In a week, President Obama will travel to Moscow to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The agenda items of the summit in Moscow are of course numerous and complex, but it would be a mistake to let human rights concerns get lost in the mix. High among those concerns is the troubling rise in hate crimes in Russia, the government's inadequate response to this trend, and increased harassment -- including at times murder -- of human rights defenders. These and other outstanding human rights issues could make Russia a far less reliable partner in addressing economic, security, and other issues.
During the past five years there has been a sharp increase in the number of racist and other bias-motivated attacks in Russia; a rise of about 15 percent per year. In 2008, there were nearly 100 such reported murders in Russia -- by far the highest incidence of such serious violence in Europe. This problem has been compounded by a lackluster governmental response to these heinous acts. Russia's deeply-flawed anti-extremism legislation has been used to silence government critics, rather than to thoroughly investigate and prosecute the cases of increasingly brutal violent hate crimes. In recent years, human rights activists have also been the targets of aggressive attacks by neo-Nazi and other groups.
In a letter to the President, Elisa Massimino, the CEO and Executive Director of Human Rights First explained:
"We believe, as you stated in April, that respect for human rights and the rule of law is the bedrock of a more constructive relationship between the United States and Russia. You also said then that 'it is time to get down to business and translate our warm words into actual achievements of benefit to Russia, the United States, and all those around the world interested in peace and prosperity.' Your attention to Russia's efforts to combat racist, xenophobic and other violent hate crimes and to strengthen and protect human rights organizations and civil society will help the move from words to deeds by making clear that the United States considers progress on these issues essential to building a strong bilateral relationship with Russia in the future."
In his upcoming meetings with President Medvedev, President Obama must:
- Express concern about the sharp rise in violent hate crimes in Russia and the so far inadequate response of the Russian authorities to this most pernicious form of discrimination, while making clear the common interest of the United States and Russia in combating violent hate crime throughout Europe and North America, through developing shared solutions to the problems.
- Encourage a regular dialogue between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Russian Interior Ministry and prosecutorial officials to improve responses to hate crime.
- Show support for Russian human rights and other civil society groups by meeting with them in Moscow.
HRF's letter to President Obama was sent on the same day the organization submitted testimony in conjunction with a United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) hearing examining the realities of "the Medvedev thaw." In those remarks for the record, HRF called on the Commission to encourage the Obama Administration to set the tone for the new relationship with Russia by welcoming some of the positive steps taken by President Medvedev since he assumed the presidency, while consistently raising continuing human rights concerns.
My organization has put together a sign-on letter if you would like to lend your voice to this debate, urging President Obama to raise human rights concerns in his upcoming meeting with President Medvedev.
Take Action: Tell President Obama to raise human rights issues with Russian President Medvedev!
Paul LeGendre is the Director of the Fighting Discrimination program at Human Rights First. Join them at facebook.com/humanrightsfirst and twitter.com/humanrights1st.