Russian State Duma has hastily passed a new law abolishing obligatory execution of rulings passed by international legal institutions, stating that the Russian Constitutional Court and the president of the Russian Federation are now to decide whether Russian citizens need human rights or not. From now on the president’s and Constituitional Court’s permission is required in order to refuse observation of the rulings passed by the ECtHR, UN Human Rights Committee and other international bodies. The law was adopted in such a hurry, probably the lawmakers wanted to do it in time for the International Human Rights Day, which is celebrated on December 10 to mark the anniversary of adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Historically, adoption of the Declaration was a response to the tragedy of the Second World War and an acknowledgement that the world realized what had been its reasons. The Preamble of the Declaration reads that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.
On December 10, 2015 the United Nations Organization launched its annual campaign dedicated to the fight for freedom of speech, which comes on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the two major international covenants on human rights – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which had been adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December, 1966, and together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights constitute the International Bill of Human Rights.
The Preamble to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reads that “the ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his economic, social and cultural rights”.
All of these fundamental international documents have been signed and ratified by the Russian Federation, which means the country’s obligation to comply with requirements outlined in the covenants, conventions and human rights declarations, to report on this compliance, to implement recommendations of relevant UN committees. The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also adopts decisions on individual complaints by citizens of the Russian Federation, thereby offering some alternative to the European Court of Human Rights in cases where the applicant is more interested in a principal decision of the Committee rather than material compensation (which is part of the mandatory measures for implementation of the rulings made by the Strasbourg court, while the Committee can only recommend compensation). The new law passed by the State Duma apparently suggests the possibility to refuse to comply with decisions of both ECtHR and the UN Human Rights Committee. This undoubtedly runs contrary to the principle of priority of international law over national Russian legislation as was established in the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which the Russian Constitutional Court, initiator of this anti-constitutional law, is supposed to defend.
There is a sole consolation that the decisions, which had been adopted by the ECtHR and the UN Human Rights Committee before the new law was passed, are to be implemented, but it remains to be seen how it will be done. About a month ago the Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial” received an important decision adopted by the UNHRC concerning the complaint filed by a former employee of our organization regarding violation of his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression (see: http://adcmemorial.org/www/11015.html). Human rights defender and social activist Philippe Kostenko was twice convicted by the St. Petersburg court and sentenced to administrative arrest for offenses he had not committed (and even if he had committed such offences as swearing at a police officer and trying to go to an unauthorized rally against election fraud, he still should not be put in jail for a period of 30 days). UNHRC’s decision on his appeal consisted of recognition of violation of Articles 14 and 19 (right to a fair trial and right to freedom of expression). But primarily the Committee obliged the Russian Federation to take measures to avoid similar violations of citizens’ rights in future and to report to the Committee on the measures that were adopted.
In recent years the situation of human rights defenders around the world required adoption of special resolutions of the United Nations Organization in order to protect them. Resolutions adopted in 2011 (see: 66/164 of December 19, 2011 http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/468/68/PDF/N1146868.pdf?OpenElement) and in 2013 (see resolution 68/181 adopted on December 18, 2013) focused on the promotion of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998) and support for women’s human rights defenders. In 2015 Norway initiated adoption of a resolution on recognizing the role of human rights defenders and the need for their protection”. The final vote on the resolution was preceded by a fairly heated debate, during which the African Group proposed 42 amendments, which reduced the value of the document (in particular, it was proposed to remove from the text a reference to the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders, references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international obligations, to dilute explanations on the need to protect human rights defenders, etc.). Other countries supported these counterproductive amendments or have introduced their own, among them were Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, China, Cuba, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, and Russia. However, thanks to the campaign in favor of the resolution most of the amendments, which had a negative impact, were not included in the final text of the resolution. (The text in Russian is available here: http://www.lawtrend.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Rezolyutsiya-Generalnoj-Assamblei-OON_Priznanie-roli-pravozashhitnikov-i-neobhodimosti-ih-zashhity.pdf#viewer.action=download)
On November 25, 2015 117 countries voted for the resolution with 40 abstentions, among them unsurprisingly were those countries where human rights activists are brutally persecuted (including countries of ex-Soviet region – Azerbaijan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, – which nevertheless did not dare to directly oppose the resolution). However, Russia voted against the resolution, finding itself among “associates”, who were notorious for violations of human rights and freedoms, such as China, North Korea, Syria, Burundi, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan.
Against this background of negative attitude towards human rights movement and international human rights institutions, which we witnessed in Russia in recent years, the denial of the role of human rights defenders and the need to protect them, which was demonstrated by the Russian vote in the UN, looks quite logical. Civil society organizations in Russia continue to be forcibly introduced into the list of “foreign agents”, we hear accusations of human rights defenders of being involved in “anti-constitutional” and “anti-Russian” activities (as in the case of the Human Rights Center “Memorial” in Moscow), human rights activists are being questioned and subjected to searches (one of the most recent cases being “Mashr” NGO in Ingushetia, see: http : //adcmemorial.org/www/11056.html), their activists subjected to intimidation, imprisonment, not to mention the abductions and murders. In general, the Russian authorities are doing everything that was explicitly forbidden by this recently adopted UN resolution. The resolution stated an urgent need to stop using legislation that restricts human rights work, to pay particular attention to the protection of women’s human rights defenders as being particularly vulnerable, to stop hiding behind the pretext of “war against terrorism” while persecuting dissenters, to immediately release from prisons all human rights defenders jailed for their work, including environmental activists, to stop declaring information on gross violations of human rights “secret”, to stop stigmatizing and persecuting those who defend minorities against discrimination. All or almost all of this concerns us in Russia, as almost every provision of the resolution can be illustrated by the sad examples of repression against Russian human rights defenders.
While in Russia the international law, the very concept of human rights and the human rights defenders are being clearly discredited, some other countries continue to adopt national regulations for the protection of human rights defenders (this being noted and welcomed by the recently adopted UN resolution). Guidelines for the protection of human rights exist in the European Union (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=URISERV:l33601) as well as some of its member states (Ireland, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland). In 2014 OSCE issued its “Guidelines on the protection of human rights”, which also apply to Russia as a member of this international organization (see: http://www.osce.org/ru/odihr/123728?download=true).
Resolutions, such as this adopted on the initiative of Norway, and other additional measures are needed not in order to give human rights defenders some privileges, but in order to enable them to professionally and independently carry out their work of protecting people belonging to minorities from discrimination, of defending indigenous peoples against the tyranny of mining companies, of saving detainees and prisoners from torture, etc.
Instead of doing their proper work, Russian human rights defenders in recent years were forced to spend a lot of their energy to protect themselves and their colleagues against state repression, while being constantly involved in endless court appeals against illegal prosecution and procurator’s inspections, being listed as “foreign agents”, appealing against legal penalties for failure to voluntarily introduce their NGOs in this list, etc. Many of the human rights organizations in Russia, which had been subjected to persecution, turned to Strasbourg court (http://adcmemorial.org/www/9489.html), as decisions of the EctHR still remained their last hope for restoring justice and a possibility to change state policies and practices, because Russian citizens lack the right to direct legislative initiative and other forms of civic participation are being progressively criminalized as human rights and environmental NGOs that try to influence the adoption of any laws, state decisions or strategies, are being declared “foreign agents”.
With the adoption of the new law on the priority of the Russian legislation over international laws and conventions, even this hope starts to disappear…
When we return to the high ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are reminded that “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.