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29 February 2016

How To Destroy Human Rights Without A Single Protest

Moscow’s methods of marginalizing the very idea of human rights in public discourse

During the years of Putin’s rule, most achievements made in the 1990’s in the field of human rights have been wiped out almost entirely. The rights of Russian citizens are increasingly constrained with each new law. Still, the vast majority of the population support Putin as though oblivious to the growing limitations on their rights, and the arbitrariness of the actions of officials and police officers carried out with the president’s tacit approval. This blinkered and insensible attitude is largely a result of the Kremlin’s deliberate policy aimed at marginalizing the idea of human rights in public discourse. This goal is realized by using the technologies of avoidance, depreciation, and resetting concepts.

Avoidance: That which is not mentioned does not exist

One of the simplest and effective techniques employed by the regime is avoidance: in today’s information world, that which is not mentioned does not exist. The Russian government has successfully utilized this principle, consistently excluding human rights from public discourse for the past fifteen years. For example, in his first addresses, President Putin uttered phrases such as “human rights” and “individual freedom” quite often. Almost a third of his address (33%) to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation (FA RF) in 2000 was, to differing degrees, devoted to human rights, and also touched upon quite a wide range of democratic issues. The text of the speech was also littered with liberal vocabulary: human rights, individual freedom and political rights.

In his 2001 address, the extent of the president’s focus on human rights topics fell to 18% and the figure did not exceed 3% in subsequent years. President Putin now rarely addresses the issue in his speeches, but when he does, he minimizes or avoids the phrase “human rights.” Instead, this dangerous phrase is replaced by semantically vague, and neutral expressions such as “interests of our citizens,” “problems” and “issues”, for example, during his meeting with the Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin and Ella Pamfilova on February 13, 2014:

“Being a human rights advocate is a very specific job. It necessitates constant interaction with the authorities, and not just interaction, but also a critical approach to what the authorities at all levels are doing. However, without this work, society cannot develop in harmony and the interests of our citizens cannot be fully protected…”

Following in Putin’s footsteps, other representatives of the elite adopt a similar approach. Even Human Rights Commissioner Pamfilova barely utters the words “human rights” in her speeches while speaking of them, apparently striving to speak the president’s language. For example, while presenting a report on her activity to the president during a meeting with him on June 3, 2014, she did not mention the words “human rights”, “rights” or “right” even once, opting instead to speak of: “a set of issues”:

“I have come here with a huge block of proposals on three sets of issues. The first one has to do with Crimea. I spent four days there and had numerous meetings with residents… The second set of issues pertains to our penitentiary system: the prevention of torture, humiliation and everything connected to the reform of this system. The third set of issues has to do with our civic movements…”

The purpose of such selective use of lexis is to exclude the even the mention of human rights from the everyday language of a Russian citizen. That which is not mentioned does not exist.

Depreciation of a ‘dangerous’ concept

Depreciation of the very notion of human rights and close semantic categories is an equally effective tactic. There is no need to explain the necessity and importance of human rights to the ordinary European. In public discourse, human rights are portrayed as the main achievement of democracy, as a guarantee of peace and well-being, growth and prosperity. Respect for the individual was proclaimed a value for a short period of time in Russia, too. In his 2000 address, Vladimir Putin claimed that respect for human rights was one of the conditions behind “the prosperity of the Motherland” and, in 2005, he announced that “the ideals of freedom, human rights, justice and democracy, that European culture achieved through much suffering, have, for centuries, been [and will be] our society’s determining values.”

However, political discourse has been redirected rather quickly, and that which used to be “the determining value” has suddenly turned into something pernicious and even dangerous for an ordinary person. The deputy of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg Vitaly Milonov calls these values “carcinogenic E-additives” in the ideological sense, and Alexy Pushkov, the head of the Foreign-Affairs Committee in the State Duma, interprets human rights as an imposed idea, alien to Russian culture. Metropolitan Kirill tackles this topic willingly and frequently and stigmatizes human rights and the freedom of the individual as concepts which “blur the line between good and evil” and as concepts which give rise to prostitution and bring about all social ills:

“Look, what is the difference between liberal and Orthodox approaches? We say: freedom is freedom from sin. And the liberal approach does not say that… There is no concept of sin, and what do we end up with? Rights and freedoms – including those to sin. Sin is legalized in countries. Everyone is shocked by the proliferation of prostitution, pornography, family break-ups, demographic problems… and all in all, this philosophy lies at the core of that, mind you, the freedom of a human being includes the freedom to sin!”

“The desire to protect one’s own private interests” is in fact presented by Putin as shallow and mundane, whereas sacrificing personal ambitions and “relating one’s own life to the interests of the state” is an act of bravery, and an heroic national trait possessed by all Russian people.

The status of non-government organizations (NGOs), referred to in legislation as “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations,” was devalued using the same technique. As a result, in the eyes of ordinary Russian citizens, those who have tried to protect their rights have been turned into foreign spies.

Resetting concepts

Another oft used technique of the power elite is “resetting” concepts, supplanting their original meaning with new, often opposing, notions. The category becomes blurred and loses its original meaning, and the idea, its momentum.

The legal battle against NGOs was preceded by the reinterpretation of the notion of “civil society,” traditionally perceived as the sum total of organizations and institutions, independent of the state, which represent citizens’ interests. This category has been transformed into a mere “community of citizens” in the rhetoric of the political elite. For example, in his 2013 address, president Putin actively encouraged the development of civil society and civic involvement. Without hesitation, he explains that civic chambers should be created within the system of federal and regional authorities and that they are to play the role of a kind of expert councils, which constitutes civil society. Putin even suggests that the Federal Law “On Public Oversight” should be adopted to supervise the activities of state bodies. He underlines the fact that the leading role in the process shall be played by the Human Rights Council, formed by the president (!) and the Civic Chamber. Half of the latter’s members are also earmarked for nomination by the president. Putin understands civil activity only as support for the interests of his policy. All independent human rights organizations which draw attention to abuses by representatives of the authorities are accused of “political bias,” and of pursuing the interests of alien states. As a result, civil society institutions in Russia are, in fact, suppressed and silenced. At the same time, rhetoric convenient for maintaining the illusion of democracy among the population is upheld.

The described methods not only lead to the mere ousting of human rights from political-and-legal discourse, but they also destroy the very idea of rights of an individual and personal dignity as a value, obliterate the institutions of human rights, and sever ties with the pan-European legal space. By presenting human rights as a concept alien to Russian culture, people “voluntarily” waive their freedoms and rights. The regime retains its ability to pose as democratic while continuing to employ repressive practices.

Western countries must take into account this aspect of interrelations between the Russian power elite and citizens. As history shows, “ordinary” traditional methods of cooperation with the Russian authorities do not work. It does not suffice to force the Kremlin to sign an international agreement on the protection of human rights. Moscow will discredit such agreements without a second’s thought, as it has recently done with the European Court of Human Rights decisions. Politics of exclusion and marginalization should be countered by other methods, which will make human rights a habitual, everyday category for every Russian citizen, and not only for NGO employees or representatives of the liberal intelligentsia. We should think about it today, before the effects of the process become irreversible. 

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