In Other News: EU Imposes New Sanctions on Russians, US Criticizes UN Human Rights Council Election & More – October 16, 2020

October 16, 2020

The EU imposed a raft of new sanctions on six Russian individuals in President Putin’s circle and the president of Belarus this week, signaling a new willingness to penalize the Kremlin and its allies for their more egregious violations of democratic and human rights norms.  The sanctions against the six Russians are in response to the poisoning of Kremlin opposition figure Alexey Navalny, while those targeting Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko are a response to his ongoing crackdown on protests sparked by recent presidential election, widely viewed as fraudulent, that delivered him a sixth term in office. Lukashenko is now subject to a travel ban and a freeze on any assets held in the EU, as are the following six individuals: Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russian domestic intelligence agency the FSB; first deputy chief of staff to the president Sergei Kiriyenko; head of the Kremlin’s domestic policy directorate Andrei Yarin; deputy defense ministers Aleksey Krivoruchko and Pavel Popov; and Sergei Menyaylo, Kremlin envoy to the Siberian Federal District, where the poisoning took place. Also subject to an asset freeze is Russia’s State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, after the intergovernmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that the attack on Navalny involved the use of military-grade nerve agent Novichok. Separately, the EU also sanctioned Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin for violating a United Nations arms embargo on Libya.

Cuba, China, and Russia won seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council this week – a vote fiercely criticized by the United States government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the vote “a win for tyrants and embarrassment for the global body” and said it further justifies the U.S. decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council in 2018. The UN General Assembly held the election on October 13 for 15 seats on the 47-nation Human Rights Council. Members elected will serve three-year terms beginning on January 1, 2021. In addition to these three countries, Venezuela will remain on the council despite a UN report released on September 16 with damning allegations of “crimes against humanity” by the Venezuelan regime. Instead of promoting human rights, these new members are more likely to undermine UN investigations, like the UN mission to Venezuela created last year, into abuses in their own countries and their allies. The election of these members to the UN Human Rights Council also reconfirms American doubts about this multilateral organization, whose members are supposed to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Armenia and Azerbaijan are accusing each other of breaking a cease-fire in their ongoing conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which continues to fuel concerns about a larger conflagration that could draw in large powers with territorial ambitions. The two sides reached a deal for a temporary cease-fire, set to begin last Saturday, to allow for prisoner exchanges and retrieval of casualties (more than 550 have been killed in the fighting). However, the truce broke down quickly with little clarity over which side is to blame. Russia, which helped broker the cease-fire, has offered to dispatch military observers to assist and continues to call for a negotiated solution. Turkey, in contrast, has been outspoken in its support for Azerbaijan, and while it has denied reports that it deployed Syrian mercenaries to the fighting on Azerbaijan’s behalf, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed widespread international calls for a cease-fire. Turkey also drew (rhetorical) fire this week for restarting natural gas exploration in contested waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. In doing so, Turkey is effectively daring the EU to make good on recent threats to impose sanctions on Turkey for continuing its exploration activity in the area. The Turkish drillship, escorted by Turkish naval vessels, is searching for gas in an area of the sea that is also claimed by Greece and Cyprus. This is not the first instance of Turkey needling Greece – and countries that support Greek claims – by deploying drillships offshore in contested areas. However, in combination with Turkey’s military adventures in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan, this incident rounds out a picture of a regional aggressor that appears unconcerned by the objections of other large powers, such as Russia and the EU. Turkey’s actions are destabilizing at best, and it remains to be seen whether EU sanctions will be an effective deterrent, or whether more decisive action will be needed.