- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights commissioner, Konstantin Dolgov, moved from his current post into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration. And who will replace Dolgov?
That would be nobody.
On Tuesday, Russia media outlet Izvestia learned from an unnamed source at the ministry that all of Dolgov’s functions will be moved to the Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights, run by Anatoly Viktorov. The post of the commissioner will be abolished, as the Foreign Ministry no longer sees a use for it. “There is a whole department that is engaged with these issues,” the source said.
They deal with different issues, though. Dolgov represented Russia on issues of human rights, the rule of law, and democracy, while the Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights works on more specific issues, such as, Izvestia helpfully notes, Russian citizens who are imprisoned in the United States, like arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The department in question had no comment for Izvestia, and neither did Dolgov — as an employee of the presidential administration, he said, it would no longer be appropriate for him to comment on such matters.
The reshuffle suggests that Russia is placing even less emphasis on the concept of human rights inside of its diplomacy. But, then, since the 1990s, Russia has conceived of universal human rights less as memorandums to sign and more as another language in which to defend its own actions abroad (a charge that could certainly be leveled against other countries, too). In fact, Putin signed a law in 2015 suggesting Russia could ignore dictates issued by the European Court of Human Rights (Russia has been under the European Convention on Human Rights since the 1990s).
Russia’s understanding of human rights abroad in recent years has included invading Ukraine to defend the Russian-speaking population and unsuccessfully trying for a spot on the U.N. Human Rights Council while supporting the Syrian regime and bombing opposition-controlled parts of that country. And so it is yet unclear what it means that Russia is dissolving the position dedicated to the idea of human rights and democracy around the world.
What is clear is that, in downgrading human rights on its international agenda, Russia isn’t entirely alone. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a powerful signal shortly after taking office when he did not hold the traditional press conference to present the agency’s annual human rights report. The State Department has taken other steps to signal that human rights will be less important to U.S. foreign policy than they were in the Obama years, such as removing human rights as a condition of an arms sale to Bahrain and possibly reversing the Obama administration’s December decision to suspend the sale over attacks on civilians in Yemen.
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