EU-Russia human rights talks have little impact

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Lack of hard evidence, boilerplate answers from Russian envoys and poor follow-up have seen EU-Russia human rights talks add up to little more than diplomats getting to know each other. EU delegates at the 11th EU-Russia “human rights consultations,” held in Brussels on 28 April 2010, gave the Russian side a list of needling questions about 31 individual cases, including big names such as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and anti-fraud lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, as well as several hardly-known victims. The union did not receive any real answers to its queries in April and it does not expect to receive any at the 12th round of talks under the upcoming Belgian EU presidency. “We have never learned anything we did not know already,” an EU contact said.

Russia in April instead spent time but-what-abouting with the EU, saying Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK violate human rights on issues such as press freedom, mistreating Roma, and banning the burqa. It also complained that the European Parliament uses “accusatory rhetoric” that could “contaminate EU-Russia relations.” When asked by the EU to help audit the past six years of work, Russia reacted negatively. “The RF [Russian Federation] seemed reserved and surprised, despite previous contacts in Moscow and Brussels on this matter. The idea of evaluating the impact of consultations on human rights situation in the RF appeared to bewilder the Russian side,” the internal EU report said.

Lack of information in the EU weakens its ability to press Russia on individual cases. The European Commission has built up a long contacts list in Russia after 20 years of running aid projects, including in North Caucasus. The EU relies mainly on NGOs and member state embassies to do its homework for the human rights talks. Some large EU missions, such as Italy and Spain, do “nothing” to help, an NGO contact in Moscow said. Greece and Portugal are also “uninterested,” while most small embassies, such as Ireland, lack resources. The most active ones, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, make small-scale fact-finding trips around the country and go to hearings in trials. The NGOs themselves work in a climate of oppression.

The EU tackles human rights in other ways outside the dialogue. Leaders make statements at EU-Russia summits, for example. And the European Commission recently launched a scheme to give money to NGOs to get at-risk people out of Russia quickly. But the dialogue itself, which is used by both sides for PR purposes, has so far done little more than create a feel-good factor among the 25-or-so mid-ranking EU and Russian delegates who meet behind closed doors in Brussels or Stockholm. The EU report on the 11th round noted that, in private, Russian diplomats “admit” there are serious human rights problems in their country, that the talks have “created an atmosphere of trust” and take place in a “friendly manner.”

But, on a colder note: “The RF reiterated that no progress can be induced by external forces.” In the context of the grave North Caucasus abuses, the April meeting found just one area for future co-operation: a joint seminar on “responsible parenthood.” And the nice atmosphere is quite thin: EU sources asked this website not to publish the names of the 31 cases on the April list because Russia might “slam shut the doors.” A Russian diplomat said EU queries about criminal cases in the talks “always” help speed up domestic investigations. But when pressed to give an example, she said: “There is a diplomatic value [in the dialogue]. But there is not necessarily any direct outcome for the families of the victims.”

http://euobserver.com/9/30323

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