Democracy Lab

Dear Kremlin: Careful with Crimea

Why a Russian intervention in southern Ukraine could rebound against Moscow.

Russia seems to have made a bad bet in Ukraine. Its foreign policy, tactically agile as ever, was strategically unsound. It was certainly possible, as Russia proved in November, to bribe Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. It was also possible to promise a $15 billion loan in return for a policy of repression in Ukraine. After accepting the money in principle, Yanukovych illegally forced a package of legislation through parliament that was closely modeled on similar laws in Moscow restricting freedom of speech and assembly. Right after the Kremlin freed up a $2 billion tranche of the promised loan, the Yanukovych regime gave orders for the mass shooting of protesters.

Yet all did not turn out as planned. Moscow's strategic goal was to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Union. This institution, meant to rival the European Union, will come into being in 2015. The prospective members at this point are Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, none of which can be accused of a democratic surplus. Putin has made clear that for him the Eurasian Union is meaningless without Ukraine. He, like everyone else, understands that the Russian empire without Ukraine is without glory. But the Eurasian Union cannot possibly have democratic members, since their citizens, in trading with and emigrating to Russia, would spread dangerous ideas. Thus, Ukraine had to become a dictatorship.

The problem with this was the Ukrainians themselves. Instead of backing down in the face of batons, rubber bullets, and a sniper massacre, they made a revolution. Although this amounted to an act of almost unbelievable self-organization, determination, and simple physical courage, it would not have happened without Russian foreign policy. If the Kremlin had no Eurasian dream, it would not need to be so concerned about the character of the Ukrainian regime and the suppression of Ukrainian civil society. It was precisely the mass killing last week that made the Yanukovych regime inconceivable in Ukraine, not just to its opponents but to many of its allies. Now, Yanukovych has fled and parliamentary rule has been restored to Ukraine.

In overreaching, the Kremlin has lost a leader it could manipulate, and provoked the kind of revolution that its propaganda apparatus likes to blame on Washington and that its foreign policy is designed to stop. What now? There seem to be two alternatives. One would be a reconsideration of the totality of Russian foreign policy, and a genuine recognition that both Russia and Ukraine have, first and foremost, an interest in good relations with their common major trading partner, the European Union, as well as with each other.

The other alternative is to deny reality and continue to pursue the Eurasian dream. This would entail maintaining the line Moscow has so far taken in the crisis, namely that Ukrainian activists are fascists, terrorists, and gays. It could, perhaps, also translate into a Russian attempt to lay claim to some part of Ukraine. The greatest potential for mischief is to be found in the Crimean Peninsula, in the extreme south, where Russia has a naval base and where much of the population is ethnically Russian. (The photo above shows members of Russia's Black Sea Fleet at their base in Sevastopol, Ukraine.) The policy which seems to be under consideration in Moscow has three parts: first, to claim, as Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has already done, that Russian interests in Ukraine are under threat; second, to extend Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in Crimea; and third, to claim a right of protection -- which, in the case of Russia's neighbors, Georgia and Moldova, has already resulted in the creation of Russian protectorates. As of this writing, Russia's Black Sea Fleet is on alert, and a Russian parliamentarian is in Crimea discussing passports and the possibility of a Russian annexation.

It should go without saying that an attempt to seize Ukrainian territory would be a disaster in the short run, ruining Russian credibility around the world and likely starting a major war. In the long term, such an action, even if it were to succeed, would set a rather troubling precedent -- for Russia itself.

If Russia excludes its own borders from the general international standard of inviolability, it might face some unwanted challenges down the road. If Russia's external frontiers are flexible zones, to be pushed in various ways with appeals to the rights of ethnic brethren and passport holders, then what will happen, down the line, in Russia's eastern Siberia? There, Russia holds major natural resources along its border with China, the world's longest. Some 6 million Russian citizens in eastern Siberia face 90 million Chinese in China's bordering provinces.

Beijing pays attention to Ukraine because it has a major stake in Ukrainian agricultural territories. It will likely note the developing Russian doctrine on the flexibility of Russia's external borders. China also has a stake in eastern Siberia. It needs fresh water, hydrocarbons, mineral resources such as copper and zinc, and fertile soil for its farmers. The Chinese economic relationship with eastern Siberia is a colonial one: China buys raw materials and sells finished goods. Beijing actually invests more in eastern Siberia than does Moscow. No one knows the exact number of Chinese citizens in eastern Siberia -- in part because the last Russian census declined to count them -- but it certainly dwarfs the number of Russians in Crimea, and is expected by Russian analysts to increase significantly with time.

