The Cable

Russia Says U.N. Turns Blind Eye to Ukraine's Rights Abuses

Russia on Friday took aim at the United Nations and other international human rights monitors, claiming that their assessments of conditions in Ukraine fell far off the mark and were distorted by the biases of Kiev's pro-Western supporters.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing the U.N.'s chief human rights watchdog of justifying "punitive" military operations by Kiev against civilians in southeastern Ukraine, downplaying the number of casualties, and falsely blaming "pro-Russian forces" for rights abuses in the region.

The Russian protest reflects Moscow's frustration that misdeeds allegedly committed by Ukraine's ultranationalist militants have not figured more prominently in the U.N.'s reporting on human rights abuses in the country. And the protest highlights the degree to which Russia fears that it is badly losing the struggle for the moral high ground in the international court of public opinion.

May 16's outburst by Russia followed the release of reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that highlight abuse by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The U.N. report flatly declared Russia's annexation of Crimea "unlawful."

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Friday that the report highlights "an alarming deterioration in the human rights situation in the east of the country, as well as serious problems emerging in Crimea, especially in relation to the Crimean Tatars."

In a veiled swipe at Russia, she urged "those with influence on the armed groups responsible for much of the violence in eastern Ukraine to do their utmost to rein in these men who seem bent on tearing the country apart."

Pillay said that militants on both sides of Ukraine's deepening political crisis had used violence against peaceful protesters, but the report said the attacks fell on "mainly those in support of Ukraine's unity and against the lawlessness in the cities and villages in eastern Ukraine. In most cases, local police did nothing to prevent violence, while in some cases it openly cooperated with the attackers."

A few hours after she spoke, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that the U.N. report "actually justifies the criminal punitive operation in the southeast of Ukraine, conceals casualties among peaceful civilians, [and] makes an attempt to put the blame for the committed violations of human rights on the 'pro-Russian forces."

Konstantin Dolgov, a senior Russian diplomat, meanwhile, took aim at a separate report by the OSCE that detailed conditions for Crimean minorities and abuses by separatists in eastern Ukraine. "It lacks information about growing neo-Nazism, xenophobia, ultra-nationalism, and anti-Semitism in Ukraine," he said.

"The OSCE mission seems to have no interest in the destructive role of the Maidan activists and the punitive operation against [the] civilian population in Ukraine's southeastern regions," he said, referring to the Euromaidan protest movement that sparked the downfall of Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. "Instead, the authors, upon the slimmest of evidence, speak about alleged human rights violations in Russia's Republic of Crimea and Ukraine's southeastern regions."

The 37-page U.N. report, which tracked similar issues as the OSCE report did, accuses pro-Russian militants and radical right-wing Ukrainian groups of targeting gays and lesbians with hate speech and violence. It claims that "armed groups" in separatist towns in eastern Ukraine "continue to illegally seize and occupy public and administrative buildings" and to attack journalists and other civilians.

The report also calls on the Ukrainian government to carry out a "prompt, transparent and comprehensive investigation" into the May 2 demonstrations in Odessa that descended into violent clashes between pro-Kiev and pro-Russian protesters. At least 46 people died, including 38 in a fire at a trade union building that supporters of closer ties with Russia were occupying, and roughly 230 people were injured. Russia has cited the incident as evidence of the pro-unity militants' barbarism.

The U.N. report also expresses alarm over the intimidation of several of the 23 candidates competing in Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, including those hoping to represent the country's Russian-speaking east. "Several candidates have reported facing arbitrary restrictions, hate speech, intimidation and violent attacks during their election campaigning," according to the report.

On April 14, two "pro-Russian" candidates, Mykhailo Dobkin and Oleg Tsariov, were attacked at the media headquarters of the national TV station, ICTV. Two weeks later, a group of 250 pro-unity activists prevented Dobkin from getting off a plane at an airport in the city of Kherson. Tsariov withdrew from the race on May 1. Threats were also leveled against representatives of the pro-Kiev Radical Party candidate Oleh Liashko.

The report expresses particular concern about the treatment of ethnic minorities in Crimea, particular the Crimean Tatars, since Russia annexed the Russian-speaking Ukrainian peninsula. Residents who failed to meet an April 18 deadline to apply for Russian citizenship "are facing harassment and intimidation."

