Russian Accused of Silencing Activists Is Considered for Top U.N. Post Dealing with NGOs

Russian Accused of Silencing Activists Is Considered for Top U.N. Post Dealing with NGOs

A Russian diplomat accused by the United States of playing a role in President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on foreign human rights and pro-democracy activists has emerged as a frontrunner for a top job overseeing the U.N.’s relations with civilian advocacy groups, according to several U.N. diplomats.

Sergey Ryabokon, a Russian official who oversaw Moscow’s policy towards foreign civil society organizations in the foreign ministry, is one of the three short-listed candidates who are being considered for the U.N. post. Diplomats describe the job — director of the non-governmental organizations liaison branch — as a mid-level position with outsized importance. It serves as the primary gatekeeper for hundreds of international advocacy groups that are allowed access to the U.N.’s premises and an array of conferences established to address global crises — from global warming, nuclear disarmament, and reproductive rights, to anti-poverty measures and gay rights.

Concerns over Ryabokon’s potential appointment come amid strained relations between the U.S. and Russia, largely over Moscow’s military interventions in Ukraine and in Syria, where Russian warplanes are supporting an offensive by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. blames Assad for instigating the nearly five-year civil war, and believes he needs to step down from power before peace can be achieved in Syria.

The United States and human rights group have long expressed frustration with the struggle to accredit legitimate advocacy groups to the United Nations. In April 2014, U.S. envoy to the U.N. Samantha Power denounced what she described as authoritarian credentialing by the U.N committee on NGOs after it elected Tehran as a member. The 19-nation committee also includes Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Sudan, and Venezuela, as well as the United States.

“Repressive regimes that systematically limit the activities of non-governmental organizations have, once again, been elected to the U.N. committee on non-governmental organizations,” Power said then. She also decried a “growing, sophisticated and well-resourced effort to inhibit the right of people around the world to speak freely and to advocate peacefully for change.”

Earlier this month, the committee approved only 206 of 475 NGO applications for accreditation. The rest remains in a kind of bureaucratic limbo, forced to wait another year to try to gain U.N. credentials. Freedom Now, an organization that provides legal advice to prisoners of conscience around the world, had to wait more than five years to be accredited. And that happened only after the United States forced a vote for its inclusion last July by the 54-member Economic Social Council (ECOSOC), which oversees the committee’s work.

U.N. officials say no decision has been made on Ryabokon’s appointment, and note the two other candidates, including the acting head of the NGO branch, Alberto Padova. But the U.S. and other Western governments worry that the highest-ranking Chinese national at the United Nations, U.N. Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo, is leaning towards hiring Ryabokon as early as next week. The U.S. has informed other governments at the U.N. that Russia and China are pressing Wu to appoint Ryabokon.

Wu and spokesmen for the Chinese and Russian missions to the United Nations did not respond to requests for comment. One senior U.N.-based official confirmed Russia is backing Ryabokon’s candidacy, but said China has not lobbied the U.N. secretary general to hire him.

The U.S. has sought to galvanize opposition from Western allies to derail Ryabokon’s appointment.

The effort to rein in Russian-based advocacy groups intensified following Putin’s 2012 reelection, and it has largely been directed by the Kremlin, according to officials from pro-democracy groups banned by the government in Moscow.

The Russian Justice Ministry and prosecutor general’s office have played central roles in carrying out the crackdown on foreign NGOs. Officials from three advocacy groups told Foreign Policy they were unaware if Ryabokon had a role in the crackdown. They all spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for a backlash that could undermine their ability to work in Russia in the future.

But U.S. officials maintain that the Russian foreign ministry was also actively involved in silencing critics. The U.S. has claimed that Ryabokon has played a direct role in unjustly labeling American and other foreign NGOs — including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S.-Russia Foundation as undesirable organizations that threaten the politically stability of Russia, according to diplomatic sources that discussed the matter with the United States. Russia banned the NED last July as an “undesirable organization.” Russia’s prosecutor general also charged the organization “poses a threat to the constitutional order of the Russian Federation and the defensive capability and security of the government.”

It would be unthinkable, the U.S. argued, to appoint a Russian with a history of suppressing advocacy groups to act as their chief U.N. liaison, according to three U.N. based diplomatic sources. Such a move, they warned other counterparts, is also likely to enrage congressional supporters of the pro-democracy groups.

The United States, European Union states, and Canada have demarched — diplomatic shorthand for registering official protest or concern — with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon over Ryabokon’s possible appointment.

Diplomats are particularly concerned that Ryabokon would complicate advocacy efforts by so-called LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender — groups. Russia last year sought to block a decision by Ban to provide benefits to homosexual spouses of U.N. employees. And it has been forming a family-values alliance with the Vatican and conservative Islamic states.

Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ryabokon has two marks against him. He comes from a government with a particularly bad track record in dealing with civil society groups. And he has played a direct role in carrying out Russian government policy aimed at curtailing freedoms for such groups.

“This Russian national is playing a dubious role in Russia with regard to civil society freedom and rights,” said one European diplomat.

The hiring dispute places the U.N. chief in a diplomatic pickle. Ban has parceled out some of the U.N.’s top jobs — including senior political, peacekeeping, and humanitarian relief positions — to candidates from the U.S., France and Britain. China and Russia expect their favored candidates to be given similar treatment.

For the moment, Ban has demurred in the selection of Ryabokon, noting that such mid-level hires are generally made by his undersecretaries. In this case, that would be Wu, a former Chinese diplomat. But Ban has previously intervened, including to block the appointment of an American official, Robert Appleton, as the head of internal investigations — a position of equal rank to the job sought by Ryabokon — after objections from Russia.

(Senior staff reporter John Hudson contributed to this report)

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images