Archive for Human Rights Foreign Policy

Putin’s Calculus in Ukraine

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights, Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights


Crimea is more than a flash-point for conflict between Ukraine and Russia. War between Ukraine and Russia has potential regional and global implications. While supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, the Obama administration must be careful not to escalate tensions. It may be possible, however, to change President Vladimir Putin’s calculus through a combination of carrots and sticks.

Events are fast-moving and volatile. On Friday, Russian Special Forces and helicopter gunships invaded Crimea. They closed the main airport and set-up check-points, seizing key buildings. On Saturday, the Russian Duma authorized the deployment of armed forces to Crimea, which has a majority ethnic Russian population. By Sunday, 6,000 Russian forces established complete control of Crimea.

Russia may escalate the conflict by deploying forces in the ethnic Russian belt between Donetsk and Khirkiv. Will Putin take steps to “liberate” other ethnic Russian territories in the so-called near abroad? Pro-Western countries in Baltic States, Georgia, and Moldova should beware.

Map of Ukraine from NBC News

Map of Ukraine from NBC News

Russia’s invasion of Crimea was no surprise. Moscow telegraphed its intentions, the same way it did before invading Georgia in 2008. When Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown, Russia launched military exercises on the Russia-Ukraine border, scrambled war planes, and put tens of thousands of troops on alert. Dmitry Medvedev warned that the turmoil in Ukraine “posed a real threat to our interests and to our citizens’ lives and health.”

Obama waited until after Russia’s invasion to warn of “costs.” Secretary John Kerry declared that Russia’s actions were “unacceptable.” U.S. protests were too non-descript, and too late. The time to warn Putin was before he deployed Special Forces.

Putin is in complete control of the situation. He delights in making a mockery of Obama’s righteous indignation, exposing the hypocrisy and weakness of the West. After Obama’s wobbly warning to Syria, Putin knows that Obama will never go to war over Ukraine.

At this stage, Obama must avoid overheated rhetoric. Idle threats serve no purpose. The United States should focus on keeping the conflict from escalating. Immediate measures are also needed to stabilize Ukraine.

When Kerry goes to Kiev on Tuesday, he should offer specific types of economic, security and political assistance. Even a token loan guarantee will demonstrate support for the interim government.

Huge sums will be needed to pull Ukraine’s economy from the brink. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) should intensify efforts to assemble a $20 billion rescue package. Details can be finalized after Ukraine’s new government is elected. Meanwhile, the IMF should work with the interim government to finalize loan terms, including structural adjustments, austerity spending, and reduced energy subsidies. Transparency and anti-corruption measures will be needed.

Ukraine also suffers a democracy deficit. Kerry can announce U.S. support for consolidating Ukraine’s democratic transition, which focuses on civil society not just state-building. Support for judicial and electoral reform is also a priority.

Assistance should not only target western Ukraine. Ethnic Russian regions in the east should also benefit.

The NATO-Ukraine Commission languished during Yanukovych’s administration. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) should accelerate Ukraine’s NATO membership by revitalizing its Membership Action Plan. Meanwhile, NATO can show solidarity by conducting joint military training exercises with Ukrainian armed forces; NATO can also extend its combat air patrol to Ukraine. NATO monitors could be sent to the Russia-Ukraine border. The U.S. can strengthen bilateral security cooperation by dispatching the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Kiev to review Ukraine’s military capacity in the context of U.S.-Ukraine National Defense Talks.

Trans-Atlantic cooperation is critical. The EU has given vague assurances. Brussels should be more specific about ways its European Neighborhood Policy can support Ukraine’s economic and political stabilization. It should affirm its commitment to an Association Agreement and establish visa liberalization for Ukrainians traveling to EU member states.

The West must establish clear red lines with Russia. A U.S. envoy should visit Moscow to:

  • Demand that Russian forces return to their bases in Crimea, abiding by current lease terms for the Naval Air Station in Sevastapol.
  • Emphasize that sending additional forces to Crimea or other parts of Ukraine would represent a serious escalation.
  • Warn against deploying new weapons systems in Crimea, including surface to air missiles.

