U.S. President George W. Bush and EU leaders should voice concern about human rights violations in Russia during their upcoming summits in Moscow, Human Rights Watch said today. The summits will take place against a background of continuing government abuses in Chechnya and a rollback of civic freedoms throughout Russia.
On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with Bush; on Tuesday, he will hold a summit meeting with EU leaders. The EU-Russia summit is widely expected to conclude long-running negotiations with an agreement on the European Union’s strategic partnership with Russia that will define relations between the two for many years ahead.
“The summits are a rare opportunity for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to speak out in a unified voice,” said Rachel Denber, acting Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Their individual political agendas must not silence their common concern about the rollback of human rights in Russia.”
In the past year, the Russian government has enacted new measures that eliminate direct elections of parliamentary candidates and empower the president to appoint regional governors. The measures follow the government’s elimination of Russia’s independent broadcast media, its marginalization of the political opposition, and President Putin’s threats against nongovernmental organizations.
In Chechnya, where the armed conflict is now in its sixth year, government forces as well as Chechen rebels continue to commit serious human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war. In March, Human Rights Watch published a report concluding that the pattern of enforced disappearances by the government in Chechnya had become so widespread and systematic as to constitute a crime against humanity. Russian authorities deny any responsibility or involvement in “disappearances” and remain unwilling to bringing perpetrators to justice.
Following the government clampdown on independent media during Putin’s first term as president, nongovernmental organizations have been a key purveyor of independent information on abuses committed in Chechnya. Now the Kremlin appears to be harassing NGOs that monitor abuses in Chechnya or encourage public debate about the situation there. In several cases the authorities threaten to prosecute such organizations for “extremism,” in others, NGO leaders were the targets of intimidation by law enforcement agents.
“The EU and the U.S. need to convey deep concern about the abuses in Chechnya and the general setbacks in civic freedoms in Russia,” said Denber. “They should also seek a commitment from the Russian government that it will end the harassment and attacks on NGOs in the northern Caucasus.”
The summits come a month after the European Union and the United States declined to introduce a resolution on human rights abuses in Chechnya at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
“The U.S. and EU have a shared interest in ending abuses in Russia and encouraging accountability for those abuses. They also share a duty to protect human rights groups working in the region,” said Denber.