Russia's Clash With The West Over Human Rights Just Got A Whole Lot Worse

USAID workers providing humanitarian assistance during the Georgian-Russian conflict
USAID workers providing humanitarian assistance during the Georgian-Russian conflict
Aleksander Gabyev, Ilya Barabanov, Elena Chernenko

MOSCOW - U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has announced that Washington would close the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offices in Russia.

Nuland said that it was the Russian government forcing the closure, a charge the Kremlin denies. “Like all foreign agencies that provide financing to Russian NGOs, USAID needs to follow the laws of the Russian Federation," said Dmitri Peskov, press secretary for the Russian President. "As long as the Americans follow the applicable laws, we can’t make any decisions about terminating their activities on Russian territory.”

The departure of USAID is the biggest showdown in the past five years between Moscow and the West over the monitoring of democracy and human rights in Russia. The last time a similarly high-profile foreign organization pulled out of Russia was in 2007, when the British government closed the British Council, which the Russian government had accused of not paying taxes and of breaking Russian law. (In the UK and throughout the West, the ban was seen as low point in the diplomatic dispute over the murder in London of ex-KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko.)

The current showdown began after actions of USAID in Russia had attracted criticism from United Russia, the ruling party, and pro-Kremlin youth movements. The attacks on the organization became much louder after the December parliamentary elections in Russia, and the opposition protests that followed. USAID was accused of giving grants to human rights organizations, as well as the election monitoring organization “Golos.”

USAID has spent $51.9 million in Russia this year, including $31.8 million on projects promoting democracy and human rights. The USAID Russian mission is in 40th place in terms of the amount of money spent there compared to other countries.

In a large part to restrict the activities of organizations that receive USAID grants, last June the Duma adopted a new law on non-profit organizations considered to be “foreign agents.”

According to the new law, NGOs that receive financial or property support from foreign governments, international or foreign organizations or foreign citizens, that engages in political activity must register as foreign agents with the Justice Department and to announce its status as a foreign agent whenever there is information about the NGO in the media or on the internet; NGOs who do not comply are threatened with a stiff fine, and the directors of repeat offenders risk getting thrown in jail for up to three years.

A source close to the U.S. government said that there is a direct connection between this new law and the State Department’s decision to pull USAID out of Russia.

Spillover effects

Representatives from several NGOs said that the end of USAID’s work in Russia is a blow for many other human rights organizations in the country. The director of Transparency International, Elena Panfilova, said that her organization received funding from USAID although they never did any projects directly. “Of course, the agency’s exit will affect our work. There will be less financing possibilities, so we will have to look for other options,” she said. According to Panfilova, USAID was already winding down activities in Russia, and has been slowing reducing the amount of aid.

But Pavel Chikov, head of the human rights organization Agora, doesn’t believe in the end off all of USAID’s activities in Russia. “First of all, most of the projects they have financed are several-year-long projects. And projects that have already been approved will be finished,” he said. “Secondly, I don’t believe that the U.S. government will refuse to finance any programs in Russia. So I think this is more like a declarations of intentions then a final decision.”

Russian government officials could barely hide their satisfaction with the U.S. decision. “USAID’s departure is a logical, objective and long overdue step. Equivalent institutes in Russia, whether it is in the domains of economics, healthcare or democracy, have strengthened and are more than able to function without foreign aid,” said one source in the Russian government.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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