The envoy should also warn Russia not to make the mistake of establishing diplomatic relations with Crimea. Russia signed “Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance Agreements” with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on September 17, 2008. The agreements violated cease-fire terms ending the Russia-Georgia war, perpetuating hostilities.

The Obama administration has suspended preparatory discussions for the G-8’s upcoming meeting in Russia. If Russia’s expands its aggression, can G-8 members attend the Sochi summit in June? Sending a signal is important, but so is maintaining channels of communication.

Obama has threatened economic isolation. The Magnitsky Act can be applied to hold individual Russian officials accountable through travel bans and freezing their assets. In addition, the Congress could pass legislation requiring an annual review of Russia’s Most Favored Nation trade status. Obama could suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral trade talks.

The EU can do its part by suspending negotiations with Russia on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. It could revoke the visa facilitation regime for Russia. The EU can also impose sanctions on Russian businesses investing in Crimea.

A carrots and sticks strategy must include positive incentives.

Kiev should pledge not to use force against Crimea. It should avoid actions that Russia might use to justify its aggression.

The NAC should issue a statement that it will not take military action over Crimea.

The Ukrainian government should reiterate its commitment to the current lease allowing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastapol until 2042.

The Ukrainian parliament can strengthen the protection and promotion of minority rights. It can recommit to Crimea’s autonomy, identifying new ways to enhance local control over governance, economic affairs, natural resources, and cultural rights.

Under UN auspices, a Peace Implementation Council (PIC) could be established to build confidence between Russia and Ukraine, including Crimea. The PIC could include working groups on security and humanitarian issues, as well as an Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism to prevent disputes along the administrative boundary lines from escalating. A hot line connecting Russia and Ukrainian defense officials should be established.

The international community could broker a declaration on the non-use of force between Russia and Ukraine, with Crimean representatives as signatories. The declaration is not a treaty between sovereigns; therefore, it would not represent any recognition of Crimea.

Russia needs a face-saving way out of the current crisis. It is unlikely that Russia wants to annex Crimea. It has enough problems within its current borders. Besides, 12 percent of Crimeans are Muslim Tatars. They could radicalized and join forces with Muslims extremists in Dagestan and Chechnya.

Rather than push for elections on May 25, a slower timetable could take some stress out of Ukraine’s transition. Yanukovych, opposition leaders, and a Russian envoy signed an EU-mediated accord on February 21 calling for presidential elections by the end of 2014.

The Obama administration also needs a way out. It needs to defuse the conflict with Russia, and discourage Putin from aggressing elsewhere. America’s prestige is at stake. Recent events in Ukraine highlight America’s downward trajectory from the unipolar moment of the early 1990s.

It may appear that the West has few options, but it has many diplomatic tools at its disposal. If Russia is the problem, it must also be part of the solution.

David L. Phillips

David L. Phillips


Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the administrations of President Clinton, Bush and Obama.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post on March 3, 2014


EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, visits Columbia University


EU SR Lambrinidis and Yasmine

By Jillian Carson, Program Coordinator, ISHR


On Thursday October 3rd, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), the Blinken European Institute and the Harriman Institute hosted Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s first appointed Special Representative for Human Rights at Columbia University.

Mr. Lambrinidis is an attorney who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece. He also previously held the post of Vice-President of the European Parliament, and from 2004 to 2009, served as Vice-President of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. Mr. Lambrinidis graduated from Yale Law School and, early in his career, served as Chairman of the Committee for Human Rights in the Bar Association of Washington, D.C.. Mr. Lambrinidis took office on September 1, 2012 and his mandate will run until June 2014.  He and the EU delegation to the United Nations visited New York for the opening of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly.

