(Paris, November 13, 2008) - The European Union should establish human rights criteria for moving forward with a new strategic partnership with Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. The EU and Russia are to resume negotiations on renewing their partnership agreement at a summit meeting on November 14, 2008, in Nice.
"It's time for the EU to make human rights a priority in dealing with Russia and to insist on reforms before an agreement is signed," said Lotte Leicht, EU director for Human Rights Watch. "Russia and the EU are partners, and it's in their mutual interest for Russia to improve its record."
Human Rights Watch said the benchmarks should focus on requiring Russia to carry out judgments by the European Court of Human Rights, to end stifling restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and to ensure that Russia's Ossetian allies allow ethnic Georgians to return to South Ossetia in safety and dignity.
Human Rights Watch detailed these concerns and recommendations in a memorandum prepared in advance of EU-Russia human rights consultations, held in October.
In September, the European Union suspended negotiations for its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Russia over Russia's failure to adhere to the EU-brokered six-point peace plan to end the Russia-Georgia conflict in August over South Ossetia. On November 10, the EU decided to resume PCA negotiations after the October withdrawal of Russian troops from the "buffer zone" they had occupied in Georgia.
The EU's earlier partnership agreement with Russia expired in 2007. These agreements set the terms for the EU's relationships with non-member states, and they usually include "most favored nation" trade status. All such agreements include a clause that the partnership is based on mutual respect for human rights principles.
Russia's government, however, has strongly rebuffed efforts to raise human rights issues at EU-Russia summit meetings, preferring to relegate them to twice-yearly bilateral consultations. With relations tense following the August conflict, the EU has been reluctant to press Russia on its human rights record.
"For a decade now the EU has said that its relationship with Russia is based on European values, but the EU hasn't always followed through," said Leicht. "Setting benchmarks would show the EU is serious about its human rights policy."
Human Rights Watch's memorandum underscored Russia's poor record on carrying out European Court of Human Rights rulings on Chechnya cases. In more than 50 rulings to date, the court has repeatedly found Russia responsible for abuses in Chechnya, including torture, "disappearances," and extrajudicial executions. Russia has generally paid compensation to victims. But it has failed or refused to carry out meaningful investigations or to address the underlying causes of abuse, which the court has obliged Russia to do.
"These judgments highlight Moscow's failure to hold accountable those responsible for grave abuses in Chechnya," said Rachel Denber, director of Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. "One benchmark should be an independent finding that Russia is carrying out meaningful investigations. This would promote accountability and help build confidence in Russia's justice system among people in the Northern Caucasus who feel alienated by abusive counter-insurgency practices."
In the past Russian officials have complained that the European Court was biased against Russia. Yet Russia has said it will help people from South Ossetia who have Russian citizenship to file complaints with the court against Georgia for alleged abuses during the August conflict. According to media reports, about 2,000 people from South Ossetia have sent petitions to the court.
"Russia's support of European Court applications for residents of South Ossetia shows that they see the court as an important mechanism to ensure accountability for alleged abuses," Denber said. "There's no better time to press Russia to comply fully with the court's rulings on Chechnya."
The Human Rights Watch memorandum also describes government regulations, harassment, and intimidation aimed at exercising greater control over NGOs in Russia. Russia adopted a law in 2006 that allows for broad and unjustifiable government interference in the founding and operationof NGOs.
"Russian officials have tried to argue that the NGO law adheres to European standards, but this is not the case," Denber said. "The Russian government needs to reform the law to stop the stifling oversight of NGOs."
Human Rights Watch called on Russia to ensure that the South Ossetian government respects the right of ethnic Georgians to return to South Ossetia, including immediately taking specific measures to facilitate returns in a non-discriminatory way.
"The conflict forced thousands of people to flee South Ossetia, and most ethnic Georgians remain unable to return to their homes," Denber said. "Russia really should insist on nothing less than a full commitment by its Ossetian allies to guarantee the rights of all residents to return and live safely and free of discrimination."