President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy has raised questions about who will fill the leadership role of maintaining the global economy, policing international security, and upholding human rights. Last month, when questioned on the recent news regarding human rights abuses in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it clear that human rights protections are not high on the US foreign policy agenda. If the United States fails to defend human rights, it should step down as the global human rights leader and allow other world powers, such as Germany and France, to fill the void.
From the last week of February through the first week of April, a deadly campaign against gay men took place in the Chechnya; police rounded up over a hundred men they suspected of homosexuality and held them in secret locations for weeks. During their detention, the men were tortured, humiliated, starved, and coerced into providing information about other men who might be gay. A Human Rights Watch report documented that several men died during interrogations, and the rest were shamefully returned to their families. To compound matters, the government indirectly encouraged the victims’ relatives to carry out “honor killings.”
Chechen Regional Leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has denied all accusations and emphatically professed that gay people do not exist within Chechnya. Since the summer of 1999, Kadyrov has steadily eradicated all forms of dissent and gradually built a tyranny within the Russian republic of Chechnya. Kadyrov gained this post by appointment from the Kremlin, and many had hoped the close relationship between him and Vladimir Putin would bring the violence in Chechnya to a quick end. However, Putin has done very little to end the persecution, potentially due to the fear that Chechnya would lose some of its political stability, and has instead allowed Kadyrov to rule the Caucasian republic with virtual impunity.
Since the news of human rights violations in Chechyna, only a few countries have applied pressure on Russia. In a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 15th, Secretary Tillerson admitted to knowing for over two months of the crisis in Chechnya, yet did not address it with his Russian counterparts. When pressed on the issue, he stated the human rights violations were on a “pending” list of topics to be covered in the undetermined future. The inaction by the US administration shows it prioritizes economic gains or political ties over human rights. Over the first few months in office, President Trump and his cabinet have acted quickly on economic issues including the Paris agreement, the G-20 meeting, and various trade deals, but the White House has not spoken widely on many of the cultural, ethnic, and social challenges surrounding the very same countries he is engaging with economically. While the United States failed to defend human rights, the leaders of Germany and France raised the issue to Putin directly.
Shortly after the first report of the anti-gay crackdown in April by Elena Milashina of the Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, Putin met separately with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Merkel asked Putin to use his influence to protect these minority rights and Macron told journalists he had raised the concerns around the treatment and imprisonment of transgender and gay people in Chechnya. The meetings notably resulted in Putin calling for investigations into the reports.
While the investigation is an encouraging step, the international community cannot trust Russia to disclose all its findings or hold individual leaders accountable. Countries with strong ties to Russia must dial up the public discourse about what is happening in Chechnya and the role Russia can play in stopping the violence. The United States can apply pressure on Russia; yet, Secretary Tillerson’s comments confirmed the current US administration has no urgency.
Human rights violations cannot be a “pending” topic for the leader of the free world. If the United States fails to demand Putin to produce a fair and in-depth investigation in Chechnya, then it must step aside and allow other countries to take the lead on human rights. The strength Germany and France have shown in standing up to world powers like Russia gives a glimpse into the future where they pull the European Union into a human rights leadership role left vacant by the United States.
About the author: Savannah Fox is the Human Rights Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a Regional Advocacy Coordinator at CARE International in the Advocacy and Policy Unit in Washington DC. Savannah earned her BA in International Relations and German from the University of South Carolina.