December 6, 2017
Guest post by Tinatin Khidasheli, Georgian jurist and politician
Once again Russia’s abysmal record on human rights is exposed for the world to see. On 30 November, Human Rights Watch slammed the Russian Government for the intensified enforcement of the country’s repressive legislation that blacklists foreign “undesirable” organizations – for the most part American, and long-term donors to Russian civil society, including Open Society Foundations. The net is now being cast wider, targeting also Russian groups who are arbitrarily “involved” with the “undesirables”.
The Russian government, in its attempts to subjugate its citizens and crack down on organizations and individuals that work to create a more open and democratic Russia, has facilitated state-led acts of rampant abuse, including intimidation and arrest of activists, and imprisonment of citizens under falsified charges.
Russia is a serial rights abuser but its contempt for human rights, democracy and the rule of law does not stop at its own borders, but instead underpins its interactions with the sovereign states that neighbor it, like my own country Georgia, where its policies and actions left thousands homeless, dozens of Georgian villages bulldozed, women and elderly murdered and private property rights violated.
It is also evident in the blatant disregard the current Russian regime shows for our democratic institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Russia has consistently refused to implement ECtHR judgements and in yet another strike against the rule of law, adopted legislation empowering its Constitutional Court to decide whether international court rulings – including those of the ECtHR – should be implemented.
Taking this one step further, in January 2017, Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that Russia can ignore one of the most emblematic of ECtHR judgments, Yukos v. Russia: in 2014, the ECtHR condemned Russia for the brutal, illegal expropriation of the company, and awarded damages to the former owners. Russia’s refusal to enforce the judgment is in direct violation of Article 46 of the ECHR, which obliges its members to abide by the Court’s rulings unconditionally.
In a similar vein, Russia sought to avoid international justice from another court by unilaterally withdrawing from the Rome Statute, and by doing so putting an end to the process of joining the International Criminal Court – this decision followed the ICC authorizing an investigation into the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict in South Ossetia.
The decision by Russia to flagrantly ignore and domestically legislate against international court rulings is a statement of intent and has struck at the heart of Europe’s democratic institutions.
But it will not stop with Russia. Across members – ranging from Azerbaijan to the UK – the purpose and mission of the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is being increasingly questioned, fueled by growing scepticism towards multilateral institutions and the inability for these institutions to implement and enforce their own principles. It just takes one country to erode the sovereignty of our institutions and we will soon start to see the ripples spreading throughout the group.
Russia and its activities will come under the microscope again when the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers convenes this week in Strasbourg, to discuss the non-implementation of ECtHR judgements. This contempt which seeks to erode international courts will be a central point of their discussion.
Human rights observers will be watching the Committee of Ministers decisions, in the hope it will act punitively against Russia – and all those who continue to flout human rights. Politicians too will be watching, along with other repeat offenders who will be waiting to see how the Council of Europe responds to the challenge and precedent set by Russia as it ignores ECtHR judgments with impunity. Make no mistake, those who seek to weaken our values and our courts will be ready to pounce and accuse the Council of Europe of not having teeth.
The Council of Europe is at a turning point. It must take itself seriously and be prepared to make difficult decisions. The rules should be clear: all member states have committed to upholding human rights and must respect the judgments of the ECtHR and be held accountable if they ignore them. It is time to take a strong stand against Russia and talk in a language that Russian President Vladimir Putin will understand. The Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg this week is a good start to reasserting its authority. Will it be prepared to do so?
Tinatin Khidasheli is a former Georgia Minister of Defence, former Member of Parliament and Vice-President of the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, human rights lawyer, and advocate for democratic reform.Guest contributor