Challenges in Human Rights and Foreign Policy

Mr. Lambrinidis spoke candidly about some challenges his office and human rights policy face in today’s global community. Part of the challenge the European Union (EU) will face, he noted, will be to find a balance and consistency in human rights policy for the EU and for each member state. These consistencies include, for example, how internal policy is presented externally.  Each state must recognize their own internal challenges in this regard. No state perfectly protects and promotes rights, a false sense of exceptionalism, often promulgated by Western countries, actually works to undermine their credibility in the international arena. Another concern relates to the complexities in ensuring consistency in the reactions to other states’ violations of rights; are the reactions to external human rights violations consistent and, more importantly, proportional? A state’s favoritism or criticism towards certain states may be seen as based on economic considerations, weakening the ability of that state to speak authoritatively about protections and promotion of human rights abroad. Regarding proportional responses, Mr. Lambrinidis also noted that, when possible, it is best to “win” a country’s respect for human rights and human rights practices, rather than resort to the use of force. Lastly, Mr. Lambrinidis is concerned with ensuring that there is consistency in EU policies on community, regional and domestic levels throughout the EU member states.

Mr. Lambrinidis also spoke of his concern over the “false dilemma” of arguments that attack the universality of human rights and place human rights at odds with culture, religion or ethnicity. He urges that states must formulate a better argument to truly defend the universality of human rights in theory and, more importantly, in their practice and proliferation. He asserts that it is often repressive, nationalistic regimes pronouncing that human rights are a “Western construct.” By conceding to these narratives or failing to offer robust counter-arguments, we undermine those advocates within these societies fighting for their rights.

An important part of the Special Representative’s mandate will be to renew the EU’s commitment to a genuine partnership with civil society. Mr. Lambrinidis expressed concern about the “shrinking space” of civil society in domestic and foreign policy. The failures of human rights advocacy often result from a lack of collective and pervasive action. By engaging EU governments and civil society actors at local, regional, and international levels, Mr. Lambrinidis hopes to empower these groups to take ownership of human rights at home, protect them from hostilities, and defend their value domestically and internationally.

Finally, Mr. Lambrinidis stressed the importance of promoting economic and social rights alongside civil and political rights. In many countries, the lack of basic human rights, such as the right to food or health care, radically hinder the populations’ ability to fight for their civil and political rights. He urged that recognition of these challenges; meaningful partnerships; and cooperative strategies between the EU, the US, and other international human rights defenders will help address a broader range of human rights issues and improve the effectiveness of human rights rhetoric and practice worldwide.

Successfully Promoting and Protecting Human Rights

Since taking office, Mr. Lambrinidis and his delegation have demonstrated their commitment to the integration of human rights into EU policy and have achieved a number of successes. He shared a few of these accomplishments. Guidelines and instructions have been created for all EU delegations for protecting and promoting LGBT rights, as well as the promotion and protection of freedom of religion. After past failures, the EU, as part of the Commission on the Status of Women, adopted conclusions on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls in March of this year. Guidelines have been published in response to these conclusions. The EU Special Representative will continue to focus on the intersection of business and human rights, drawing from guiding notes published with a focus on the oil, gas, and other extractive industries, as well as information technology and temporary employment services business sectors in the EU.

The EU has established the office and position of the Special Representative for Human Rights to ensure that human rights will play a central role in in EU foreign policy. Mr. Lambrinidis explained that the importance of this integrated approach draws from the reality that human rights violations lie at the root of most conflicts and thus, viable solutions must involve their promotion and protection. The Special Representative will be tasked with monitoring and expressing the coherence and practice of EU human rights policies, a daunting task considering the 28 member states and the countless religious, ethnic and cultural identities that comprise the EU. However, Mr. Lambrinidis stressed his optimism in the strength and capability of human rights-focused foreign policy in Europe and globally.

For a full audio recording of the EU Special Representative’s talk at Columbia, click here.

Jillian works at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights as a Program Coordinator for the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program. She is an alumni of the Human Rights Studies Master’s Program, with a concentration in Indigenous rights. Her thesis and subsequent research focuses on the right to education for First Nations in Canada and the function of transitional justice mechanism in Canadian reconciliation processes.