29th Oct 2016

EU-Russia human rights talks making little impact

  • Russian police in Moscow remove protesters calling for justice in the case of Memorial activist Natalia Estemirova, who was murdered in North Caucasus last July (Photo: Antonio Grossi)

Lack of hard evidence, boilerplate answers from Russian envoys and poor follow-up have seen the past six years of 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, 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.

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"Could the Russian authorities explain why there was no independent autopsy into Sergei Magnitsky's death?" the EU asked, according to an internal EU report on the meeting seen by EUobserver. "Could the Russian authorities explain whether any investigation has been launched and whether any prosecutions were brought [against five people said to have killed him in jail]?"

Some of the EU case notes contain evocative details. Four Chechen civilians were killed and one disappeared after going into a "heavily forested area gather wild leek." Two men in Dagestan were heard by fellow prisoners "screaming all night."

"Have [their] whereabouts been identified?" the EU asked time and again in cases involving 10 vanished North Caucasus people.

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 didn't 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."

Moscow refuses to send people from the interior ministry or general prosecutor's office to the meetings, even though a Russian diplomat told this website that law enforcement agencies are the "only" bodies which have a "full picture" of the problems.

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.

The EU has no legal mandate to press for changes to the format because the whole "consultation" process is based on a verbal agreement at an EU-Russia summit in 2004.

EU shooting blanks

Meanwhile, lack of hard, original information on the EU side 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. But 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 big trials, such as that of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The NGOs themselves work in a climate of oppression. One of the most effective, Memorial, pulled out of North Caucasus in 2009 after its top activist was murdered, creating an information blank.

The EU officials who attend the consultations have security clearance to read classified reports circulated by SitCen, the EU's intelligence-sharing bureau. But SitCen does not do reports on human rights because it works on emerging conflicts, such as the current unrest in Kyrgyzstan, instead.

The EU tackles human rights in other ways outside the dialogue. Leaders make statements at EU-Russia summits, for example. The European Commission recently launched a scheme to give money to NGOs to get at-risk people out of Russia quickly.

'Diplomatic value'

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 abuses in North Caucasus, 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 advised 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."

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