Softer reaction on a softer report

Both the Russian part of the 2008 Human Rights Report by the U.S. Dept. of State, and Russia’s reaction to it, are more toned down than in years past, which can be viewed as a positive sign for Russo-American relations.

‘Negative trajectory’

“The Russian Federation continued a negative trajectory in its overall domestic human rights record with numerous reports of government and societal human right problems and abuses during the year,” according to the report’s introduction.

Meanwhile, the chapter itself (available with the rest of the report on the U.S. Department of State website) is little more than a list of cases of human rights and freedom abuses, most of which were, in due course, widely reported and discussed in the Russian media.

More importantly, the chapter doesn’t come to a justified conclusion expressed in the introduction, as one would expect from a report of this nature. Instead, it notes some positive trends such as a decline in anti-Semitism.

This could be a sign that the chapter on Russia and the introductory part were written by different teams.

Attributed to Bush’s administration

It was noted by the Information Department of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which in its response statement (available in Russian on the Foreign Ministry website) attributed at least part of the Human Rights Report to George W. Bush’s team, despite the fact that the report was presented to the United States Congress by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself.

“It is our understanding that the report was being composed under the former Republican administration,” said the Ministry’s statement. Written in a critical tone, it accused Washington of “revamping facts that took place in 2006-2007” in order to maintain Russia’s image as “the main human rights abuser”.

Regarding the report’s controversial evaluation of Russia’s moves to protect its citizens in South Ossetia, the Ministry noted that a similar approach could be used regarding U.S. actions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moderate reaction

However, these statements were somewhat played down by the closing lines of the Ministry’s statement: “In view of the recent statements of the new U.S. administration on its readiness to conduct a mutually respectful dialog with other countries on a wide range of issues, including the problem of encouraging and protecting human rights, one would like to hope that Washington will alter its approach in preparation of these kind of reports”.

In conjunction with earlier statement by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, this reaction can be considered quite moderate.

Speaking to journalists on Thursday, Lavrov admitted that Russia has problems surrounding human rights protections.

“We do have such problems, and we speak honestly about them,” Lavrov stated, adding that Russia would never avoid a “true and equal” discussion of the human rights protection issue.

“We just have to make sure that such a discussion is based on facts, not biases, and that we don't find ourselves in a situation where political expediency replaces existing legal procedures, or where there is interference with the activities of the judicial branch,” he stressed.

Other Reports to consider

Lavrov also mentioned that Russia has its own Human Rights Report. It is presented annually (usually by mid-March) by the office of the Human Rights Commissioner of Russia, Vladimir Lukin. (To see the 2007 version of this report in Russian, follow the link).

A former Russian ambassador in the U.S., Lukin, who was reappointed to his position of Human Rights Commissioner by the State Duma in February, 2009, is one of the most internationally respected figures in Russia’s political arena.

His report usually assesses the same problems mentioned by his U.S. counterparts.

Changing Hillary

Other countries facing various degrees of criticism in the report were Zimbabwe, Sudan, Burma, Azerbaijan, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Somalia, Iraq and China, which received a particularly serious array of reproaches.

In this year’s Human Rights Report, Beijing was accused of “severe cultural and religious repression” of Tibetans and members of the ethnic Uighur group, and limiting freedom of speech, particularly through restricting the use of the internet.

China’s Office of the State Council hit back viciously.

“The U.S. practice of throwing stones at others while living in a glass house is a testimony to the double standards and hypocrisy of the United States in dealing with human rights issues and has undermined its international image,” it stated, and published its alternative Human Rights Record of the United States (available in English at Xinhua website), which underlined America’s own domestic problems with human rights.

This, however, will hardly hamper Chinese-American relations.

Secretary of State Clinton was in China just one week before presenting the 2008 Human Rights Report where she sought Beijing’s cooperation on questions as broad as climate change, the global economic crisis, and security threats. She also urged China to continue investing in U.S. Treasury bonds.

During these talks, Clinton diplomatically avoided the subject of human rights and Tibet.

We are talking about the same Hillary Clinton who, during her presidential campaign, called on then head of state George Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics to protest Chinese policies in Tibet.

As long as she maintains this kind of flexibility during her meeting with Lavrov next week, the long-dreaded warming of Russo-American relations is not far away.

Ruben Zarbabyan, RT