Jacob Kostrzewski. Jacob is the Program Coordinator for the International Rule of Law and Security Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Jacob earned his Masters of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 2018.
On the fifth anniversary of the unresolved murder of Russian opposition leader and President Vladimir Putin critic Boris Nemtsov in the heart of central Moscow, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing on the current state of human rights in Russia. Human Rights First’s Melissa Hooper, who teaches in ASU Law’s IRLS program, testified, providing an overview of the latest human rights developments in Russia, and how the U.S. government could support human rights activists and defenders in the country.
Boris Nemtsov was assassinated while walking across the street from the Kremlin on February 27, 2015 for his efforts to expose human rights abuses in Russia, Professor Hooper testified. As with many killings of opposition activists and human rights defenders in Russia, Nemtsov’s killing remains “unsatisfactorily resolved.” Five men were convicted in 2016 by a Russian court of Nemtsov’s murder, but many, including Nemtsov’s family, believe the trial to be a “cover-up” with the real perpetrators, likely acting on Putin’s orders, living free.
“One of the hallmarks of a society governed by the rule of law,” Lantos Commission Co-Chairman James McGovern, U.S. Representative (D) from Massachusetts, stated during the hearing, is the ability of individuals to express their dissatisfaction with and opposition to the government without fear of reprisal. In Russia, however, impunity for murders of government critics remains “the norm,” Professor Hooper testified, and the human rights situation in Russia continues to deteriorate. Human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers are regularly targeted for work deemed critical of the Putin regime or for anything that sheds light on the human rights conditions in the country.
While the situation in Russia remains dire, there may be reason to be cautiously optimistic that winds of change are in the air. Last year saw mass protests against the Putin regime, a sign of growing dissatisfaction with conditions in the country, Professor Hooper said. Harsh police crackdowns followed, as usual, but the response from members of the country’s elite was novel: Russian Orthodox priests, celebrities, and even Duma (Russia’s Parliament) members from Putin’s own party criticized the government for its harsh response. In the past, these groups would never have dared to criticize the Kremlin, Professor Hooper testified.
So, what can countries such as the United States do to support Russian human rights defenders at this critical time? Professor Hooper outlined four possible steps for the Administration and the U.S. Congress to take:
- Create a temporary respite program for Russian human rights defenders who flee their country if they are in immediate danger. Many European Union states have such programs in place, and the U.S. should as well.
- Counter Russia’s abuse of Interpol’s Red Notice Russia currently uses the system to try to prevent human rights defenders from claiming asylum abroad. Congress should urge the Department of Homeland Security to comply with Interpol’s policy reform by reviewing Red Notices issued by states known to abuse the system, such as Russia.
- Publicly demand the release of imprisoned human rights activists. This will both pressure the Russian government and bring attention to the activists’ causes.
- Continue to accept non-governmental organizations’ recommendations of individuals to sanction under the Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky Acts.
Vladimir Putin and his regime realize that they may be losing their control over the Russian population and the dominant narrative they have been pushing to justify their actions, Professor Hooper testified. The United States should ensure that the messages on human rights coming from the Administration and Congress are unified, and that governments that abuse the rights of their citizens are being watched. At a time when freedom around the world is at stake, countries that embrace the rule of law and human rights must not remain silent.
Professor Hooper co-teaches the International Human Rights Law course at ASU’s Barrett and O’Connor Center in Washington, D.C., with Professor Julia Fromholz, the Director of the International Rule of Law and Security Program.