The United Nations was tasked to shame the Russia Federation, but not about Ukraine.
This time its personal.
Hostage Trevor Reed, now home, petitioned the U.N.’s Human Rights Council to call out Russia for harsh inhumanities he suffered over years.
Activating the U.N. like this is a first.
Might it further serve to loosen Putin’s chokehold on basketball star Brittney Griner or businessman Paul Whelan — both still languishing in Russian lockdown?
One would hope so.
Russia has been a signatory to U.N. policies against human rights abuses such as arbitrary detention. The U.N. calling foul on the Kremlin should spur it to modify its behavior.
However, Russia is Russia.
Let's not expect otherwise.
To wit, it has been deaf to recent U.N. denunciations of its unconscionable and systematic massacring of Ukraine. So, will U.N. exhortations be enough? No.
Are they a start? Maybe.
They highlight in bright yellow what matters most in the reporting out of Ukraine.
They reinforce agreed truths about human rights, frame the response to Russia from the moral ground, and provide solidarity of messaging and of purpose among everyone defending Ukraine.
Yes, they are a start.
However, Reed’s request to the U.N. might not work as his detention appears valid under Russian law, wrongfulness notwithstanding.
Nonetheless, kudos to him for testing U.N. off-the-shelf remedies.
Unfortunately, Reed may have hurt the bigger hostage cause this week by going political at home. He mocked Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, for suggesting that basketball’s Griner would be home now if President Donald Trump were still in office. Under Trump, there were in fact several dozen recoveries as compared to only Reed’s recovery under Biden.
Such pointless sparring might aggravate against the recovery of other Americans abroad, specifically in Russia. For example, there Griner’s pre-trial detention was extended yet again, to July 2, for further investigation.
But that was possibly resulted more from Biden’s decision to elevate her case to his special presidential envoy for hostage affairs (SPEHA).
It may have increased bargaining value of her captivity to Putin’s Kremlin goons.
In the interests of full disclosure, this writer served as the previous acting SPEHA.
While I am not privy to the specifics of current cases, my instincts are that it was too early to designate Griner’s case for the SPEHA.
Doing so otherwise implies that Russian is extorting the United States into an unrelated quid pro quo involving bigger national security interests.
Why might it be too early to bring in that heavy artillery?
Griner’s choice to live in Russia and play in their leagues for several years made her subject to the law of that land as anyone else there.
In arresting her for alleged drug possession, the Russian legal system is expected to follow due process as if she were a Russian national.
If there were indications to the contrary, then our tougher measures would be raised.
But it is too soon to know that.
Several months of pre-trial detention is often the norm in many countries where — perverse to our legal regime — one is guilty until proven innocent.
Americans overseas all too often endure such incredibly challenging circumstances for months, if not years, and our embassies’ caseloads are always full. But Biden elevated Griner’s case within mere weeks of her detention and before the courts proceeded.
While the Russian legal system runs its due process on her case (which is admittedly slow), the Biden administration would otherwise need to show that this detention rises to the level of compromising America’s foreign policy interests or related criteria as laid out in Congress’ 2020 "Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act."
Biden has not so qualified his decision, one that leapfrogs SPEHA’s bona fide cases of Americans languishing for years in hell holes and death watches. And in contrast to Griner’s weeks, it took over two years before Paul Whelan’s case qualified for SPEHA action.
Biden appears more motivated by the politics of polling than about recovering an American without regard to who gets the credit.
Doing so plays much better than other headlines, including those of the hundreds of hostages now taken by the Taliban due to Biden’s reckless exit from Afghanistan last year.
Further, perhaps pro basketball has lobbied the West Wing for quick action before its fans decide "no more" to big time sports deals in Russia and China. Other major organizations have dropped Russia like a hot potato. When will sports leaders do abroad what their social activism has been preaching at home?
We all support the rapid recovery of Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. But pulling back the lens, we see that Biden’s rushing to judgment would compromise SPEHA’s moral suasion and effectiveness with captors in this and other cases.
Whether U.N. statements, tweet wars, or White House politics hasten or hinder recoveries of our compatriots, no one can say with certainty. But any solidarity of purpose our nation might muster at home and at the U.N. on behalf of those human lives and their human rights might prove invaluable over time.
For more on Russia, Putin, and the U.N., please refer to my prior article on those critical subjects here.
Hugh Dugan served as Acting Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Senior Director for International Organization Affairs in the National Security Council after having advised 11 U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations since 1989.
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