by Tyler Roylance
On December 28, with little fanfare, Russia’s foreign ministry released a 90-page human rights report on the United States, Canada, and assorted European countries. There is no accompanying introduction, preface, or methodology for this rather slapdash document, entitled On the Human Rights Situation in a Number of the World’s States, but the selection of countries and their respective treatment makes it fairly clear that the report is meant to be a stick in the eye of the Kremlin’s perceived enemies, rather than any genuine attempt to promote human rights around the world.
The report’s criticism of conditions in a number of Western European countries whose governments are not necessarily seen as hostile may point to second motive: muddying the waters for ordinary Russians (the report was issued only in Russian) who look to Europe as a positive democratic example and a desirable place to live. The impression that things are bad everywhere, and that all human rights advocacy is hypocritical, encourages cynicism and apathy—just the sort of attitudes the regime is hoping for as it faces unprecedented protests over election fraud and corruption.
Similarly, the document’s grab bag of casualty statistics and atrocities associated with the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya provide fodder for Americans and Europeans on both the left and the right who are more comfortable criticizing their own governments’ foreign adventures and counterterrorism policies than the domestic affairs of authoritarian states—those who are inclined to ask, “Who are we to criticize other countries?” Notably, these sections of the report can be found within the U.S. chapter or a separate chapter on the NATO mission in Libya, and they are emphasized in the state-run English-language news service’s summary. There is no holistic examination of on-the-ground human rights conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, apparently because the authors are only interested in the culpability of U.S. and European governments.
Some of the report’s assertions are slightly odd, such as white Americans’ supposed alarm about growing “black racism.” Others are outdated, unsupported, or inaccurate. For example, the report claims that U.S. authorities “continue to execute” juveniles, but a 2005 Supreme Court ruling outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed while a juvenile, and the last such execution recorded by the Death Penalty Information Center occurred in 2003. Still other arguments are simply galling: the report claims that U.S. officials are violating Russian authorities’ right to the presumption of innocence by pursuing visa restrictions on those involved in the high-profile case of activist lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pretrial detention after being denied medical treatment.
But many issues flagged by the Russian report have also been raised by respected U.S. and European human rights organizations. Indeed, the document cites groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House, and the authors were apparently blind or indifferent to the profound contradictions this entails. The Russian government has repeatedly denounced such organizations and questioned their motives. If they are now regarded as credible sources by the foreign ministry, what does that say about their regular criticism of Russian authorities?
China encountered the same problem in April, when—perhaps feeling vulnerable amid the Arab Spring uprisings—it released its own human rights report on the United States. Editors of Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin found that roughly 80 percent of the sources cited by the report were U.S.-based media outlets, websites, government entities, and civil society groups, many of which are heavily censored within China.
At the root of this difficulty is the fact that the U.S. and other democratic governments are genuinely interested in promoting human rights as a core value. They criticize the performance of other states, but they also welcome such criticism on their own soil as part of democracy’s self-corrective system of checks and balances. While they too occasionally let slip flaws and inaccuracies, the U.S. State Department and an array of democracy-based civil society groups have been producing thorough, methodologically coherent human rights reports on virtually every country in the world for many decades, displaying an authentic commitment to their missions.
By contrast, authoritarian regimes like China’s and Russia’s see all human rights discourse as yet another weapon in an amoral, tooth-and-nail competition, applying the lessons of their cutthroat internal politics to the realm of international relations. For these jaded, paranoid operators, domestic human rights activists are threats to stability, perhaps deployed as agents of foreign governments, and they are dealt with accordingly. To the extent that the Chinese and Russian regimes still have clear ideologies, they favor the interests of the state and ruling elites over the rights of individuals, making any foray into the language of human rights disingenuous, and possibly dangerous. When authoritarians produce reports like these, they are in effect playing with fire, which may explain why the documents are so rare, and so half-hearted.