Russian report criticizes US on human rights, US responds 'bring it on'

The author of the professionally written report says it is meant to broaden the conversation by inviting Americans to see that they have plenty of problems in their own country.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Russian prisoners rights activist Valery Borschev gestures during a news conference in Moscow on Wednesday. A respected group of Russian human rights activists has backed claims made by jailed opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev that he was tortured into confessing to plotting riots – the same week that Moscow released a report criticizing human rights in the US.

Russian officials claim they are tired of being criticized by the US government for Russia's alleged human rights abuses, democratic deficiencies, and systemic inadequacies, in many cases from a standpoint that's less than objective, often ignorant of cultural relativities, and sometimes downright hypocritical.

So, the Russian Foreign Ministry, at the behest of Russia's State Duma, has decided to give the United States a blast of its own medicine – and, its main author claims, hopefully spark a dialogue – by issuing a well-documented 50-page report on the state of civil rights, electoral democracy, and judicial independence, among other things, inside the US.

It's a professionally written report, based largely on the work of US nongovernment and academic sources, that covers a gamut of social problems that will mostly be familiar to any well-informed American. But the Russian purpose, argues its main author Konstantin Dolgov, is not necessarily to tell Americans anything new but to urge them to change their angle of view and learn to do without the harsh judgements that he sees lurking behind many official US pronouncements on Russia.

"Nobody likes to be hectored," Mr. Dolgov says. "We are a young democracy. We have our problems, but we also have serious achievement that we hope won't be overlooked."

Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry's special representative for human rights, insists it's not an attempt to copy the US State Department's annual reports on human rights around the world, but simply an effort to broaden the conversation by inviting Americans to see that they have plenty of problems in their own country, and should deal with them before lecturing to others.

"They criticize and judge everyone except themselves. We think the US should not try to monopolize the role of leader, teacher, and mentor in the field of human rights," Mr. Dolgov says. "If they want to do this, they should be aware that they are also being monitored."

Dolgov says Russia isn't judging the US, or denying that it's an established democratic state, just that Americans should be aware that they're living in a glass house.

"Nobody is rejecting the historic accomplishments of the US, but at the same time they should be aware that serious problems continue to exist, and some of them are growing," he says.

His preference would be for the US and Russia to discuss differences behind closed doors, in intergovernmental committees that already exist but have fallen into disuse, such as the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission.

As for human rights violations in Russia, that's not his department, he says. The Kremlin has a human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, who deals with domestic matters and produces annual reports of his own.

The idea of trying to induce Americans to look at their own country through the same kind of critical paradigm that their government and media subjects Russia to, was a standard – if spectacularly unsuccessful – method of the former Soviet propaganda machine. But under Vladimir Putin it's back in vogue, with Russians feeling this time that American perceptions of their country are truly unfair. The Kremlin spends vast amounts of money on Russia Today, or RT, an English-language satellite news network with studios in Washington, D.C., and an assertively alternative approach to news coverage of the US and the world.

The official US response to Dolgov's report, expressed by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland Tuesday, was: Bring it on.

"[The US] is an open book, and we have plenty of nongovernmental organizations of our own that make assessments about our human rights and that represent to the government what they think needs to be done," Ms. Nuland said. "So from that perspective, whether it’s a US NGO watchdog or whether it’s an international watchdog, bring it on."

The Russian report details several different types of discrimination in the US (though, perhaps tellingly, it makes no mention of abuses against LGBT persons), as well as racial profiling, police brutality, Internet censorship, capital punishment, attempts to disenfranchise minorities, violence and abuse within the prison system, and rising right-wing extremism.

It slams the US for "extrajudicial" killings abroad in the drone war, by US forces in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, for CIA "renditions" and "black sites" in other countries, and for keeping suspects incarcerated "perpetually and without charges" at the Guantánamo Bay facility.

The US is also criticized for failing to sign and ratify a raft of international treaties and conventions on human rights; the report lists 17 such documents going back 80 years.

It also veers into Soviet-style criticisms that will sound contentious to many Americans. For example, it cites high unemployment, rising poverty, and growing social inequality in the same context as alleged government abuses. But economic unfairness is widely perceived in the US as a consequence of the free-market system and, however unpleasant, not akin to human or civil rights violations.

It's also all a bit rich coming from officials of a country whose own human rights record has been deteriorating rapidly in recent months, and which was just cited in Credit Suisse's prestigious annual Global Wealth Report as the country with the greatest wealth inequality in the entire world.

"It's understandable that every country wants to look good," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a private Moscow-based political consultancy.

"But our authorities, surrounded by a sea of problems, are trying to shift the accent to other issues, preferably how bad the US is. To divert public attention from persistent evidence of electoral fraud in Russia, why not switch their attention to all the awful violations that occur during elections in the US?"

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