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14 May 2018
The UN, Human Rights and Russia: Part I
By: Human Rights Committee

This is Part I of a IV-Part Series which will be released on a weekly basis, and will detail Russia's human rights record in the United Nations.

Part I: 
The Impact of Russian Diplomacy on the UN System for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and the Role of the UN System in Addressing Human Rights in Russia

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is considering Russia’s human rights record at its May 2018 session. This review is taking place as part of the UNHRC’s third cycle of reviewing all Member States’ implementation of international human rights commitments through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism established after the 60th anniversary United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) summit. UNHRC scrutiny of Russia at a 2013 session produced more than 225 recommendations from other Member States, over 160 of which Russia undertook to implement in full or in part.[1]

Russia is also the subject of a series of UNGA resolutions adopted since Russia’s 2014 occupation and illegal “annexation” of Crimea. These resolutions all condemn human rights violations in Crimea and call on Russia as the occupying power to address these abuses. Most recently, in December 2017, the Assembly adopted A/RES/72/190, “Situation of human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine)” by vote of 70 to 26, with 76 abstentions. In so doing, the Assembly urged the Russian Federation to uphold all its international legal obligations as an occupying Power and requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a second thematic report by the end of the current session.[2]

The regular review of Russia’s human rights record through the UPR process and the unprecedented attention to Russia’s responsibility for human rights abuses in occupied Crimea make it timely to consider the broader context in which these developments take place. In particular, given the scrutiny that Russia’s record is now receiving, it may be of interest to review the role that Russia and the Soviet Union have played over the years in shaping the evolution of the UN system for the promotion and protection of human rights. Similarly, to place the most recent developments in historical context, we may consider how the human rights performance of Russia (and previously the USSR) has itself been scrutinized by UN machinery.

Without extensively addressing the substance of particular human rights violations in Russia, we can proceed from the premise that very serious and large-scale violations of human rights were systematically perpetrated in the Soviet Union, that serious abuses continued to take place in the Russian Federation throughout the post-Soviet period, and that such abuses have again become much more widespread and systematic over the past several years.[3] In its final report on the September 2016 parliamentary elections in Russia, for example, a mission fielded by the leading regional multilateral human rights and democracy institution noted that “democratic commitments continue to be challenged and the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society.” [4]

pic1cap2Most objective observers suggest that the situation continued to deteriorate in 2017 and early 2018 in the run-up to the 18 March 2018 presidential elections which President Vladimir Putin won in a landslide. As the most prominent anti-Putin politician and well-known blogger Alexander Navalny called on fellow citizens to take a stand against corruption, galvanizing them by the release of a documentary focusing on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged abuses, widespread protests were met with disruption and large-scale detentions. The lack of freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is an issue that the people of Russia have learned to deal with by being creative with their dissent. But with the limited action taken by the government to fix the issues that the people see to be the most important, these dissenters are taking their anger and frustration to the streets. The authorities have responded, in turn, with increasingly draconian measures allegedly targeting “extremism” and “foreign agents” but actually designed to limit the space for political and social dialogue. An International Election Observation Mission deployed for the March 2018 Presidential elections concluded that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.”[5]

Most of the issues discussed in the remainder of this piece are not so much about the human rights situation in Russia itself but about the interplay between Russia and the UN’s human rights system. Some of the key questions which remain to be answered are to what extent the UN human rights system can serve as a valuable vehicle to address human rights violations in Russia (or any other country) and how effective the UN system can be in addressing such abuses, at a minimum to draw attention to serious concerns and if possible to encourage actual improvements in the situation faced by individual victims of human rights abuse.
 

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