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East-West relations

Europe's relationship with Russia continues to ignore serious breaches of human rights, argues Willy Fautré
Human Rights Without Frontiers Int'l
November 27, 2008

The (24.11.2008) - The recent EU-Russia summit in Nice has once again confirmed an unfortunate reality: the inefficiency of human rights talks between the EU and Russia.

There is an obvious need for innovative approaches to the promotion of human rights in Russia. No concrete results have come out of the latest rounds of high-level meetings and the EU has failed to share its values with Russia.

Russia still refuses to comply with the European courts, and violence and the harassment of human rights defenders and journalists persists. Prime minister Vladimir Putin has further gagged civil society with new legislation on NGOs so as to paralyse Russian organisations funded by foreign donors, characterising them as "jackals crawling on their knees outside foreign embassies to beg for money" and "traitors" in the pay of foreign powers.

Moreover, according to the Russian ministry of justice, 56 religious organisations are now threatened with liquidation. Despite this appalling record, talks on a partnership will soon restart.

Yet trends seem to indicate that the majority of Russian citizens care little about such attacks on civil society. While it is important in the eyes of the west to defend human rights in Chechnya, this cause is not popular among Russians.

They will not spontaneously and massively side with the views and the work of Russian NGOs financed by the EU or the US. All political regimes advocate strong safeguards in the name of territorial integrity, national identity and interests, particularly in the case of authoritarian regimes like Russia. This makes attempts to secure local support for human rights all the more difficult.

EU and western NGOs time and time again begin their discussion with the demand that international, universal human rights standards be recognised and implemented by the UN member states.

They feel it is their sacred mission to spread the human rights 'gospel', and they fix their agendas and priorities on this argument, which does not necessarily resonate with or meet the expectations of the local population.

A recent survey of the Russian middle class reveals their major concerns and priorities – most feel that ordinary people cannot defend their rights in court, and are extremely worried about the levels of crime and aggression in society, and with corruption among bureaucrats, the judiciary, the police, healthcare and education.

Western NGOs fund training programmes for the police and magistrates but in their daily lives, millions of Russians cannot see any substantial change in the judiciary. They cannot afford to go to court and get no concrete support from the EU and foreign NGOs.

The time has come to revise and re-balance priorities, to be creative in the re-designing of new strategies, to take into account the priorities of the majority of the Russian population and to help them in redressing injustice against corrupt public and private actors.

Europe must not retreat from its responsibility to hold Russia accountable to human rights standards, but must re-evaluate the methods by which it promotes these rights. Empowerment of local Russian NGOs is a more sustainable, long-term solution to Europe's goals of democracy promotion, good governance and the rule of law.

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