Exploiting Human Rights Rhetoric

James Rubin, who was assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has a interesting piece today in the New Republic about Russia’s Kosovo analogy for Georgia and grounds for intervention. Rubin urges the United States not to buy into the flawed analogy, not to ratify the Kremlin’s claims to “privileged interests” on its borders, and points out that for quite a long time, Russia and the United States were in consensus about what was happening in the Balkans, and that Kosovo only became a divisive issue around 2003 during Russia’s resurgence.

If nothing else, this history demonstrates that the international community–including Russia–was largely unified during a decade of diplomatic engagement. And the risk of massive human rights abuses was real and generally accepted. The case of South Ossetia could not be more different. Human rights, let alone genocide, have never been a major factor in international decision-making there. And, as for the United Nations’s decision to endorse Russia’s peacekeeping role in the disputed regions of Georgia, this was a matter of pragmatism, not an international stamp of approval for Russian policy. (With the U.N. peacekeeping system discredited and weak, the international community has, by default rather than by design, begun to rely more and more on regional powers and institutions to bear the burden of tamping down regional conflicts.) In short, Russia’s attempt to link South Ossetia to Kosovo has little basis in either history or reality.

Moscow has been quite open about its desire for freedom of action, if not hegemony, along its borders. Indeed, when he was U.N. ambassador, Lavrov himself tried his hand at great-power horse-trading with then-Ambassador Albright–suggesting in the mid-’90s that, if Russia supported the U.N. peacekeeping force needed to prop up a failing democracy in Haiti, then Moscow should be able to count on U.S. support for Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Georgia. More recently, Medvedev, in presenting his country’s latest comprehensive foreign policy statement, described Russia as having a “privileged interest” in developments along its huge Eurasian border. But, until its fateful decision to launch an invasion of Georgia, Moscow had limited itself to non-military measures–for example, subjecting Ukraine to the manipulation of energy prices and supplies.Now, however, Russia has crossed a geopolitical Rubicon. In response, the international community and the West must take extreme care not to ratify Moscow’s claims of special rights or privileges in its border regions by legitimating its calculated, phony rhetoric about genocide and human rights.