Proverbial Defense

Russia reports to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

Russia’s recent appearances at UN bodies have prompted a sharp reaction: Over 50 countries condemned the invitation of Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova to an informal meeting of the Security Council on April 5 and blocked the official live feed of her online speech, which representatives of several states left the hall for. In April 2023, Russia took over the rotating presidency of the Security Council (which is quite absurd for an aggressor country). On April 24 it opened a debate on nothing less than the protection of the UN Charter’s principles, which it has clearly violated with its war against Ukraine. The UN Secretary General, the European Union representative, and other diplomats addressed this at the Security Council meeting.

Moscow is taking advantage of its status within the worldwide organization to continue to speak on various UN platforms, sometimes provoking scandals, and sometimes, on the contrary, attempting to avoid critical issues related to the war in Ukraine. In mid-April, Russia submitted an entirely routine report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination regarding its compliance with the corresponding convention. The Russian delegation immediately tried to remove “military topics” from the discussion, supposedly because they are being reviewed by the UN International Court of Justice in Ukraine’s claim against Russia, which would technically prevent them from being discussed at the committee session. This refers to violations, alleged by Ukraine, of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, i.e., the persecution of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in Crimea (including the banning of the Mejlis and the absence of schooling in Ukrainian). The [Russian] Foreign Ministry representative even issued a separate statement adding another argument: Human rights in Crimea were not a topic of discussion at the last session (although, here they are, item 12 on a list of questions for the 2017 session) and therefore were included in that list of recommendations for no reason.

But the committee did not go along with the Russian delegation. It said that these arguments were invalid, demanded a response to all “Crimean questions,” and posed many other questions related to the war, for example, about the disproportionate mobilization of ethnic minorities and Indigenous peoples and about Ukrainian children removed to Russia. On the topic of children, Russian representatives generally repeated the arguments Lvova-Belova made in her speech (this was not kidnapping, but “a humanitarian mission to evacuate [children] from the conflict zone,” “this is in no way adoption but only temporary care in a family”). The Russian delegation did not deign to provide the committee with a response on Crimea. Head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs Igor Barinov defended himself with a proverb, saying “seeing is believing” and more effective than listening to “biased representatives of various NGOs” within the walls of the UN.

The reality of wartime and sanctions occasionally intruded into the Russian delegation’s responses to “peaceful” questions. For example, a representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office explained the enormous difference between the tens of thousands of websites blocked for disseminating hate and the small number of prosecutions for this by saying that the hate was disseminated from foreign websites and that it has recently been focused against Russian citizens. A representative from the Sports Ministry spoke about racism in football, but did not miss the chance to complain about discrimination against Russian athletes.

Sometimes it was unclear if the strange responses from delegation members were due to incompetence, or if the Russians were just knowingly playing the fool. A Labor Ministry representative informed the committee that low pay for migrant workers did not violate their rights and that Russian citizens holding the same positions are also not paid well, as if he didn’t understand that he wasn’t being asked about the equality of all workers on paper, but about the systemic bilking of migrants in practice. And an Internal Affairs Ministry representative didn’t blink when he said that profiling was used to catch serial killers, but never during “checks,” as if he weren’t aware of anti-migrant raids and document checks of people with a non-Slavic appearance or of all the accompanying blackmail and other manifestations of arbitrary behavior on the part of the police.

This time, the champion of the nutty ideas challenge was the representative from the Education Ministry. Responding to a question about segregation in relation to children in separate “Roma classes” (a discriminatory practice in wide use), he said: “In the Russian Federation… instruction is provided in 74 national languages. Therefore, at the decision of the parents and the school, any (!) language can be chosen for instruction and learning, for example, the Romani language. In such classrooms and school groups, extracurricular classes can include children of any nationality; there are no restrictions on the basis of nationality or race here.” One wonders if the Education Ministry official was aware that, after the 2018 amendments to the Law on Education, native – i.e., non-Russian – languages are studied “voluntarily, by choice,” so that this does not – God forbid – “damage” the official Russian tongue? Where on earth did he get the figure of 74 languages of instruction? (Statistics in this area are murky; there are probably about 25 such languages, and these are the “titular” languages of Russian constituent entities.) Well, and the option of “any” language and classes with “instruction and learning in the Romani language” is not a lie, but an effrontery…

The UN committee has always been mindful of the rights of the Roma minority, and the Federal Agency for National Affairs is not always indifferent to its recommendations. The only unfortunate thing is that Russian officials are again writing about the Roma’s alleged nomadic way of life, which they only revert to out of necessity (take, for example, the victims of the pogroms in Chemodanovka and Ust Abakan in 2019). The authorities deny the problem of racism, which is what buttresses structural discrimination against Romani people. During the session, the head of the Russian agency said that the pogroms and arson were not based on ethnicity or biases, but on “the antisocial behavior of certain members of the Romani people.” Unfortunately, evidence of anti-Roma bias is always visible in Russia: This includes conflicts with “people’s gatherings” that have flared up all over the country; demands to “evict the Roma”; the all too familiar operations and raids against entire settlements; the reckless hatred on social media; and even the use of the word info-tsigane “online fraudsters” [lit. “online Gypsies”] to describe questionable bloggers.

The topic of racism appears to be far removed from the war at first glance – it was no accident that Ukraine cited violations of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination when speaking about the situation in Crimea. ADC Memorial’s alternative report to the UN committee stresses that the annexation of Crimea, the creation of puppet “republics,” and, finally, the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, have the most direct relationship to the problems of racism, discrimination, and ethnic tension. After all, these catastrophic events became possible and have not been resisted by Russian society because for many years the authorities have whipped up anti-migrant hysteria, indulged xenophobia, preached about a “special path” and national greatness, inculcated “traditional values” (read, obscurantism), and promoted pseudo-historical constructs about “ancestral Russian lands.” A Levada Center poll on the level of xenophobia and racism on the eve of the invasion showed that over half of the respondents (51-52%) did not want to let Roma, Africans or migrant workers from Central Asia into the country, 45% did not want to let Chinese nationals in, 41% did not want to let Chechens in, and 32% did not want to let Ukrainians in.

It is the height of cynicism that these very same people have been disproportionately involved in the aggression. This includes residents of the poorest “ethnic” regions, ethnic minorities, small Indigenous peoples, unemployed migrants, and new Russian citizens who emigrated from former Soviet countries and whose newly acquired citizenship is now a source of deathly risk. The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination has already released new recommendations for Russia, which are sharply critical of both the “peacetime” and “wartime” matters that the Moscow delegation so wanted to avoid.

Olga ABRAMENKO – expert of the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial

First published on Radio Liberty’s blog

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