It seems rather risky for Russia to develop, on its own border, a challenge to the basic premise of territorial sovereignty. Beijing and Moscow currently enjoy good relations, and Chinese leaders are too sophisticated to consider open threats to eastern Siberia. But down the road, as demographic pressures mount and Russian resources beckon, a Russian doctrine of the ethnic adjustments of Russian borders could provide Beijing with a useful model.

Vasiliy BATANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Human Rights That Dictators Love

Does the concept of "human rights" still have meaning in a world where everything qualifies?

Watch out. Kobe Bryant may be violating your human rights.

Farida Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on cultural rights, recently announced that she's launching a new study aimed at addressing "whether advertising and marketing practices affect cultural diversity and the right of people to choose their way of life." The announcement bears a photo of a larger-than-life U.S. basketball advertisement (featuring star player Kobe Bryant) looming over a Chinese playground.

This is all in a day's work for the United Nations' cultural rights office. Just last month, when Shaheed visited Vietnam, she took a break from discussing concerns about the freedom of expression to highlight another urgent crisis: the sensitive issue of the Cong drum. In case you haven't heard, the Cong drum is a unique cultural artifact used by certain indigenous tribes in Vietnam's remote highlands. Now, Shaheed notes, the Cong drum faces a new threat: it is "being played on demand for tourists in some places, thus clearly losing its original cultural significance." She urges the government to protect drum performances against "folklorization" -- apparently a major violation of the indigenous groups' "cultural rights."

It's worth noting that Vietnam is a communist dictatorship that completely ignores the freedom of religion, routinely imprisons monks and artists for their views, and has been criticized by countless human rights organizations for its widespread use of torture and routine abuse of detainees. (In the photo above, policemen prevent a photojournalist from taking pictures outside a courthouse in Ho Chi Minh City.)

"Vietnam is fast turning into one of Southeast Asia's largest prisons for human rights defenders and other activists," Robert Abbott, Amnesty International's Vietnam researcher, noted. But these violations are equal, in Shaheed's eyes, to the ghastly use of cultural artifacts in the tourism industry. The other, more serious violations merit just a one-paragraph rebuke in her report; apparently, they don't fall within the ill-defined spectrum of "cultural rights." Now, Vietnam can ignore most of what Shaheed had to say, and brush off her criticisms as a side effect of tourism.

Over the years, critics have ridiculed the U.N. Human Rights Council's willingness to heed the perverse opinions of the world's worst dictators, who figure prominently among its members. (These members even tried to ban the word "authoritarian" from council proceedings.) But the farce of "cultural rights" is merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise that some call "human rights inflation." Increasingly, groups have called everything they feel entitled to -- from spare bedrooms to foreign aid -- a "right." One special interest group is even clamoring to grant "access to the Internet" official "rights" status, as if freedom of expression weren't enough. Meanwhile, various parties have asserted their "rights" to employment counseling, paid vacation leave, free education through college, and a global financial tax to combat the economic crisis.

Today, we have a surplus of human rights -- and they're all claimed to be equally important and indivisible. Human rights are going nowhere. They've lost their value.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed in 1948, it restricted the world of human rights to just 30 provisions. Its drafters felt compelled to keep the list short and punchy. Out of those, 18 were considered rights, provisions that impose immediate obligations on states at the level of the individual; the 12 social, economic, and cultural provisions were considered aspirational. The latter were controversial from the start, and this is one of the reasons that the UDHR is not binding and contains no enforcement mechanism. In 1976, to address these issues, the rights were correctly divided up into separate binding treaties that impose obligations on the state through oversight bodies: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

This was a political compromise borne out of the ideological fight between the United States and the totalitarian USSR, which advocated for social, economic, and cultural rights at the expense of civil and political ones. To this day, the United States has not ratified the ICESCR.

The consequences of this ill-fated compromise have gotten quite out of hand. By 2013, there were 676 provisions that ranged from individual rights, to collective rights, and even to environmental rights. Some of these don't even impose immediate obligations on the state - instead they're established through "progressive realization," whereby the state, to the limit of its resources and capabilities, promises to fulfill them at some point in the future.

