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If Trump is going to engage Russia, he should do so on this topic

Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is House minority whip. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Last week, President Trump met in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — a staunch defender of Russian aggression abroad and repression at home. In that meeting, according to the White House’s official readout, the president “emphasized his desire to build a better relationship” with Russia. The meeting came just days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a speech to State Department employees outlining how he would approach U.S. diplomacy during his tenure, telling them that our country would no longer insist that nations we partner with respect democratic and human rights principles.

Together, these developments constitute an alarming abdication of America’s role as the world’s leading democracy, and they reflect this president’s striking rejection of the principles enshrined in the landmark 1975 Helsinki Final Act.

During our tenures in Congress, we both have been privileged to chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, the bipartisan, bicameral body that the Helsinki Final Act created. That commission put pressure on Communist governments that failed to deliver on human rights commitments, helping usher in the downfall of totalitarian communism in Europe. It has been a powerful tool in democracy’s arsenal, and it has contributed to the achievement of key U.S. foreign policy goals.

Tillerson himself acknowledged during his January confirmation hearing that “American leadership requires moral clarity. We do not face an ‘either/or’ choice on defending global human rights. Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance.” So he should understand what Helsinki is all about — that true security is brought about not only through military power but also by standing up for basic democratic values in places where they are denied. These include respect for the rights of minorities, an independent press, and the freedom to believe, live and express oneself peacefully according to one’s conscience.

In 1975, in spite of a highly polarized relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, rising political populism, extremist political violence and xenophobia, and large-scale westward migration, 35 governments forged a consensus in Helsinki that many thought unachievable. In doing so, they leveled the playing field between political leaders and civil society and helped institutionalize an enduring practice in American diplomacy to engage with nongovernmental representatives as well as governments.

Today we see similarities to the global situation at the time of the Helsinki Commission’s creation, particularly when it comes to the way we approach Russia. The need to stand up for human rights there is urgent. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ratcheted up efforts to repress human rights activists, often through violence. During their travels, previous secretaries of state Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and John F. Kerry all made time to meet with civil society activists at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence, in Moscow. But during his closely watched visit there this month, Tillerson chose not to.

Tillerson’s failure to meet with human rights and civil society activists was a break from precedent that simply does not comport with American values and interests. Trump’s meeting with Lavrov could further be seen as a tacit endorsement of Russia’s nefarious actions at home and abroad. Silence can be deafening — and in this case, it shouted to the Putin regime and its dissidents alike that the Trump administration may diminish human rights issues as a priority in U.S. diplomacy. We must not allow that to happen.

Just days before Tillerson flew to Moscow, accounts surfaced of secret prison camps in Russian-controlled Chechnya, reportedly ordered opened by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, where gay men have been systematically detained and tortured. This pogrom against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and the broader crackdown throughout Russia on opposition, human rights, pro-democracy and anti-corruption activists in advance of Russia’s 2018 presidential election, demands a vocal U.S. government response.

Strengthening democracy in Russia is the most powerful means to advance LGBT protections there. A Russian society that respects individual liberty is one that will, ideally, protect its most vulnerable.

Earlier this year, both of us met with Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian pro-democracy activist who has survived two poison attacks. He and others who are facing danger as they promote freedom of expression and real democracy in Russia, including Alexei Navalny, who himself has been attacked in recent days and nearly blinded, are looking to the United States to play its traditional role as a protector of democratic norms. They are watching Trump and Tillerson’s actions and listening to their words very closely.

Tillerson should seize any opportunity to engage with Russian civil society leaders moving forward — in the long tradition of his predecessors and in the name of American global leadership. This September, he is scheduled to host the Community of Democracies ministerial meeting, and we urge him to make this engagement a priority and to reiterate that the United States will stand up for its values and Helsinki principles in a world that needs to be reminded of our commitment to them.