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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks to Russian Human Rights Activists Visiting Washington


Remarks
Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
May 27, 2011

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11:30 AM - 1 PM

Welcome to you all. It is good to see several old friends and as well as to meet new colleagues in our common efforts to advance human rights and the rule of law. I appreciate the opportunity to meet with you and I extend my thanks to USAID and ABA/ROLI for organizing the study tour.

Before I became Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, I led an NGO, now known as Human Rights First. In that capacity, I worked to ensure that my own government did not flag in its efforts to uphold international human rights principles, and we worked effectively with other governments and with NGOs at home and overseas to that end. So I know very well how valuable the work of advocacy NGOs can be – just as I know how much more can be achieved in partnership with responsible and responsive governments.

When I addressed the Civil Society Working Group at its meeting in Russia last year, I noted that one critical barometer of a country’s respect for human rights is how it addresses the challenges within its prison system . As you may know, last year the United States submitted a Report to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in conjunction with the Universal Periodic Review process. The report was a product of collaboration between the U.S. Government and representatives of civil society from across the United States. I was one of a number of senior representatives from more than a dozen federal departments and agencies who traveled the country to attend a series of consultations hosted by a wide range of civil society organizations, in which individuals presented their concerns and recommendations. Among the subjects discussed and reflected in our report were “fairness and equality in law enforcement”, “safeguards for dignity in law enforcement and criminal justice”, “dignity and incarceration” and “dignity and juvenile defenders.” In submitting the report, we quoted Secretary Clinton, who said “democracies demonstrate their greatness not by insisting they are perfect, but by using their institutions and their principles to make themselves…more perfect.” By that we mean a robust and engaged civil society including non-governmental watchdog and advocacy groups, a free press, an independent legislature and judiciary, democratic elections processes that allow a full airing of views and concerns and institutions that are accountable to the people.

All of these elements of our working democracy are involved, in one form or another, in identifying, debating and addressing issues related to prison conditions, the human rights of persons in custody and reform of the prison system in our country. For example, in America, one of the challenges that you have likely heard about this week lies in the disparities in the rates of imprisonment for different portions of our population. A book about the state of political freedom in the United States published a couple years ago by the internationally known NGO Freedom House entitled Today’s American: How Free? – a book co-authored by Thomas Melia, who is now my Deputy – addressed the high incarceration rate and persistent racial disparities among those incarcerated. I quote:

The recent increase in incarceration rates is jarring. In 1980, the rate of incarceration overall in America was 1.39 per thousand residents; by 2006, that figure had risen to 7.5. Also disturbing is the fact that a black man today has a one in three chance of being behind bars at some point during his lifetime. (If he has not completed high school, he has a 60 percent chance of going to prison.) In contrast, a white man has only a 1 in 17 chance of going to prison.

Our courts, the press and NGOs also engage with local, state and federal government on the serious issue of overcrowding. You may have heard that earlier this week the United States Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California’s state prison system constitutes a violation of the human rights of the prisoners incarcerated there, and ordered the prison system to reduce the number of prisoners held by 55,000 within three years. This court decision which made the front pages of our major newspapers and headlined newscasts on our leading television networks underscores the fact that an independent judiciary can, and regularly does, act boldly to protect the human rights of vulnerable populations.

As we stated in our Universal Periodic Review report, progress is our goal. Our commitment to the inalienable rights of each person guides our efforts to ensure that our law enforcement system reflects and respects those rights, including the rights of incarcerated persons. The strength and success of our own democracy and society – indeed the strength and success of any country’s system and society — will be based in some degree on how we address issues of fairness and justice; examining the issues of how people come to be imprisoned in the first place – and whether there is injustice in that process – as well as how we treat men and women once they are incarcerated. As the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” So it is important that we look for ways to cooperate in these areas.

The way we treat persons in confinement, the conditions of confinement themselves and how we can improve them cannot be divorced from larger questions of governance and society – the structure and integrity of our systems of justice, the strength or weakness of the rule of law in our countries, and the health or ills of our societies. These are by their nature highly complex questions that governments alone cannot solve. NGO insights and ideas are vital.

President Medvedev has set forth his vision of a democratic, modern and successful Russia governed by the rule of law. President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton have expressed their strong support for that same vision. As President Obama noted in his July 2009 visit to Russia, “America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia.” The ability of Russian citizens to exercise their basic civil and political rights and access justice and due process will be key to realizing the Russia we all want to see.

