“We do not see anything extraordinary or abnormal in this.” This is what Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Alexei Borodavkin, said in Geneva on Friday, as he announced that his government is closing the UN’s human rights office’s presence in Moscow. He thanked the UN for its work in Russia and said its work was done – that it had provided technical assistance, set up human rights education projects, and helped establish national human rights institutions. “These institutions are functioning successfully,” he said.'
The Russian government shuttering the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is, indeed, nothing extraordinary these days. It’s merely one of a great number of steps the government has taken in recent years to crack down on the Russian human rights movement and close space for freedom of expression and nongovernmental organizations. Put bluntly, Russia’s human rights movement is hanging by a thread.
State and pro-government media often equate criticism of the government with disloyalty or treachery. The government has branded as “foreign agents”—which in Russia means “traitor’ or “spy” – more than 100 nongovernmental groups that advocated for change and had accepted even a kopek of foreign funding. The government has vehemently rejected equality for LGBT people. And it has moved to thwart victims of human rights violations from finding justice through international bodies, when the Russian court system doesn’t deliver it.
I could not agree more with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra`ad Al Hussein when he said, “More cooperation [with the UN human rights office] rather than less, would be useful, for instance on the subject of the shrinking space for human rights defenders and nongovernmental organizations.”
I hope the Russian government will change its mind. In his comments last Friday, Ambassador Borodavkin noted that Russia was the only permanent member of the UN Security Council to host an adviser of the UN human rights office. Perhaps that was indeed extraordinary. But what’s certain is that closing it is sadly ordinary.