President Barack Obama should signal clearly to people in Russia when he visits Moscow on July 6, 2009, that human rights in their country remain one of his administration's central concerns, Human Rights Watch said today.
"The Obama administration wants to ‘reset' the relationship with Russia, and that means a new opening," said Allison Gill, Human Rights Watch's Russia office director. "We hope President Obama will make full use of the summit to send a strong message that, no matter what other issues are on the agenda, human rights will remain at the forefront.
US-Russia relations severely deteriorated during the Bush Administration, with disputes over such issues as NATO expansion, missile deployments in Europe, last year's war in Georgia, and energy resources.
"President Medvedev has signaled that he is ready to strengthen civil society and support human rights and freedoms, and this should be a good starting point for the two presidents to talk about human rights," said Gill. "The talk of reform is good, but the situation itself is worrisome."
The independence of news media and civic freedoms have declined in Russia in recent years. There have been many attempts by unidentified perpetrators to intimidate and silence civic activists and independent journalists through killings, beatings, and threats.
President Dmitry Medvedev recently indicated that he was willing to ease restrictions on nongovernmental organizations. He has proposed amendments to restrictive laws to simplify registration procedures for some of these groups, and to decrease the frequency of government inspections. But much more needs to be done to address the decline of civic freedoms and the risk to activists, Human Rights Watch said.
In a June 2009 report, "An Uncivil Approach to Civil Society: Continuing State Curbs on Independent NGOs and Activists in Russia," Human Rights Watch described a pattern of unwarranted, arbitrary government interference in the work of groups that receive foreign funding, publicly criticize the authorities, are associated with certain political opposition groups, or work on such controversial topics as human rights, the North Caucasus, or corruption.
"Russia has a vibrant, sophisticated civil society, and President Obama should urge Medvedev to adopt broader reforms to support it," said Gill. "He should also stress the need for the government to protect civic activists."
Russia's counterinsurgency efforts in the unstable North Caucasus have been marked by grave human rights violations, including torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and collective punishment. In a July 2009 report, "‘What Your Children Do Will Touch Upon You': Punitive House-Burning in Chechnya," Human Rights Watch documented how Russian federal authorities have not held perpetrators to account for these and other human rights violations in counterinsurgency operations.
The Russian government has also done very little, if anything, to bring perpetrators to justice for human rights and humanitarian law violations in last year's conflict in South Ossetia. In a January 2009 report, "Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations and Civilian Victims in the Conflict over South Ossetia," Human Rights Watch stated Russia is obligated to hold its own troops accountable for indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The report also states that Russia, as an occupying power in South Ossetia, has an obligation to ensure accountability for the attacks on ethnic Georgians that occurred in the aftermath of the short armed conflict. The beatings, killings, abductions, and looting and torching of their homes by Ossetian militias followed the Georgian military's withdrawal from South Ossetia in August 2008. Human Rights Watch said that Russia has a duty to ensure the safe and dignified return of all persons displaced from South Ossetia who wish to return.
"President Obama should convey to President Medvedev that allowing international observers on the ground in South Ossetia is important for returns," said Gill.