On April 29, a group of Crimean Tatars who had not obtained Russian citizenship were prevented from entering Crimea. Crimean authorities have reportedly compiled a list of 344 individuals, including a prominent former Tatar lawmaker, Mustafa Jemilev, who are allegedly "engaged in anti-Crimean activity," according to the report. More than 7,000 Tatars have left Crimea, settling in more than half a dozen Ukrainian towns. Many are planning to seek asylum in Europe or Turkey.

The report also detailed abuses against journalists working to cover the crisis.

Crimean media outlets that have fallen out of favor with Russian authorities, the report said, have been forced to move their editorial offices to mainland Ukraine "due to fear for their personal safety and impediments they were facing in their work."

In eastern Ukraine, the U.N. report added, international and local journalists, bloggers, and other media representatives "are facing increasing threats and acts of intimidation, including abduction and unlawful detention by armed groups." Altogether, at least 23 journalists, including a reporter from BuzzFeed and his interpreter, "have been abducted and unlawfully detained."

Photo by Yuri Kodobnov/ AFP/ Getty Images

The Cable

Did Obama Wait Too Long to Engage Narendra Modi?

With a simple phone call on Friday afternoon, President Obama invited the next prime minister of India to the United States and effectively ended an almost decade-long visa ban on the controversial Indian politician Narendra Modi. The Indian leader, whose Bharatiya Janata Party just swept the polls in India's general election, had been prevented from traveling to the United States due to his involvement in deadly communal riots in 2002. But given the importance of the U.S.-India partnership, and Modi's tremendous popularity at home, some experts say Obama and the State Department waited too long to forge meaningful ties with Modi risking lasting damage to the strategically vital relationship between the two powers.

"The Obama administration's failure to publicly repudiate the visa ban [earlier] can only be seen as shortsighted at best, or an example of stupefying State Department inertia at worst," said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, a group that advocates on behalf of Hindu-Americans.

"They should have been meeting with him immediately when it was clear he was going to lead the BJP, which was last fall," added Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. 

For years, supporters of Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, had been asking the Obama administration to clarify his travel status as the Indian leader's political career advanced. Washington denied him a diplomatic visa in 2005 and revoked his existing business visa due to his role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which some 1,000 people -- mostly Muslims -- were killed. Modi stood accused of stoking religious violence and failing to protect Gujarat's Muslim minority. A subsequent resolution passed by Congress condemned him for promoting Nazi ideology and "racial hatred." In 2005, Foggy Bottom revoked his visa under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes foreign officials who are responsible for "serious" violations of religious freedom ineligible for travel to America.

In recent months, the standing policy of the U.S. government was that Modi could apply for a visa and await the results. "Our long-standing policy with regard to the chief minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told Foreign Policy in December. "That review will be grounded in U.S. law."

But Modi, a proud politician in the middle of an election, had little reason to apply for a visa and risk the negative consequences of being rejected. His supporters, meanwhile, grimaced at Washington's refusal to clarify his travel status as European nations actively courted him. "The British had been meeting with Modi since 2012," noted Curtis. "The White House was behind the curve and now the onus is on them to give a very clear signal that they're ready to do business with Modi."

Of course, not everyone thinks Modi deserves a hero's welcome. Shaik Ubaid, spokesman for the Coalition Against Genocide, a group that raises awareness about the 2002 riots in Gujarat, says the group will continue to press the issue of Modi's past crimes. "We continue to believe Modi is responsible, not only for the brutal pogroms of 2002 that claimed over 2,000 lives, but also for the denial of justice to the victims, harassment of human rights activists and fake police encounter killings pursued in Gujarat as a matter of state policy," he said. "Modi's ascent to the highest executive office in India is rightly a matter of concern for all who value human rights and religious freedom."

Others believe it was time for the U.S. to embrace Modi, the leader of the world's largest democracy, and doubt that the visa ban will seriously hinder relations between the two countries over the long haul. "Modi will want to slow walk relations with the government initially," said Richard Rossow, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But I don't think he's going to hold it over our heads too long -- particularly because business and Capitol Hill leaders have maintained strong relations with minister Modi over the years."

When asked how the U.S. would engage with Modi going forward, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington would prioritize a government-to-government relationship that "mirrors the affection between our people."

"With the new government, we intend to foster our strategic partnership with India and offer enhanced collaboration on the economy, defense, homeland security and counterterrorism, as well as the health sector," said Psaki.


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