How then should policymakers, activists, and scholars weigh the policy options? The main question is not whether human rights should be promoted in the region, but how? Stress on human rights provides few quick fixes and establishing priorities among human rights can be a problem. Which ones merit the most attention and which should be set aside, even if only temporarily? These choices, however, are not so difficult in a region where members of Kadyrov’s administration continue to administer torture with electric shocks. Security rights and the right to life must remain at the forefront of our thinking and public discourse.
The actual leverage may be limited, at least in the short-run. Firstly, concerned governments should design a framework that encourages the acceptance of LGBTQ asylum seekers, while remaining firm in their public and diplomatic criticism of Kadyrov’s regime. Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch was right to argue that the most recent detention and torture of LGBTQ in Chechnya would not have ceased if not for the broad international outcry that accompanied it. Clearly, the arbitrary violence of President Kadyrov and his administration must continue to attract the attention of transnational groups and governments, remaining in the international spotlight and integrated into the portfolios of both public officials and diplomats.
Frank Schwabe of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) visited the region in September of 2019, the first visit in nine years. His report has still to be released, and the last report by PACE was issued in 2017 by Piet De Bruyn of Belgium. Similarly, the OSCE issued a report in 2018, and the UN Human Rights Commissioner publicly criticized the Russian government’s denial of the existence of LGBTQ individuals during the Human Rights Council’s 2017 Universal Periodic Review, as mentioned earlier. When the situation escalated in January 2019, the UN High Commissioner again urged action followed by a joint statement signed by thirty nations in Geneva later that month, which the United States did not sign.
In the short-term, the acceptance of LGBTQ asylum-seekers is clearly the most desirable outcome. Such a strategy cannot be pursued at the expense of other policy solutions, however. The approach to the situation in Chechnya must be flexible enough to give the Council of Europe and the European Union, as well as independent initiatives by European countries and the US the latitude to pursue long-term objectives in Russia. The mechanisms available to institutions such as the UN, PACE, and the OSCE are constrained, but they should remain broadly targeted against the Russian government’s conservative values campaign and the eradication of the laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations”.
The leadership in Russia is defining its identity in opposition to the West and political homophobia is a state strategy connected with the broader push to control private and public space in the country. Since civil society movements are most likely to make progress when they have some grass-roots support, PACE’s strategy is to concentrate on where that support exists in Russia, and most obviously it operates in the major cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. Gay organizing usually corresponds to the opening up of regimes, and Russia, unlike Chechnya, had this opportunity in the 1990s. Despite severe challenges and limitations, the LGBTQ and human rights community has been able to mobilize while drawing on the broader culture of political opposition under Alexei Navalny and the former leading democrat, Boris Nemtsov. Keeping a protective spotlight on the activists and lawyers who work to protect the rights of others is paramount.
From the perspective of the United Nations Human Rights Council, there are still two long-term strategies on the horizon. Russia has yet to ratify two international human rights instruments, both of which have essential monitoring mechanisms linked to them. The first is the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2010) and the second, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT, 2006). OPCAT mandates a national monitoring and preventative mechanism that allows CAT and its Special Rapporteur to visit Russia without the government’s permission. This option currently already rests with the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). Most recently, as a result of a 2017 trip, the CPT’s Vice-President Mark Kelly noted: “For the CPT, it is of grave concern that, notwithstanding the efforts, it has made over the last 20 years, torture of detained persons in the Chechen Republic has remained a deep-rooted problem.” It is clear, not only from the information gathered by the Committee in the course of its visits but the litigation work of the Russian based NGO, “The Committee Against Torture” and the “Russian Justice Initiative” (as well as some local legal efforts) that resort to torture and other forms of ill-treatment by members of law enforcement agencies in the Chechen Republic remains widespread, as does the related practice of unlawful detentions. As noted in the CPT’s report, this is the fourth time the committee has made a public statement concerning the North Caucasus. The previous statements were made in 2001, 2003, and 2007.
Since the United States has not yet ratified OPCAT, it would be difficult for the current US administration to promote this strategy. Europe, then, should continue to pursue parallel policies of confrontation and engagement, all the while responding emphatically to Russia’s ongoing violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and international human rights law. As Europe insists on the fundamental values underpinning the European Union, the current US administration might consider a broader strategy that extends beyond the essential military priorities of nuclear arms control and strategic stability.
The extent to which the United States is interested in exerting political capital in Russia beyond these high stakes issues does not look promising, however. Russia’s expansionist ambitions and its quest for recognition as a major power are no doubt making this difficult. Moreover, the Russian government’s concerted efforts to shield domestic politics from foreign interference, alongside an extensive legislative and regulatory framework to support it, are directed in large part, against the United States. Of the twenty international organizations named by the Russian Prosecutor’s office as “undesirable”, twelve of them are based in the US (including the Atlantic Council, NED, and the Open Society Foundation). While it has become much harder to support democratic reformers in Russia, both the US and Europe should continue to encourage person-to-person contact and societal co-operation, particularly in education and research. The idea of expelling Russian diplomats, while morally compelling, might threaten our pursuit of person to person exchanges whether as academic exchanges or for ordinary travelers. Such incidents as the poisoning of Sergei Skripal that took place in the United Kingdom in 2018 and the subsequent expelling of diplomats no doubt displays solidarity with our British and European allies, but it is not clear what they achieve in the long-term.
Russia regained full membership in the Council of Europe (PACE) in May 2019 at the initiative of France and Germany. Despite criticisms lobbied against PACE for allowing it, the strategy is sound for a number of reasons. The extent of repression in the North Caucasus remains staggering and the mix of means being deployed, largely in Europe, needs strengthening. Of the five guiding principles for the EU’s Russia policy announced by Mogherini in 2016, point 5 on “supporting Russian civil society” remains essential to those pursuing democratic reform inside Russia. More symbolic gestures such as high-level meetings between western diplomats and the heads of civil society in Moscow, such as the Russian LGBT Network in Moscow should happen more regularly. The public condemnation of international pariahs like the Chechen leader, Akhmed Kadyrov must continue, alongside more bilateral discussions with our European partners and multi-lateral initiatives in the United Nations, the OSCE, and PACT. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) might also take a more emphatic approach by pushing for Russia’s adoption of anti-discrimination legislation that encompasses all forms of discrimination.
Strengthening these strategies will take time and patience to achieve, especially since pan-European organizations such as PACE and the OSCE remain under immense political pressure as a result of years of confrontation with Russia. It is not enough to simply manage our relationship with Russia, nor is it realistic to reset the relationship completely. But concerned states do need to continue pushing against the legislative and ideological walls that have been built around the Russian Federation so as not to lose the achievements, however nominal, of the past three decades.
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Emma Gilligan is a Professor of History and Human Rights in the Department of International Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is an expert on human rights, particularly focusing on Eastern Europe, especially Russia and Ukraine. She has researched war crimes in Chechnya, international human rights movements, and contemporary Russia. Her two books include Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War (Princeton University Press, 2011) and Defending Human Rights in Russia; Sergei Kovalyov Dissident and Human Rights Commissioner, 1969-96 (Routledge, 2004).