THE BLOG

APEC Summit: Focusing on Economics Won't Work if Human Rights Are Ignored

President Putin says that the focus of this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is economics. The event -- which will bring together key global businesses and diplomats, including a delegation from the United States headed by Secretary Clinton -- is designed to showcase investment potential in Russia. The city of Vladivostok underwent a 21-billion dollar makeover for the summit.

Mr. Putin's government would like to avoid discussions about human rights and the rule of law -- yet widespread corruption, election fraud, sham trials, restrictions on fundamental rights, crackdown on dissent shape Russia's image abroad. Foreign investment will remain a distant dream until Russia changes its ways.

We don't need to go far from Vladivostok to see how human rights problems impact investment potential. On August 9, the director of Pervosvet -- an ecological organization from the town of Luchegorsk, some 300 miles north of Vladivostok -- was summoned for questioning to the local prosecutor's office. The prosecutor accused the organization of using unlicensed software, and authorities confiscated six PC's and a notebook.

Until 2010, the government often used such raids to crack down on dissent. Our reporting uncovered similar cases across Russia affecting a wide range of civil society, including small independent media, an internationally prominent environmental group, election monitoring organizations, and two ethnic tolerance groups. As lengthy civil and criminal proceedings delayed their work, Russian authorities effectively suppressed free speech.

It's been almost a two years since the New York Times ran a cover story unveiling a pattern of selective abuse of antipiracy laws against dissenting voices in Russia. The article prompted Microsoft to reevaluate its policies in Russia and 11 other countries and to unequivocally declare that the company does not "wish to engage in antipiracy actions against NGOs and small, independent media ... that are using Microsoft software for their business needs."

We presented recommendations to Microsoft and to Moscow to witness the unveiling of the company's unilateral license, which protects nongovernmental organizations and independent media from selective enforcement of antipiracy laws. The license sent a clear message to the Russian government and prevented groundless police raids.

We are generally satisfied by the progress that has resulted from Microsoft's new stance: charges dropped in prior cases, and selective abuse thwarted in the handful of new attempts since December 2010. But the case of Pervosvet is a reminder that businesses operating in Russia must be alert to abuses against civil society groups. Though Microsoft reached out to the local authorities to make clear the company's disinterest in pursuing charges, the prosecutors claim that other software is in issue.

Active civil society, robust rule of law, and independent media are all components of a healthy investment climate. Focusing on economics and ignoring human rights concerns will make it harder for companies to operate in Russia because they simply don't know what to expect. Business executives and investors attending the APEC summit this week must make this concern clear to Russian officials and embrace as partners the groups and activists trying to protect human rights in a country that seems to be slipping toward authoritarianism.

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