Tomorrow in the European Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, a number of activists will testify on Russian human rights abuses and pending legislation that would bar them from entering the U.S. Those testifying include The Post’s Robert Kagan (from the Brookings Institute), David Kramer of Freedom House, and Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. In advance of the hearing, a group of human rights activists sent an open letter to the subcommittee which reads in part:
We are writing to encourage action to address widespread and egregious violations of human rights in the Russian Federation contrary to international commitments. For too long, there has been a culture of impunity for Russian officials involved in human rights violations. Many of these cases – such as the death of Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney investigating official corruption, and the trials and incarceration of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a successful businessman and regime critic – are well known outside of Russia. Many others are not. We raise our voices on behalf of all Russians who have suffered serious human rights abuses by the government.
The Russian Federation is a party to a number of international agreements which require the government to adhere to international standards in safeguarding the human rights of it citizens. Monitoring compliance with such agreements is not simply an internal matter for the Russia government; it is a legitimate concern for all who care about the rule of law and human rights. Sadly, the current government in Russia has manifestly failed in its international obligations to respect the rights of its citizens. As The Washington Post recently editorialized, “Despite many promises, Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have done nothing to rein in the endemic lawlessness of their regime.”
The highest profile cases serve as a signal to the rest of Russia that the government can and will stifle dissent ruthlessly. Unfortunately, these cases represent only a fraction of the human rights abuse victims in Russia. . . . More vocal and effective international pressure is needed to hold Russian officials accountable. Russian officials’ lack of respect for human rights commitments, coupled with a lack of coordinated response from the international community, has a chilling effect on civic organizations and Russian citizens seeking to exercise their rights. As stated in a recent report by the independent and widely respected human rights monitoring organization, Freedom House: “By silencing influential and accomplished figures such as Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky, the Russian authorities have made it abundantly clear that anyone in Russia can be silenced.”
The signatories urged passage of pending legislation: the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011. They explained:
This legislation was introduced in May 2011 by Senator Benjamin Cardin, Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the U.S. Helsinki Commission). The legislation has broad and bipartisan support. This legislation calls for the use of targeted sanctions (U.S. visa denial and freezing of U.S. assets) against those individuals responsible for the detention, abuse and death of Sergei Magnitsky and other violations of human rights. We strongly support enactment of this legislation as a necessary step to both seek accountability for past abuses and, hopefully, deter future abuses. Unless and until Russian human rights abusers pay a price for their actions, there will be no justice and abuses will continue.
If you recall, the administration had tried to undermine this legislation during the summer, despite overt Russian bullying of U.S. legislators.
Meanwhile, Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader, sent a separate letter to the subcommittee chairman and ranking members pointing to widespread fraud in the recent elections and accusing Vladimir Putin of “robbing the Russian people of its wealth and its dignity.”
We know from the conviction and sentencing of Khodorkovsky, that Russian promises to reform the judiciary are empty. The restrictions on the media and now the election fraud have revealed the “Russian reset” to be nothing more than a strategy of appeasement. The administration, which has invested so much prestige in the “Russian reset,” is wary of admitting failure and taking strong action.
At the Foreign Policy Initiative conference held in Washington today a number of prominent Republicans weighed in. In a question-and-answer session, former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (a strong supporter of Mitt Romney) said the reset was “naive and has been a failure.” Without commenting specifically on legislation, he made the case that we should stand with the Russian people. He called the START treaty “flawed” and lambasted Putin, saying the elections show “fraud and continued mischief.” In a tough indictment of the administration’s Russia policy, he warned, “Bullies respect strength, not weakness.”
I also had the chance to interview a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). She was blunt: “Reset has failed.” When the president decided to withdraw missile defense systems from Europe, she said, the U.S. set a bad precedent and encouraged Putin. She contends that it is essential that the U.S. remain vigilant on human rights abuses. If we don’t, “we’re not standing up for our values,” she told me. She noted that the Magnitsky bill enjoyed “very strong bipartsian support and should be acted on . . . especially in light of the [fraudulent] election.” She analogized the administration reaction to S. 1039 to the Menendez-Kirk amendment on Iran sanctions. In both cases she said, “The administration wanted to water down” tough measures. Just as agreement was finally reached yesterday on Menendez-Kirk, she said, “I think we could find similar bipartisan support” for the Magnitsky bill.
At the same conference, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), in an interview with a small number of reporters, also urged that the U.S. not duck on Russian human rights abuses. He said, “The best policy is to stand with the people.”
Events may have conspired to force the administration’s hand. As protests continue in Russia and Mikhail Prokhorov announces he will oppose Putin, the opportunity is presented to hold Russian human rights violators accountable and perhaps weaken Putin’s grip on power. Moreover, assistance for Russian civil society groups would put the U.S. firmly in the camp of reformers. Members of both parties in Congress overwhelmingly seem to grasp all this. Why doesn’t the president?