Human Rights and the Terror Fight

By Sarah E. Mendelson
Special to
Thursday, May 11, 2006; 12:00 AM

Vladimir Putin's abysmal record on democracy and human rights has some questioning whether the Bush administration should stay away from the G-8 meeting scheduled for this July in St. Petersburg. Staying away, however, will not affect the situation inside Russia one whit and, in fact, may fuel perceptions that Western democracies are hypocritical in calling for reform by others while violating human rights themselves.

In their efforts to combat radical Islamists and gain greater security for their citizens, core states in the Euro-Atlantic community are increasingly prepared to ignore or pay lip-service to their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law.

This rights-security trade is the topic that needs to be addressed in every transatlantic forum. To label Russia as "bad" and the West as "good" obscures this dangerous dynamic.

This is not an argument to bury the Russian Federation's record of human rights abuse. I have written extensively on this issue at a time when others were praising President Vladimir Putin as a reformer. I have worked for several years with the younger generation of Russia's human rights activists on a number of rights' campaigns. My colleagues have released numerous reports detailing disappearances, beatings, harassment and intimidation. The pattern of abuse by government officials increasing extremism described above is sadly familiar from Chechnya and the broader North Caucasus.

Until very recently, however, the Euro-Atlantic community has been strikingly ambivalent concerning human rights violations inside Russia. For example, the European Union, under the British presidency, sent a congratulatory letter after the Chechen "parliamentary elections" in November 2005. These "elections" evolved directly from a 2003 referendum widely viewed as fraudulent.

The Euro-Atlantic community seems not only ambivalent about human rights violations inside Russia, but about human rights in general. Government agencies, including militaries, intelligence agencies, and the police, have engaged in abusive policies and practices aimed at countering terrorism that have enflamed and alienated Muslim populations and appear to have increased-- not contained-- extremism.

Moreover, the erosion of human rights norms and laws by core states and by Euro-Atlantic institutions has been an enabling factor in the negative political trajectory of several Eurasian states. The unintended consequence: human rights' defenders have become increasingly isolated while authoritarians have become empowered. In some cases, terrorists appear to be motivated by this arrangement. Perhaps most disturbing of all: throughout the region, decision makers fail to recognize or are unconvinced that human rights abuses -- whether linked directly to their policy choices or committed by those carrying them out -- have serious, negative security implications.

We need to do several things simultaneously: develop effective, sensible policies toward Russia concerning the rollback of democracy and human rights; restore our own human rights norms and laws; and hardest of all, find ways to reduce the risk of violence from terrorists. These are problems so complex that no easy policy recipe exists. These issues deserve collaborative research and debate in multiple parts of the international community. At least some research suggests that effective counterterrorism policies, respect for human rights, and the rule of law are inextricably linked but much more empirical work and outreach are needed to persuade policy making communities in the United States, Europe and Eurasia.

We had better begin that work now before Russia shuts us out entirely, we get further off course, or terrorists strike again. This rights-security trade should be on the G-8 agenda -- if not in St. Petersburg in 2006, then in Berlin in 2007.

Sarah E. Mendelson is a Senior Fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Russia & Eurasia Program.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.

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