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'It's as if Medvedev is living in an alternate reality'

Russia must face consequences for aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth told DW at the Munich Security Conference. Until it does, hostilities in Syria will continue.

DW: What do you make of the statement that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev just made at the Munich Security Conference - that Russia hasn't bombed any civilians in Syria?

Kenneth Roth: I've got to say I was quite shocked by that statement. It's as if Medvedev is living in an alternate reality. If you just read Human Rights Watch reports, we have documented, for example, Russia's use of cluster munitions, which are these inherently indiscriminate weapons banned by most of the world, using them in civilian-populated areas, killing civilians.

Why, then, is Medvedev still denying that here at the conference?

Kenneth Roth

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth

Russia's approach has been one of denial. That is what makes the Syrian war particularly ugly - that, unlike a typical war fought in compliance with the Geneva Conventions, in which combatants shoot at combatants, Syrian President Assad has chosen to fight this war by killing as many civilians in opposition areas as possible in order to depopulate those areas and terrorize the population away from any political support for the armed opposition. Now, Russia has entered this war but has refused to confront that ugly reality.

What do you make of the peace plan that was just agreed upon two nights ago here in Munich?

I fear that this cessation of hostilities is never actually going to take hold, and then we're back to square one. At that point I hope that Secretary of State John Kerry and the other Western leaders who are taking part in the Geneva talks recognize that their answer to the atrocities can't simply be, "Oh, we'll negotiate a peace, and that will deal with the atrocities." Russia cares about its reputation in Europe. It wants the Ukrainian sanctions lifted, and therefore doesn't want a bad reputation in Europe.

So what should the international community do?

Until Russia feels that it's paying a price for its support of Assad's atrocities, it's not going to stop. And so there should be a reputational price, by regular public condemnation of Russia's aiding and abetting of these war crimes. You should also look at sanctions, targeted sanctions of the sort that clearly have shown themselves to be powerful in Ukraine. I think we have to recognize that many of these leaders like to maintain bank accounts in the West. Until they feel threatened through targeted sanctions, we're not going to see a real shift in Russia's foreign policy toward Syria.

Kenneth Roth has been the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch since 1993.

The interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.

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