We applaud President Medvedev for advancing reforms and promoting an atmosphere that has allowed for progress to be made in some areas. Measures such as limitations on the use of pretrial detention for those accused of economic crimes have led to a 25% drop in pretrial detainees and are helping to prevent the use of pretrial detention as an extortion technique. These are real changes, ones that I am sure impact your daily work.

Despite these aspects of progress, we believe that continued limits and restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of the Russian people – rights guaranteed in international and Russian domestic law – are a larger problem for Russian citizens, businesses, and the government itself. We frequently raise these areas of concern with our Russian counterparts, both in public and in private. And we admire the work that many of you and your compatriots are doing to defend human rights, secure justice for all, ensure accountable government, fight corruption including in the justice sector, and foster the flow of information and ideas that leads to the exposure of abuses and the redress of grievances.

Of course, a free flow of ideas and a free media are indispensable elements of a democratic society and government accountable to its people. We saw a step in the right direction regarding freedom of conscience last month, when a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was acquitted of “extremism” charges, and the Ministry of Justice acted to remove Scientology literature from its list of banned “extremist” materials. These are signs that Russia is beginning to recognize that the overly-broad application of anti-extremism statutes serves only to infringe upon the rights of peaceful religious groups to practice their faith.

Progress has been more limited in the area of freedom of the press. We share the deep concerns expressed within Russia and across the international community over the murders of journalists known for their courageous work defending human rights and fighting corruption. There are still too many unsolved cases, and we continue to call for a full investigation into the unsolved murders of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, among others. We have also expressed our concern that the only judicial action to date in the murder of Natalia Estemirova, has been the prosecution of Oleg Orlov for saying out loud what many people suspected to be the case. We welcome last month’s convictions in the murder case of the human rights defenders Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova.

In addition to effective prosecutions by the government, we hope the Russian media and independent Russian organizations and institutions will continue scrutinize the Russian justice system, to support improvements and address challenges. For example, a representative from the Presidential Council on Human Rights recently indicated that the Council would find that the charges against Sergei Magnitsky had been fabricated, so it has now been established that he was unjustly imprisoned Unfortunately, as you know, the investigation into the case of his death after deliberate medical neglect in a Moscow prison had not yielded any results. Similarly, this week’s court decision to deny the appeals of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev also reminds us of large issues regarding impartiality, due process and selective prosecution.

Outside scrutiny of government actions, and the follow-on dialogue with government, are key to progress in many areas beyond criminal justice. It was positive that President Medvedev agreed to take up the issue of continuing human rights abuses in North Caucasus during his May 2010 discussions with the Russian Council on Human Rights. We remain gravely concerned however, about the extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances committed with impunity by the forces of Chechen President Kadyrov and others. We have urged Russia authorities to act upon the many decisions of the European Court of Human Rights addressing human rights abuses in the North Caucaus as a step towards restoring rule of law in the region. And we call upon the Russian authorities at the highest levels to ensure the safety and rights of human rights victims, such as Islam Umarpashaev and Ali Ismailov who are seeking justice for rights violations in Russian courts and/or at the ECHR.

Finally, freedom of assembly – to gather together and share ideas and urge change – is another essential element to a stronger Russia that taps into the talent and creativity of the Russia people. We’ve seen that the “Strategy 31″ demonstrations have had some success in convincing authorities in Moscow to tolerate greater freedom of assembly. However, much work remains to be done to support freedom of assembly, especially in this pre-electoral season. Most recently, we were concerned about reports of intimidation and attacks by private security guards, police, and other parties on activists associated with the Khimki Forest campaign. Police have repeatedly detained and interrogated the activists, while the tax inspectorate and child protective services have threatened their livelihoods and families. And in another concerning move, this month, for the sixth year in a row, Moscow authorities refused permission for an NGO to hold an LGBT parade/rally.

All of these developments that I’ve reviewed today certainly show the challenging state of human rights in Russia. As partners, we should work together to address these problems, while taking note of and supporting progress. We know you share this goal, just as surely as you share the urgency expressed by President Medvedev when he said in March that “freedom cannot be postponed.” As you work to help your country move forward on a path of reform, modernization and accountability in the rule of law sphere and more broadly, I want you to know that you have the support of the Obama Administration, Secretary Clinton herself and the American people. I welcome your comments and questions, and I look forward to hearing your insights and learning more about your extensive experience working to reform one of the world’s most challenging penal systems. Thank you for your attention.



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