Criticizing human rights violations in Sochi may have missed the bigger picture


The West could have capitalized on an opportunity to further connect with Russia




Sochi failed as a platform to spotlight Russian human rights abuses, according to a husband and wife team in the Department of Political Science.

During a discussion on Russia, advocacy and human rights hosted by the International Relations Undergraduate Student Association yesterday, Associate Director of the Political Science Department Eileen Doherty-Sil and political science professor and Co-Director of the Huntsman Program Rudra Sil expressed the drawbacks of using the Sochi Games as a platform for highlighting Russian human rights abuses.

“The human rights community blew it in Sochi,” said Doherty-Sil, who spoke from the perspective of the global human rights community. “We lost the audience,” she said.

Sil, who offered a Russian perspective, also spoke of the Olympics as a missed opportunity for more traditional Western countries to truly connect with the Russian populace. The Russian people must have thought, “‘Here we go again, the West lecturing us,’” he said.

“We don’t care what the Russians think, just how they should think,” he said.

The husband and wife team invited the audience to think of the discussion as a strategic planning meeting: How can an event such as the Winter Olympics be used as “a forum for human rights pressures?”

Sil reminded the audience to keep in mind the Western-oriented nature of the event. “How many third world countries actually participate in the Winter Olympics?” he asked.

Sil compared Sochi to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He said that Beijing’s events engaged the entire world, while Sochi saw a less diverse set of participating nations and a less diverse international audience. That lack of breadth detracted from Sochi’s legitimacy as a platform for spotlighting Russian human rights issues.

“When you spotlight, you localize, but also demonize,” he said. Focusing on one particular group can paint over the broader history and context. “We need to be really careful about what spotlighting does. It can allow people to bypass the entirety of the issue,” he said.

He suggested that human rights advocates take a broader look. “Comparatively, where does Russia really stand on human rights?” Sil asked. “[Russia may] not be great in comparison to the West and the U.S. but it’s way ahead of loads of other places. Progress has been made,” he said.

“We ought to be crystal clear about what [Russian] human rights issues are,” Doherty-Sil said. She encouraged the audience to understand the issue before trying to change it.

Sil said that Russia’s human rights record may fare poorly compared to the West but “the country has just gone through cataclysmic change.”

“Here we are at our most progressive moment and we’re trying to pull Russia along too far,” he said of the West.

“There are serious human rights discussions to be had and we need to be more clever about it,” Doherty-Sil said.

In order to stir momentum for change in Russia and elsewhere, there needs to be a change in mindset. “Make global discussions global. Get everyone involved. It should be on all fronts, at all times,” Sil said.

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