“The beatings begin as soon as you’re brought in. The electric shocks, being beaten with plastic pipes. They said that we were ‘dogs who have no right to life.’” This is a firsthand account of the torture being suffered by gay men in Chechnya, a conservative Muslim republic in Russia’s Caucasus region. Reports of Chechen authorities launching a violent crackdown on suspected gay men have circulated widely in recent weeks. Men as young as 19 are reportedly being abducted, and shoved into overcrowded cells in secret prisons where they are brutally tortured, and sometimes beaten to death.
Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta broke the story, but not without reprisals. Its website was temporarily offline after a cyber attack, while one of the reporters who wrote the story has fled Russia after receiving death threats. The paper reported that at least 100 men had been rounded up. For understandable reasons, the exact number is hard to obtain. The newspaper and Human Rights Watch claim at least three men have been killed under torture, but the figure is likely higher. The men are not only at risk of being killed by authorities, but also by families who see homosexuality as a stain on their “honor.”
In a virulently homophobic society such as Chechnya’s, where persecution of homosexuals is policy, gay men go to extraordinary lengths to keep their sexual orientation hidden. One dangerous consequence of being detained on suspicion of homosexuality in such homophobic societies is that your orientation is revealed to your family. In one case, a gay man in his early twenties was returned by Chechen officers to his family, only to be killed by his uncle.
Chechen authorities often set up traps for men they suspect of being gay, and abduct them without releasing any information on their whereabouts. Those detained are then tortured until they release names of gay friends and acquaintances. That was the case for a friend of a man quoted as “Said,” a pseudonym to hide his identity. “One of my friends was arrested in December. Then they let him go, and he gave up all his friends. The last time I spoke to him two weeks ago, he cried that they had again come for him and were looking for him. I don’t know where he is now.” So the campaign widens: more men abducted, tortured, and killed.
But none of this appears to have moved Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who made no public remark on the matter during his visit to Moscow last week, ignoring a letter signed by 50 members of Congress to do so. In fact, there appears to be no indication that Tillerson even raised the abuses in Chechnya in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite a message of condemnation from the State Department prior to Tillerson’s Russia trip.
Regardless of the disdain for LGBT rights openly displayed by the Trump administration, it is a grave error to allow Russia to get away with flagrant human rights abuses on its own soil. What is at stake here is the very notion of universal human rights, in the specific context of how citizens are treated within their national borders.
What Russia does to its own citizens resonates in the rest of the world. As one of the world’s major powers, Russia enjoys a privileged status in the international hierarchy of states – see, for example, its veto-wielding permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Allowing Russia to lower those standards provides a carte blanche for smaller countries to follow suit. If Russia can get away with torturing and killing LGBT persons, why can’t Uganda? Or Saudi Arabia? Or Iran? If Russia can get away with persecuting LGBT persons today, who will they persecute tomorrow?
As part of its effort to undermine American power (both hard and soft), Russia aims to present an alternative for the world’s nations. That alternative includes tolerance for kleptocracy, the assassination of political opponents, the intimidation of journalists, and the persecution of “unwanted” minorities. Russian authorities have continuously targeted the LGBT community for over a decade (and not only in Chechnya). Chechnya’s abuses are not an isolated blemish. They are a symptom of the neo-fascist Russia that Putin has systematically cultivated.
Needless to say, Russia’s domestic human rights abuses contravene the liberal democratic ideals America has championed for a century. Yet this latest episode seems astonishingly brazen even by these prior dismal standards. When Moscow allows one of its local cutthroats to go on a killing spree of vulnerable minorities, it is effectively advertising to the world that countries no longer need follow the liberal democratic model of the United States.
The United Nations, and the web of international organizations and jurisdictions that seek to uphold universal human rights conventions, are part of the international order established by the United States and its allies since the end of the Second World War. Even if these standards are not always consistently applied, the values that inform them have become widely recognized.
Central to these values is the belief that human security – the freedom from fear of persecution within sovereign nations – is just as pivotal to international peace and security as preventing armed forces from engaging in direct combat. We should think long and carefully about the risks of giving up support for such values. The price for abandoning them will be high.