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Keeping Human Rights On The U.S.-Russian Table

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Keeping Human Rights On The U.S.-Russian Table

Politics

Keeping Human Rights On The U.S.-Russian Table

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

With so many issues on the table for President Obama's Russia trip, activists are working to make sure one issue in particular doesn't get lost in the shuffle: human rights. Sarah Mendelson is director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She joins us from Moscow where she's participating in the U.S.-Russia Civil Society Summit. Welcome to the program, Sarah.

Ms. SARAH MENDELSON (Director, Human Rights and Security Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Thank you.

HANSEN: You're having this conference just as President Obama arrives in Russia for talks with Prime Minister Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. Do you expect human rights to be on the agenda?

Ms. MENDELSON: Well, human rights will certainly be on our civil society agenda, and we are very much hoping that the president comes by. Whether or not and how it's brought up in a conversation with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, I'd be very surprised if it doesn't appear somewhere on the agenda. I think it's very important to the Obama administration that this summit be seen and actually be more than just arms control.

HANSEN: But what impact, if any, do you think human rights issues have on U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations?

Ms. MENDELSON: Well, it makes it much more difficult for us to engage when - and cooperate on things like counterterrorism, if you have a security service or a police force that is either corrupt or engaging in abuses. We want a Russia that is, like I think President Medvedev wants, a Russia that is less corrupt. It's really hard to cite corruption in the modern era if you don't have good investigative journalists doing their job. And in Russia today, journalists are very much under pressure.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit about that, because, you know, there's been violence against journalists. This year has been particularly bad. What's been going on, and what's driving the violence?

Ms. MENDELSON: Well, it's hard to say precisely, and it really depends, I think, for different journalists it's different answers, but you're right. I mean, there's been - several journalists have been murdered. It's a very dangerous profession if you conduct it in a way that involves investigative journalism of a variety of different topics, whether it's corruption that deals with any kind of political authority.

The thing that's so striking about these murders is the impunity that's come with them. We're just coming up on the fifth anniversary of Paul Klebnikov's murder. He's American, of course, and the murderers have never been brought to justice.

HANSEN: But this past week, Russian detectives said that they would reopen the case of Klebnikov. Is this a sign of things improving or is this made to maybe deflect criticism before President Obama arrives?

Ms. MENDELSON: Well, I'm not sure. I spoke with a member of the family a few days ago, and they had received a letter that said the opposite, so it's hard to know what exactly is going on. I think the family very much wants the killers and the masterminds brought to justice.

HANSEN: What do you consider the most pressing human rights in Russia right now?

Ms. MENDELSON: Honestly, there's such a variety. I think that for Russian families, the kind of abuse that goes on in the army is something that everybody's very concerned about. I think regular Russians experience police abuse. One survey that I helped conduct a few years ago, we found 40 percent of the surveyed population was fearful of arbitrary arrests.

We've seen a - according to Human Rights First - a 15 percent rise in recent years of hate crimes. There's trafficking, both for forced labor and for forced prostitution, and we need to see the Russian government addressing those issues.

HANSEN: Sarah Mendelson is director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and she joined us from Moscow. Thank you very much.

Ms. MENDELSON: Thank you.

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