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Edward Snowden and Russia's Cold War on human rights

I’ve recently become addicted to ‘The Americans’, a TV series set during the Cold War period in the 1980s. It follows the adventures of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Russian KGB officers posing as an American married couple, their seemingly innocent suburban family life a cover for espionage, spying and intrigue.

As each episode exposes further intrigue and uncertainty around the characters' loyalties and affiliations, I console myself that such activities are a thing of the past. Or are they?

The old adage that reality is often stranger than fiction came to mind last week as I watched the media scrum surrounding Edward Snowdon’s meeting with human rights organisations at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.  

James Bond lookalike and Head of Amnesty’s Moscow Office Sergei Nitikin was present at the meeting and he stressed that what Snowdon disclosed was patently in the public interest and as a whistleblower his actions were justified. Snowdon is clearly no spy, but he is being vilified as if he were by a US administration which doesn’t take kindly to having its more nefarious activities being exposed to public scrutiny.

Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard summed this up nicely when he tweeted “Magnitsky blows whistle in Russia, dies in custody, hailed as hero by US pols. Snowden blows whistle on NSA, gets hounded into exile.”

The 'Magnitsky' that Walt refers to is Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was last week tried and convicted of tax evasion. However, there’s a sinister and absurd twist to this case as Magnitsky died in detention in 2009 in circumstances suggesting that this was the result of torture or other ill-treatment.

This case is perhaps indicative of the extraordinary lengths to which Putin’s government will go to silence its critics – it will literally chase them beyond the grave.

The Russian authorities, it appears, are fighting an internal ‘Cold War’. It’s a war of attrition and containment that has seen civil society attacked through the introduction of legislation aimed to restrict their activities. We have witnessed journalists murdered, lawyers harassed and those that dare to criticise the regime imprisoned (Pussy Riot most famously, but many others).

This onslaught on human rights shows no signs of abating and it’s time the international community took this seriously.

In 2009 Hillary Clinton famously pressed the ‘Reset’ button with Russia, signifying the beginning of a new relationship – it’s time that the ‘reset’ button was ‘reset’ and that this time they get it right and put human rights at the top of the agenda.

Of course, this would mean that the USA and other countries would have to lead by example, no double standards, no hunting down whistle-blowers who expose the illegal activities of their security services. A good start would be to allow Edward Snowdon to seek asylum where he wishes and to stop harassing him and governments that may be willing to offer him a place of security.

And what can the UK Government do?

Well it must use the bi-annual dialogues it has with the Russians to raise human rights. Next year will see the Winter Olympics hosted by Russia. The UK must remind Russian authorities of commitments made in the 2012 Olympic Communique, signed in London, to uphold the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Next year will also be the UK/Russia Year of Culture and this must also be seized as an opportunity to progress human rights.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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