Security First: Human Rights Case Studies in Russia and the United States

Muslim Ban Protest

Security First: Human Rights Case Studies in Russia and the United States

This is the third and final working paper in a series produced for our Second Annual Conference Student Webinar: '"Conceptual Conversations": Exploring Russian, European & American Understandings of Core Concepts Underpinning Russia-West Relations'. This paper is based on collaborative research undertaken by David Pruden and William Persing, both current post-graduates at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University. The University Consortium's Annual Conference was hosted in partnership with the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center from 5-6 October 2017.

I. Introduction

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

- Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Human rights norms, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, may be eroded in the pursuit of domestic security. Our paper explores how domestic security concerns influence the United States’ and Russia’s commitment to human rights norms. Though they are major international players in the United Nations Security Council, these countries have consistently shirked the authority of other international organizations responsible for the enforcement of human rights laws and norms. Although both the US and Russia signed the Rome Statute in 2000 and demonstrated general support for the International Criminal Court, ultimately both nations withdrew their intent of ratification in May 2002 and in November 2016, respectively. For this reason, the most relevant legal institutions for human rights cases is the Supreme Court for the United States and the ECHR for Russia, although the latter does not always adhere to this Court. The general movement away from international legal bodies by the US and Russia stands in stark contrast to the strong adherence to global human rights norms and the institutions that defend them by the member states of the European Union.

The United States and Russia discount international law when it threatens to limit their perceived ability to ensure their own domestic security, opting instead for domestic resolutions of claims of human rights violations. In this paper, we examine two such instances: in the case of the US, President Trump’s 2017 travel ban, and in the case of Russia, persecution of gay men in Chechnya. Although these examples are not perfectly analogous, the focus of this paper is on how great powers maintain the balance between human rights and security. We comparatively analyze the travel ban in the US and the incarceration of gay men in Chechnya, which share three common elements. First, security has been prioritized over human rights in both instances. Second, the cases are resolved at the domestic level. Third, the US and Russia may have undermined their own legal authority and national security in the long run by allowing potential human rights violations to occur. This can be observed in how the travel ban may serve as a recruitment tool for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Additionally, the Chechen gay concentration camps demonstrate a loss of control of the Russian government over one of its republics. However, even though the above points have emerged as similar aspects of how the US and Russia have de-emphasized human rights in favor of security and national sovereignty, a key difference is that the formal system of checks and balances in the US – evident in the consistent blocking of Trump’s executive orders by the court system – is not present in Russia, where the human rights abuses were committed extrajudicially and were informally addressed...

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