Tag Archives: human rights

Double standards and the Rules-based order

A year ago this week, I gave a presentation at a conference organized by the Simone Weil Center at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order’. A Russian-language version has been published by ‘Russia in Global Affairs’, and I’ve decided to supplement that with the English version here. It is long, but I hope that you will find it worth the effort. Here goes:


Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order

When seeking a solution for the current tensions between Russia and the West, we need first of all to determine what the root problem is. For many in the West, the root problem is Russian aggression, the dictatorial nature of the Russian regime, and even the evil character of President Vladimir Putin. For many in Russia, it is American hegemony and Western double standards. The tendency to see the cause of conflict as lying in the hostile nature of the other is fairly common, but international relations scholars have long since understood that conflict is very often a product not of aggression by one side or the other but of misperception and mutual misunderstanding. These in turn have their own causes, which are far too many to recount here, but one cause of misunderstanding is the fact that the same words or the same concepts mean different things to different people.

So, for instance, a few years ago Russia and NATO countries reached an agreement that security in Europe should be considered indivisible. But they understood this completely differently. The Russians thought that this meant that NATO had agreed that European security had to encompass all of Europe including Russia, with no divisions in a geographical sense. But NATO thought that Russia had agreed that security was indivisible in the sense that it should not be divided up into different types of security, such as military security and human security, and so accepted the idea that human rights were an inseparable part of security. This mutual misunderstanding meant that future discussions on the matter went nowhere.

Today, both Russia and Western countries claim to believe in a rules-based international order, and each accuses the other of breaking the rules of the international system; Russia by annexing Crimea and supporting rebellion in Ukraine; and the West by invading Iraq, toppling Muamar Gaddhafi, and supporting rebellion in Syria. What I want to show today is that part of the problem is that the two sides interpret a rules-based order very differently. For Russia, it is a system in which the same set of rules applies to everybody. To the West, it is a system in which one set of rules applies to the just and another to the unjust. This leads Russia to accuse the West of double standards. In a sense, this accusation is justified, but it isn’t just a case of hypocrisy but also a case of a different conception of what the rules are.

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Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine

The office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a report on the human rights situation in Ukraine. For those of you who don’t have the time to read the whole thing, here is what I considered to be the main points:

Violations of international humanitarian law: Both sides continue to put civilians at risk by deploying armed forces in populated areas. For instance, ‘In Shyrokyne … OHCHR documented extensive use of civilian buildings and locations by the Ukrainian military and the Azov regiment, and looting of civilian property,’ while rebel forces also occupied civilian buildings in towns like Donetsk, ‘thereby endangering civilians.’

Summary executions, enforced disappearances, unlawful and arbitrary detention, and torture and ill-treatment: On the government side, ‘Throughout the country, OHCHR continued to receive allegations of enforced disappearances, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, and torture and ill-treatment of people accused by the Ukrainian authorities of “trespassing territorial integrity”, “terrorism” or related offenses … OHCHR documented a pattern of cases of SBU [Ukrainian security service] detaining and allegedly torturing the female relatives of men suspected of membership or affiliation with the armed groups. … OHCHR is also very concerned about the use of statements extracted through torture as evidence in court proceedings.’ On the rebel side, ‘OHCHR recorded new allegations of killings, abductions, illegal detention, torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by members of the armed groups. The accounts most often referred to incidents that took place outside the reporting period.’

Accountability for human rights violations and abuses in the east: ‘Civilians living directly on either side of the contact line are deprived of access to justice. Both Ukrainian authorities and the ‘parallel structures’ in the territories controlled by the armed groups systematically fail to investigate grave human rights abuses committed in the areas under their control.’

In government-held territory: ‘OHCHR has followed cases of residents of Government-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions who have been charged and tried for their alleged membership in and support of the armed groups, simply for being in contact with people (usually their relatives) living in territories controlled by these groups. … OHCHR has observed a worrying trend in criminal proceedings of people charged with “trespassing against the territorial integrity or inviolability of Ukraine.” Courts regularly and repeatedly extend the initial period of detention for individuals held on national security grounds for 60 days without providing sufficient and relevant reasons to justify detention. Grounds for continued detention are almost never provided, and conditional or interim release is rarely – if ever – granted. Many defendants are detained for long periods of time, up to 20 months, and eventually charged with minor offenses, such as “hooliganism”. This has been noted as a serious trend in Kharkiv and Odesa.’

In rebel-held territory: ‘OHCHR notes that members of the armed groups seem to enjoy a high level of impunity for a wide range of human rights violations … In the ‘Donetsk people’s republic’, a parallel ‘judicial system’ has been operational since 2014, largely composed of people with no relevant competence. … OHCHR considers that armed groups lack the legitimacy to sentence or deprive anyone of liberty.’

Violations of the right to freedom of movement: ‘According to the State Border Service of Ukraine, 8,000 to 15,000 civilians cross the contact line each day. They are forced to wait for long periods of time – often overnight … During the reporting period, two elderly people (a man and a woman) died while queuing at the checkpoints due to lack of timely medical care. … Corruption around the contact line continues to be reported as an enduring problem. Bribes by Government personnel and armed groups are often demanded for expediting passage or allowing cargo.’

Violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief: In government-controlled territory, ‘OHCHR followed the tensions between local communities, identifying themselves with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP) … Some parishioners and members of the clergy of both denominations reported to OHCHR their concerns about discrimination and use of derogatory and inflammatory language directed toward them on the basis of their affiliation to either UOC or UOC KP. Threats of physical violence, or coercion to force them to change their allegiance have also been reported.’ In rebel territory, ‘the situation of persons belonging to minority Christian denominations remained difficult. In particular, the persecution of Jehovah Witnesses – accused of “extremism” by armed groups – persisted.’

Violations of the right to freedom of association: Ukraine’s ‘“de-communization” law should be amended because it violates freedom of expression, speech, association and electoral rights.’ Also, ‘OHCHR remains concerned about the lack of space for civil society actors to operate in the territories controlled by armed groups, including to conduct vital humanitarian assistance. … In January 2016, several public figures were detained in the ‘Donetsk people’s republic’. On 29 January 2016, the female co-founder of the humanitarian organization “Responsible Citizens” was taken from her home by individuals believed to be members of the ‘ministry of state security.’ Her whereabouts are unknown. … The detention and expulsion of “Responsible Citizens” members followed the illegal deprivation of liberty and incommunicado detention of a blogger on 4 January, three Jehovah Witnesses on 17 January, and a religious scholar on 27 January 2016.’