This week, Yekaterina Samutsevich, one of the three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot imprisoned for a February protest, has been released on a suspended sentence. Human rights groups are celebrating the release, even as they press for more action to release the other two.
While human rights advocates celebrate the unique attention Pussy Riot received, it is unlikely foreign pressure had anything to do with Samutsevich’s sentence suspension. For starters, Samutsevich’s conviction still stands, though she will not have to serve her sentence in prison. And while Prime Minister Medvedev called for their release, President Putin has joined the 43% of Russians who thought their punishment was too lenient. It’s hardly a human rights victory, just a blip in a much more worrying degradationof rights in Russia.
Unfortunately, advocates do not help themselves by narrowly focusing on a small subset of the broader challenge posed by rights violations. Regimes do not simply abuse people for sport; there are institutional, political, and sometimes even strategic reasons for it. Similarly, the response of the international community also has political and strategic context.
Last month, Russia expelled USAID from the country, a warning shot of sorts to the U.S. that it should stay out of Russia’s internal affairs. Without USAID many dissidents, civil society groups, and even fledgling political parties will struggle to support themselves financially. This is a real setback for the cause of democracy in the country, and it is unclear if or how the U.S. should respond. While Russia is aware of how the Pussy Riot attention has focused international opprobrium, Moscaw remains nonchalant.
Russia has rarely responded to anger over human rights issues in the past (Putin laughed off calls to end indiscriminate killings in Chechnya a decade ago). It would therefore be sensible to avoid further trouble by constraining the pro-democratic measures of foreign-backed actors working in Russia.
Yet, the best human rights groups can come up with is essentially to demand the west abandon any other issues. To wit, Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth recently suggested:
U.S. President Barack Obama may need Russia’s help on Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, but there should be no more talk of “resetting” relations with a man who is demonstratively trying to turn back the clock to the Soviet era. The European Union’s Russia policy, dominated by Germany, should move beyond seeing Russia as a source of gas for heating European homes, and abandon the view that speaking firmly to Moscow is the equivalent of a return to the Cold War.
Considering that the U.S. is highly unlikely to receive more Russian cooperation on those three issues without further concessions, this is a remarkable demand to make. Roth is effectively arguing that the U.S. should prioritize the plight of Russian human rights activists above the drawdown of 100,000 troops from Afghanistan, above the possibility of a deal to halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, and above securing any form of Russian cooperation to end the horrific slaughter of Syria’s civilians. Addressing the Europeans, Roth directs German Chancellor Angela Merkel to prioritize Russian human rights above Germans’ access to heating gas this winter- a virtually impossible decision with very real domestic repercussions.
Proposals such as Roth’s, common from human rights advocates across the globe (not just Russia), lack real political, strategic context. When large, powerful nations are needed to achieve something within the broader geopolitical landscape but are reluctant to do so, other concerns (however valid) are placed on the back burner. Simply demanding that the U.S. abandon big issues is worse than naïve; it guarantees that human rights concerns will always be marginalized.
The human rights community should instead look at the bigger picture to create a strategically-minded, human rights-driven long term agenda that will also advance America’s many goals and interests. In other words, rather than demanding the U.S. simply abandon other tactically important priorities, can human rights become an enabler to other goals?
The answer should be yes. As an example, it could conceivably be argued that promoting human rights will ultimately marginalize the appeal of extremist groups such as al Qaeda, tying the promotion of human rights to a tangible security benefit. If that argument is being made, it is not a prominent enough part of the public advocacy campaigns these groups undertake. Sadly, it means their good message is getting lost in the noise.