Archive for July, 2018

The Missing Human Rights Dialogue Between Trump and Putin

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Under fire for his relationship with Vladimir Putin, President Trump nonetheless will meet with the Russian despot on July 16 in Helsinki, and he has said that it is likely to be the “easiest” part of a trip that already has included a contentious NATO meeting and a stop in London.  To date President Trump has paid little attention to human rights and democratic values in his foreign policy pronouncements, or in his embrace of authoritarian leaders from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un to President Duterte.  Americans nonetheless are right to expect that President Trump show leadership by reestablishing attention to human rights to its traditional and right place as a central concern in our bilateral relationship with Russia when he sits down with Putin.

We’ll leave to others the flurry of questions about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections (past and future), the impact of that interference on Trump’s 2016 presidential win, and geopolitical questions raised by its engagement in Syria and elsewhere.  All, of course, have a critical place in this dialogue.

Rather, our immediate concern is that, since becoming President, Trump has turned his back on insisting that Moscow respect its citizens’ human rights – and on making clear that failure to do so will negatively impact our bilateral relations.  That post-war insistence is part of America’s true greatness.  It also reflects a real-world awareness that longer-term U.S. interests are most secure when partner countries respect democratic practice, the rule of law, and vibrant civil societies.

Today’s Russia has hit bottom in each of the above areas.  As documented in the State Department’s most recent human rights report, freedoms of media, expression, assembly, association, and privacy are under sharp attack in Russia.  Judicial independence does not exist, while extrajudicial violence and killings, including against LGBT citizens, does.  And so-called “foreign agent” laws have imposed sharp limits on the operation of legitimate civil society organizations.

Russia’s highly centralized government structure makes clear one thing:  Russian President Putin has the power to make needed changes to this troubling situation.

We’re eager to see whether Trump addresses these issues, in public and in private – eager, too, for him to hold Putin accountable for reversing the tragedies impacting Chechnya’s LGBT population.  Last year, the world was appropriately shocked when Chechen authorities detained and tortured scores of gay and bisexual men – or those suspected of being gay.  Some were murdered; more than 100 others were forced to leave their homes, seeking protection abroad.  The official homophobic purge continues to encourage families to “take care of” their LGBT family members, particularly impacting lesbians and bisexual women as well as gay and bisexual men. Russian authorities have done nothing to reverse this troubled situation, nor have they taken steps to assure justice for those impacted so gravely.

In all of this, the Administration has shown only passing concern over Russia’s failings.  To be sure, UN Ambassador Haley and then-Secretary of State Tillerson issued perfunctory statements of concern, and Tillerson reportedly sent a follow-up letter to his Russian counterpart, after having neglected to raise the matter in face-to-face meetings.  (We’ve not obtained a copy of the letter, nor have we been told whether Lavrov bothered to respond.)  In December the White House did impose Magnitsky Act visa and asset sanctions on two Chechen officials deemed responsible for Chechen’s actions, actions that we applauded at the time.  However, even these welcome actions fail to make clear that Moscow – not Grozny – ultimately is responsible for righting the situation.

Bipartisan Congressional resolutions (see the Senate Resolution here, and the House Resolution here) and several Congressional letters have insisted that the Trump Administration show greater resolve in pressing this issue. The most recent of these – earlier this spring, on the one-year anniversary that these atrocities began (see the Senate letter here, and the House letter here) – make clear that any genuine improvement in bilateral relations requires that Putin and Trump deal directly with Chechnya’s tragedy.

We recognize that the human rights issues noted above are but part of a broad pattern of slippage in Russia’s adherence to democratic and international norms.  We appeal to the Administration to acknowledge those facts, and we call for the Trump-Putin meeting to address them squarely and fully, hopefully with better results than seen thus far.


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