27 February 2021
by Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group
So, I’m going to write a rare provocative post.
It’s with regard to the story about Amnesty International and Navalny, but that’s only a starting point.
Human rights as a concept are under attack. There are many reasons for this erosion. For obvious reasons, as we looked out of our cell, the world seemed black and white to those of us who were born in the USSR in the 1970s (although I was born towards the end of the decade, that’s still where I come from). It was black and white in many ways, given the Soviet context – a grey coat, an institute or factory, a fridge and the waiting list to buy a TV, a lexicon full of words like ‘get hold of’ ‘thrown out’, ‘bribe’, the ban on foreign travel, the criminalisation of anti-Soviet agitation and psychiatric hospitals for dissidents.
But in 1975, human rights were a bargaining chip between the West and the East. The former had an oil crisis, and the latter was defaulting on its debts. Oil dollars for Soviet hydrocarbons restored the balance, prolonged the life of that self-same Soviet-Chekist mentality (and let’s be honest, as a result, created the conditions for the current political regime in Russia). In exchange, there were promises from the USSR to respect human rights (ha ha), but the Politburo would have promised more than that for the sake of hard currency (a promise is not the deed itself).
Liberation from these chains in the late 1980s ensured the rise of the values of human rights and freedoms. This was the first time since World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenants on human rights, the Council of Europe and so on. This “honeymoon” did not last long – until the end of the 20th century (and it never reached many places, such as Rwanda – right, Monsieur François Mitterrand?). Right up until the moment when human rights began to be used as a lever in international politics. It was also used primarily by those governments that elevated their status.
“Humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo, Saddam’s “chemical weapons”, waterboarding by the CIA, Guantanamo prison (which is essentially the deliberate withdrawal of those accused of terrorism from the jurisdiction of the American judicial system) and many more things have laid mines under universal values. Then at the same time Bill Clinton and – following him – Dick Cheney decided to violate human rights – let’s be honest again (Fuck you Ms. Cheney, Fuck you Tipper Gore – you know what I am sayin’).
We can agree to respect rights and freedoms and help each other do so. We can join together to deny them (this is bad, but it preserves and maybe even increases their value). But pretending that we have agreed to observe them, while in reality violating them and using them as an aggressive tool for promoting political and economic interests – this undermines trust and makes human rights a cheap tool for political games. And at the exact moment when those who promoted human rights allowed themselves to do precisely this, petty dictators around the world celebrated together. Rebukes for violations no longer work (“who r u to fuckin lecture me” by His Excellency Mr. Lavrov).
Unfortunately, the long-term custodians of the stone tablets on which are inscribed the world’s moral standards cannot withstand the challenges of the times, either. Under external pressure, they degrade from within. Today, it is not enough to claim that Bashar al-Assad violated human rights; perfect and obvious evidence is needed. One cannot say that Navalny was poisoned by the FSB, and count on worldwide support. It is literally necessary to demonstrate the findings of the chemists and the poisoner’s confession in a conversation with the poison victim.
It is necessary to prove clearly beyond reasonable doubt, or even more strongly given the entire arsenal of propaganda at the authorities’ disposal. Nobody takes anybody’s word for anything any more.
Amnesty International emerged in the wake of the rise of civil consciousness in the 1960s. Its founder – English lawyer Peter Benenson (the grandson of a political emigrant from Russia, by the way) – had the idea to create a movement to protect those convicted of criticizing governments when he came across a newspaper article about two Portuguese students who had been sentenced to seven years in prison. for raising a toast to freedom. Obviously, if Benenson was alive today, he could have come up with Amnesty International by reading about Navalny in the newspaper.
Just a couple of years ago, Amnesty was in a fever because of revelations of bullying by management after the suicide of one of its most senior employees. Inside the “foremost and largest human rights organisation in the world” there turned out to be quite an authoritarian bureaucracy. The scandal led to a change in management and a change in many internal rules and procedures, but the organisation’s reputation had already been damaged.
The time of large organizations claiming to define universal good and evil is over. Maybe someday it will return, but today Navalny is a political prisoner and a prisoner of conscience for objective reasons, as a result of political reprisals against him by a demonstrably unfair judicial process. Amnesty International’s opinion is irrelevant here.
Human rights and freedoms remain the highest value, regardless of the authorities’ attempts to use them as a commodity and a lever, whether they are ignored or even demonstratively violated. The right to life, the prohibition of arbitrary imprisonment, freedom of political expression, the right to effective legal protection and a fair trial – all these remain a value for each of us, regardless of what opinions on the matter are held by the judge of the Simonovsky Court of Moscow, Natalya Repnikova, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Julia Verhaar, Russian President Vladimir Putin or the military chemist of the FSB’s Institute of Forensic Science Konstantin Kudryavtsev.
Translated by Anna Bowles