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Torture, Racism, Privacy Violations: Russia Critical Of EU Human Rights Record

A steady growth of racism; violent nationalism and neo-Nazism; violation of rights of minorities, prisoners and migrant; gender inequality; violation of privacy; abuse of power by the police; a deteriorating freedom of the press; and the infringement of social rights of citizens are among a long list of human rights violations committed in the European Union, according to a report by the Russian Federation entitled, "Report on the human rights situation in the European Union" released Dec. 6.

After a general introduction, the report lists the grievances on individual EU member states country by country. It claims, for example, that in the United Kingdom there is torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment; violation of the right to privacy; violation of the right to freedom of expression; and racial discrimination. For France, it speaks about cases of police officers cruelly treating both legal and illegal immigrants; overcrowded prisons; violations of the rights of Roma; and violations of the right to freedom of speech. Belgium is criticized for its abuse of power and violence on the part of police officers; overcrowded prisons; toughening of the immigration policy; religious, racial and ethnic intolerance; and gender-based discrimination.

"Although the European Union and its members traditionally declare their commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights both on the national and international levels, the situation in this sphere in the EU is still far from perfect," the report says. "No progress in solving the EU internal issues and occasional lack of political will are in stark contrast with the way the EU lectures other countries. All this is in an obvious contradiction with the EU claims of being the model and often the 'supreme arbiter' as far as human rights and democratic freedoms are concerned."

The report comes on the eve of an EU-Russia summit planned in Brussels on Dec. 21 as the two parties are experiencing a proverbial chill. A recent speech by Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs to the European Parliament, strongly criticized Russia for its authoritarian tendencies since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in May. She said that since then, the EU had been seeing "less and less dialogue and openness on the side of the authorities and rather more intolerance of any expression of dissenting views." The sharpness of Ashton's critique was, for many, a somewhat surprising development.

Since human rights are normally part of the agenda of bilateral summits, it would be easy to conclude that Moscow is trying to pre-empt the critical discourse of European leaders on the situation in Russia or to dismiss the report as "hilarious," as some did, in view of the blatant human rights violations occurring in Russia itself. But this would probably be too simplistic; besides, it fails to take into account a few elements.

The report

The Russian report is clearly well-documented and quotes well-known cases of abuse in European countries. It is based on recognized sources — NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders, and European organizations and institutions, such as the European Parliament, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the Council of Europe and the European Ombudsman. Hence, it looks more like a good compilation of existing documents — which is, by the way, exactly the way Europeans institutions generally write their reports on other countries. The Russians have not worked differently here.

There are clearly some salient points in the report. Additionally, European NGOs and various institutions have repeatedly denounced the deteriorating human rights situation in Europe. No one can claim the European Union is some sort of paragon of virtue when it comes to human rights. Hence, if one's own violations were a reason to abstain from criticizing others, the EU would have lost the right to criticize anyone long ago. And the fact that some may think Europe has a stick in the eye compared to the plank in other's does not fundamentally change the issue.

In other words, nothing prevents a country from issuing a report on the human rights situation in another. Europe and the United States have been doing it regularly for years. Now, the Russian government has decided it was time to go on the offensive and beat Europe and the United States on their own ground. "We believe that nobody should have the monopoly to assess the human rights situation in other countries," Konstantin Dolgov, ambassador-at-large said when he met journalists in Brussels. He explained that the report, which is available in Russian and English — and soon in French — was the first of its kind and coming on the heels of another one on the human rights situation in the United States.

The fact is that relations between Russia and the European Union are increasingly looking like relations between two spouses on the verge of divorce or maybe not. Both sides regularly complain about all the offenses they had to suffer on the part of the other, and each side is convinced of the rightness of its cause. Both wish the other would make an effort to better understand his position. But they also know they cannot really live without each other; they know that without a union of some sort, both stand to lose in the competitive world of today.

Still intertwined

Russia is one of the largest trading partners of the European Union and is responsible for supplying Europe with the majority of its gas and oil. And Europe's business interest in Russia is growing, not only as a source of raw materials, but also as a huge market with growing spending power. In 1997, the two parties signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to seal their cooperation. This accord was due to be replaced after 10 years. But somewhere along the line, things have gone wrong.

Negotiations on a new basic treaty have stalled; Putin said he would not advance talks unless the EU formalizes relations with the so-called Common Economic Space — the first step toward a Eurasian Economic Union, involving Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. And Moscow has been asking for a visa-free travel regime for almost nine years now without ever managing to get it. There are also economic tensions after the European Commission launched a probe into Gazprom's pricing and supply practices in Europe. Additionally, Europeans have expressed their discontent about a string of restrictive practices like Russia's ban on European live animals imports and plans to levy fees on imported vehicles.

For years, the European Union seems to have taken it for granted that the European model would serve as a basis and that Russia would end up following its steps. Moscow, although not entirely in agreement on the model, appeared to accept at least the theoretical legitimacy of many of the European rules. But when Putin returned to power, something had changed: Europe is in bad shape, it has lost a great deal of its appeal and legitimacy and its model is increasingly criticized. So it all looks as if Moscow thought again and decided that there were no reasons anymore to consider the European model as the only valid one. Putin and his advisers now want to underline the fact that Russia is not the West.

Time, in other words, to put the EU-Russia partnership on a more equal footing. The Russian report on the human rights situation in Europe does not say anything else: "Russia is ready for a constructive dialogue of equals with the European Union on human rights and democratic development. This cooperation will gain a lot if our counterparts from the EU abandon their policy of imposing their priorities, stop looking down on the interests of other partners and creating an artificial systematization of international human rights obligations."

[Source: By Magda Fahsi, Brussels, Mint Press News, 18Dec12]

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