The Blame Game: Finding Fault in Greater Caspian Human Rights

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A wonderfully informative, if also somewhat depressing, report has just come out from The Foreign Policy Centre, based in London, where the effort was made to understand why there seems to be a lack of transparency and accountability across Parliamentarian International Organizations as concerns recognizing and documenting and challenging human rights abuses across the Post-Soviet space, including the Greater Caspian region.*

More specifically, the investigation capitalized on access to data and personnel within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The chief purpose was to basically assess the assessors: were the organizations put in charge of supposedly overseeing the proper development of human rights and civil governance across the former Soviet Union actually doing their duties effectively and compellingly. If not, why?

Together with previous studies conducted by fine organizations like the European Stability Initiative in Germany, the overall conclusions are not inspiring. The relatively famous concept of ‘caviar diplomacy’ (which has been written about at length in a previous issue of our own Greater Caspian Project), where favors are performed or misdeeds are forgiven or dismissed in exchange for personal gifts and benefits, has seemingly been accented by a veritable plethora of other complicating factors, all of which serve to undermine the proper promotion of human rights and good governance across this great region. These complicating factors in addition to ‘caviar diplomacy’ break down as follows:

Lack of knowledge: In short, most Parliamentarians across Europe put in charge of a particular country often have no direct experience or educational training on said country. Perhaps worse, efforts to ‘engage and learn’ can often be relegated to extremely short trip visits with highly ‘managed’ excursions organized by country authorities that, obviously, have a vested interest in showing the Parliamentarian in question the rosiest of pictures and most progressive of achievements. As a result, reports produced by the international organizations tend to be terribly skewed and inaccurate.

Belief in ‘the power of persuasion’ through active engagement: This is something akin to a political neo-paternalism, where the European actors in question believe that the only way to evolve and progress ‘emerging democracies’ is to give them benevolent guidance and engagement. In other words, success depends on the Western Europeans being able to show the ‘ungovernables’ how to govern. Even if done with the best of intentions, it is easy to see how quickly this tactic can go off the rails in terms of respect and responsibility. Even weaker seems to be the belief that there is a direct causal link between ‘dialogues’ and ‘structural change.’ So far, at least, that causal link seems decidedly thin.

Circling the wagons: For Parliamentarians there seems to be an ‘empathizer’ element for their fellow Post-Soviet/Greater Caspian legislators, in that they recognize their learning peers often face far harsher and more critical political crises, barriers, and obstacles. Consequently, this empathy identification is incurring a forgiveness quotient on transgressions against human rights and civil freedoms, or at least the ability to ‘understand’ how some slips can occasionally happen. In America, this would most often be categorized under the rubric of ‘not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater.’

Parties of the world unite: Many parties across Europe forge international alliances with each other. As time goes by, some of these partnerships form deep ties as literal bridges between East and West. There is at least compelling anecdotal evidence to suggest that some of these bridges have induced negative consequences, where members of the European bodies seem willing to be less harsh on violations when taken by members of sister organizations and parties. The European People’s Party, for example, took a light-handed approach to human rights violations in Georgia when the sister party United National Movement was in power. When UNM fell out of power and moved into the opposition role, however, EPP suddenly seemed more enthusiastic and vociferous about touting governmental transgressions coming out of Tbilisi. This same trend also tends to make very weird alliances of disparate groups with wildly varying agendas and interests. In the confusion, local populations will suffer from bad governance that never gets called out. The most colorful example of this is how the European Democrats group brings together Britain’s Conservative Party, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, Azerbaijan’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party, and some of Armenia’s ruling elite parties. This kaleidoscope of political agenda-confusion only seems to create a lack of coherence and consensus on rulings over human rights and good governance.

Political ‘realism’: In this case realism is just code for foreign-policy-strategic-business-as-usual. As in, a country in the West, while sincerely being concerned about human rights and good governance in all states, is not going to be so concerned about it as to limit, constrain, or hinder its own pursuit of national interests and security. So whether it is the prioritization of new economic opportunities, trade, and investment or some country forming a strategic lynchpin in a greater global security plan against terrorism, it is clear that human rights and good governance are ‘flexible priorities’ that will rise and fall according to the importance of other states’ considerations of their own realpolitik.

Anti-Imperialism: This is something of a rather strange international version of American ‘political correctness’ in the late 20th century. In this case we have a strange unity between the radical left and the radical right, laying claim that any Western nation giving lectures or making demands about human rights ‘standards’ is akin to a moral imperialism and an ignorance of unique cultural traditions. The implication being that the so-called less-developed political cultures of the former Soviet Union/Greater Caspian region need to be left alone to develop their human rights standards at their own pace and in line with their unique cultures. Amazingly, this has some traction with Parliamentary bodies across Western Europe.

“All politics is local”: To utilize a political cynicism, this finding indicates that how much a Parliamentarian cares, or does not care, about human rights abuses in any given country is a direct reflection of how big or how small that country’s diaspora may be within his/her own constituency back home. This obviously creates a wildly diverse sliding scale of empathy and importance, with none of the assessment values based on empirical reality or critical gravity. Rather, it is just about whether or not the Parliamentarian in question can politically afford to pay attention to it or ignore it. Too often, whichever version plays best with the home crowd seems to be the option that carries the day.

“Caviar-flavored” diplomacy: Unlike the previously mentioned caviar diplomacy, which is a simple and brazenly open system of corruption via bribery, extortion, and/or blackmail, caviar-flavored diplomacy is perhaps a level below but still ultimately detrimental. In this case it describes political/economic/diplomatic behavior that is clearly inappropriate and unethical but is not immediately transactional in nature. This usually involves a tit-for-tat quid pro quo, where in exchange for a Parliamentarian’s willingness to look the other way or not criticize too harshly an improvement in personal networking contacts will occur or lucrative economic opportunities will be promised. There is some evidence that this is becoming favored over straight caviar diplomacy simply because there is at least some element of plausible deniability for the Parliamentarian, as the payoff comes later on, thereby making it harder to draw an explicit link between a particular vote and the benefit.

What we can ultimately see from these findings is that the tendency in the West to shake its diplomatic head in disgust at the lack of progress on important issues like human rights and good governance across the greater Caspian region is insincere, as it is not taking place in a political vacuum. Many of the structural barriers like corruption and lack of institutional history are not only being exacerbated by the very people meant to be responsible for improving the situation, but it is arguable that the conditions sometimes become worse because of the involvement of the overseeing group from the West. We should try to remember this whenever we read the unfortunate reports coming out of the region on human rights and proper governance: dark diplomacy, unfortunately, seems to be just as prevalent in the overseers as the overseen.

*For the full report, please see: Institutionally blind? International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, edited by Adam Hug, Foreign Policy Centre, London, February 2016.

Dr. Matthew Crosston
Dr. Matthew Crosston
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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