Europe’s new policy in Russia must focus on human rights

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A protester holds a Russian flag during a rally in Moscow in support of jailed Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. April 21, 2021 (REUTERS / Evgenia Novozhenina)

When US President Joe Biden stood in the East Room of the White House on September 15, flanked by television screens with images of Australian Prime Minister Morrison and British Prime Minister Johnson, a new geopolitical trend emerged manifested for European decision-makers.

As many analysts have subsequently noted, the announcement of the AUKUS trilateral security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia underscored the fragility of European security, the need to put more emphasis on he emphasis on building strategic autonomy and the fact that a strengthened EU policy towards Russia, its greatest strategic competitor, is vital. Human rights must now play a central role in the design and implementation of an updated EU-Russia strategic policy.

In May 2021, following a number of “illegal, provocative and disruptive Russian activities against the EU, its Member States and beyond”, the European Council (EUCO) expressed interest in revising its EU-Russia strategic policy. The European Commission responded with a first framework for the strengthening of EU policy in Russia which reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to five fundamental principles, and underlined the desire to “push back, constrain and engage Russia at the same time”.

Before the end of the current year, the EC is expected to present more concrete proposals to support Russian civil society, human rights organizations and independent media, as well as options for further restrictive measures against Russia, including economic sanctions. If the EU is to adhere to its values ​​while promoting its own security, it is incumbent on the EC and EUCO to set clear targets for dealing with the growing human rights crisis in Russia.

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While Belarus rightly occupies considerable attention in Europe, another human rights crisis exists at the gates of the European Union.

Independent civil society in Russia is increasingly under attack after more than a decade of repression and restrictive legislation designed to silence dissenting voices and erode civic space. As Alexei Navalny’s lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, noted in a Discussion sponsored by HRHF Russian human rights trends: “Before, we had steamboats full of dissidents leaving Russia. Now we have planes full of journalists leaving.

Today, among those human rights defenders, journalists and other dissenting voices who remain in the country, hundreds are illegally detained. At the same time, the independent media are to close and journalists targeted by the abuse anti-terrorism legislation.

Sexual and gender minorities face even greater threats, especially in Russia’s North Caucasus region, with law enforcement not only protecting these groups of people, but actively participating in atrocities and systematically violating human rights, according to the Russian LGBT Network.

The human rights crisis in Russia will not be resolved and will not remain contained within Russia’s borders. Indeed, over the past decade, actions and initiatives undertaken by Russian authorities to attack human rights have repeatedly been used as a model by authoritarian regimes in the region.

Azerbaijani legislation threatening civil society organizations and freedom of association mirrors that of Russia. The efforts of the Polish and Hungarian authorities to delegitimize independent media and human rights defenders are taken from the Russian manual.

Meanwhile, Russia is using the political and human rights crisis in Belarus as a “testing ground for authoritarian survival techniques.“If the EU fails to stand up to Russia and tackle its human rights violations, these trends will continue and threaten EU security.

The good news is that human rights are embedded in the five fundamental principles of the EU’s engagement with Russia. Therefore, it makes sense that the EU’s strategic policy towards Russia articulates human rights-focused action at international, regional and national levels.

In international fora such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe, the EU and individual member states must provide proactive and strong leadership in adopting formal accountability mechanisms for examine human rights violations in Russia and hold perpetrators accountable. These accountability mechanisms can provide the EU with additional information on those responsible for human rights violations in Russia, who are to be the target of new and expanded sanctions regimes.

The EU must also ensure that any Russian legislation that does not comply with the country’s human rights obligations is raised in all key human rights dialogues and reviews, including in the context of human rights reviews. United Nations treaty bodies and during the universal periodic review process.

At the same time, the EU must extend and deepen its engagement with Russian human rights defenders and organizations, as well as the media and independent journalists. It can do this effectively through legal and financial support to these groups and individuals, as well as by streamlining and speeding up visa processes for human rights defenders and their families facing threats to their legitimate work.

The European Commission’s simultaneous goals of pushing back, coercing and engaging Russia will not be achieved by focusing solely on human rights. But neither will they be achieved without placing human rights at the center of the EU’s strategic policy towards Russia. Unless that happens, Russia’s internal human rights crisis will continue to spill over its borders and threaten to destroy decades of human rights progress within the European Union itself.

Dave Elseroad is Advocacy Officer at the Human Rights House Foundation. Nora Wehofsits is International Advocacy Officer at the Human Rights House Foundation.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

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