This bizarre proliferation of rights is caused by the fact that human rights are a valuable tool in the hands of every pressure group that stands to benefit from the expansion of rights -- and that includes illiberal states.

The right to food, for example, was made justiciable at the international level just last year with the adoption of the optional protocol to the ICESCR. The move received overwhelming support from, among others, Iran, which reiterated during the working group that "the protocol provided an opportunity to reiterate the equal status of all human rights." Meanwhile, the sane and liberal voice of the United Kingdom was all but drowned out: "The United Kingdom remained skeptical about the practical benefits of the protocol, considering that economic, social, and cultural rights did not lend themselves to adjudication in the same way as civil and political rights."

Some may argue that states do not typically want to proliferate rights because this imposes more obligations. Yet, it is precisely because of this proliferation that states can cherry-pick the rights whose obligations they promise to fulfill sometime in the future -- and thus, show off a "good" human rights record, even as they fail to uphold even the most basic civil and political rights. Desirable outcomes like housing or health care -- better understood as political goals -- were cloaked in rights language to make them seem more legitimate. From there, the right to a spare bedroom is but a stone's throw away.

Well-intentioned rights groups have broadened rights legislation to embrace women's rights and minority rights for indigenous peoples, LGBT individuals, the elderly, and the disabled. Women's groups and human rights groups in Saudi Arabia have, for example, rallied the troops to consecrate the "right to drive." Of course, these groups should be respected and their efforts celebrated -- but there is no need to draw up new treaties or craft new rights. Traditional human rights instruments are enough. The UDHR clearly states that no one should experience discrimination because of their "race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status." You don't have special rights because you're a lesbian, elderly, disabled woman living in Saudi Arabia; you have rights because you're human.

The darker side of rights proliferation is that it allows dictators to level the playing field. The Human Rights Council is notorious for accommodating the desires of autocratic regimes eager to whitewash their reputations. In 2007, after refusing visits by U.N. special representatives for more than 18 years, Cuba welcomed Jean Ziegler, the Council's special rapporteur on the right to food. Ziegler praised the government for upholding the right to food as a "fundamental human right," and proceeded to blame the U.S. embargo for any food shortages. The policies of the 55-year-old communist dictatorship -- which disallows private property, private business, and the freedoms of movement and expression -- were apparently irrelevant to the food problem. Ziegler viewed the right to food in isolation, ignoring even relevant, non-food-related rights violations, and ultimately helped the Cuban regime get away with murder. Cuba could celebrate its success in upholding one right while tactfully glossing over all its many failures. Chronic rights abusers have an interest in diluting rights to the point where the whole concept loses its meaning.

"Sadly, this is par for the course these days," says Jacob Mchangama, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom Rights Project, a group that seeks to restore liberty back to human rights. Recently, his group held a conference at the Danish Parliament on what has gone wrong with international human rights and how to fix it.

The conference addressed, among other things, the worrying trend of rights proliferation. The speakers challenged the human rights community's dogmatic consensus on the indivisibility of rights and the doctrine of proportionality. Emilie Hafner-Burton presented research that demonstrates that there are few examples of human rights improving an illiberal state even after its leaders sign a human rights treaty. In most authoritarian states, signing the Convention Against Torture has had little if any impact on incidents of torture, and has allowed these regimes to stay in power longer.

"When everything can be defined as a human right, the premium on violating such rights is cheap," Mchangama told me in Copenhagen. "By presenting themselves as the champions of these third-generation rights, illiberal states seek to both remove the moral high ground from civil and political rights and to achieve political legitimacy. Rights proliferation is being abused by dictatorships to praise each other, and is diminishing the moral clarity that human rights once enjoyed."

We may be witnessing the slow bursting of the human rights bubble. Had I invested in the value of rights as a concept in 1966 when the ICCPR was adopted, the value of my shareholding would have peaked around 1993. This was the year that the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of 1993 declared all rights to be equally justiciable and indivisible, rendering the distinction between civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural "rights" meaningless.

At least I can always seek comfort in playing my Cong drum -- that is, as long as there aren't any tourists lurking nearby, right, Ms. Shaheed?

IAN TIMBERLAKE/AFP/Getty Images