore call on you to set concrete benchmarks consistent with Russia’s obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law that the government must implement as a condition for normalizing and further enhancing its ties with the E.U.. These benchmarks should include:

  • Restoring political pluralism in the spirit of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Agreement
  • Allowing for the creation of truly independent television channels
  • Establishing a meaningful accountability process for abuses in Chechnya
  • Fully cooperating with the European Court of Human Rights and honoring its rulings.

We hope you agree that a productive relationship cannot move forward until Russia implements these benchmarks, and that promises will not be mistaken for real progress.

We urge that these concerns be publicly communicated to President Putin and all of your Russian interlocutors during the forthcoming E.U.-Russia summit in The Hague.

Sincerely,

Lotte Leicht
Brussels Director
Human Rights Watch

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

Cc: EU Foreign Ministers