The last time a broad alliance was built to oppose a major act of violence – the “global war on terrorism” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks – it was a human rights disaster. Following the US example, governments worldwide learned that pledging support for that effort gave them greater latitude to shred international norms against arbitrary detention, torture, and even summary execution. The Cold War featured a similar Western willingness to sacrifice democratic and human rights principles in the name of building an alliance against a dictatorial foe.
Today, the global solidarity being shown for Ukraine risks becoming a comparable cover to turn a blind eye to authoritarian repression. We should beware. The lawless approach to fighting terrorism often fueled more terrorism. The embrace of Cold War autocrats undermined the appeal of democracy. In rejecting rule by the increasingly repressive Russian government, Ukrainians have been clear that theirs is a fight for democracy. Downplaying human rights in the name of building an alliance to oppose Russia’s invasion risks strengthening the global autocratic threat of which the Ukraine conflict is only a part.
We already see the risk of this tradeoff in the quest to increase the global supply of oil and gas to compensate for the loss of Russian sources. As a condition for helping, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reportedly want renewed US assistance for their disastrous campaign of bombing and blockading Yemeni civilians. The Saudi crown prince reportedly has added that he wants immunity from lawsuits in the United States for his government’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The US government should firmly reject this amoral, transactional approach – all the more so from governments that depend on the United States to defend them from Iran.
President Joe Biden’s administration recently sent, for the first time, a high-level delegation to meet with the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Adopting measures to address the profound humanitarian needs of the Venezuelan people, such as ensuring that overcompliance with US sanctions does not undermine access to food and medicine, would be laudable. But resetting relations should not mean diminishing the Venezuelan government’s responsibility for creating the country’s human rights and humanitarian disaster. If oil sales are allowed, guarantees should be put in place to ensure that resulting revenue benefits the Venezuelan people and not corrupt officials.
The European Union faces similar choices, not only when looking to diversify gas supplies from the likes of Azerbaijan and Algeria, but also within its own membership. The Polish and Hungarian governments are undermining the checks and balances needed in a democracy to protect rights. The European Court of Justice recently upheld the EU’s ability to condition its generous subsidies to these governments on an end to their attacks on the rule of law. Both countries are under scrutiny by the EU Council, representing all EU leaders, over the risks they pose to fundamental EU values.
EU institutions should continue to focus on such democratic backsliding. Hungary and Poland, as countries that border Ukraine, have had bitter experience as members of the former Soviet bloc, so they have plenty of incentive to stand up to Russia without the EU going slow in addressing the threats they pose to democratic institutions.
The Turkish government has already significantly muted EU protests over its intensifying repression as a condition of preventing asylum seekers from reaching Greece. Its frontline role in Ukraine will most likely increase the pressure for the EU to downplay that repression as pivotal national elections approach next year. The EU should focus on upholding the rights of the Turkish people – the most important EU relationship – rather than the efforts of their autocratic president to retain power.
China presents perhaps the greatest risk of trading human rights for help on Ukraine. The rationale for that tradeoff lies in the hope that Beijing might be reluctant to endorse a blatant affront to a nation’s sovereignty. But the Chinese government has shown little such concern when it acts against such neighbors as India or Bhutan. In any event, Beijing trumpets sovereignty mainly to deflect human rights criticism, even though since at least 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has made a country’s human rights record an appropriate topic of international concern.
More to the point, the Chinese government is hardly eager to strengthen a global coalition on Ukraine that might be mobilized in defense of Taiwan should Beijing pursue a military takeover — or to address Beijing’s own repression. That repression has been most intense in recent years against the Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang, where Beijing’s mass detention, cultural persecution, highly intrusive surveillance, and forced labor amount to crimes against humanity.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration may be tempted to downplay Xinjiang in return for Beijing’s refusal to help Moscow evade sanctions imposed for the invasion. That would wrongfully sacrifice the rights of China’s Turkic Muslims for the rights of Ukrainians. It would also ignore the threat to democracy worldwide represented by the Chinese government, with its active undermining of global rights standards and institutions.
Some might argue that selective attention to rights is demanded by the gravity of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That devalues the importance of the larger struggle between democracy and autocracy now playing out around the world. Indeed, Ukraine has been on the frontline of the struggle for many years. Compromising democracy in the name of opposing Russia’s invasion risks losing the war to win a battle.
But even if one looks narrowly only at Russia, there are strong reasons not to go wobbly on rights. Far reaching as the sanctions imposed on Russia have been, Vladimir Putin is perhaps the last person in the country to feel the heat directly. Yet Putin has long feared the possibility of a “color revolution” – of people rising up against the autocrat. He remains sensitive to pressure from the Russian people, which is why he is going to such lengths to keep them in the dark about what is happening in Ukraine.
Yet so far, the Kremlin’s censorship, disinformation, propaganda, and threats of lengthy prison terms have not stopped Russians from learning about the war in Ukraine and registering their opposition. Although many Russians may still settle for the Kremlin’s line as spouted by state media, a significant number of Russians are learning the truth, whether by using virtual private networks to circumvent the censors, turning to still-functioning social-media platforms such as Telegram and YouTube, or simply telephoning friends and contacts in Ukraine or the rest of Europe. The evidence that word is getting through can be seen as Russians by the tens of thousands in 150 cities across the country have taken to the streets to oppose the war. More than 1 million Russians have signed anti-war petitions.
Whether these Russian protests wax or wane will depend in part on the nature of the global response to the invasion. A global alliance that ignores human rights as the price of enticing new members is more easily portrayed as “anti-Russian” and thus less likely to attract the Russian people. But a response that upholds democratic principles and speaks to the autocratic rule that has led to this crisis and is weighing with greater intensity on the lives of Russians today is more likely to succeed in enlisting the Russian people as they try to restrain Putin’s depredations in Ukraine.