Constitutional Coup in Russia : Putin’s Move to Devalue International Human Rights Treaties Could Set Dangerous Global Precedent

On 20 January 2020, the President of Russia proposed radical changes to the Russian Constitution, but the chilling implications for human rights could echo far beyond Russia’s borders. The draft legislation introduces significant amendments to 14 articles of Russia’s supreme law of the land. FIDH and 37 of its member organisations believe that the proposed amendments contradict the letter and spirit of the Constitution, diminish the fundamental rights of Russian citizens under the guise of legitimate State concerns, and constitute an attempt to further consolidate power in the hands of the current regime. Our organisations fear that, if adopted, these measures would compromise human rights not only in Russia, but also set a dangerous precedent that may be emulated by other countries.

The speed with which the draft law was prepared – just four days – and the gross violations of constitutionally prescribed procedures for such changes, have evoked strong criticism from civil society and the public at large.

One of the proposed amendments would effectively legalise the selective implementation of decisions of international treaty bodies deemed contrary to the Constitution. Russia is normally bound to abide by these decisions, by virtue of its having ratified international or regional conventions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. But, with this proposed amendment, Russia would be able to invoke the supposed unenforceability of “interpretations” of treaty provisions as justification to not follow them, under the guise of protecting national sovereignty. In practice, the amendment would allow Russian authorities to avoid implementing decisions of the likes of the European Court of Human Rights that the latter often perceive as contrary to national interests.

“Putin’s brazen move to put in place a constitutional mechanism to avoid implementing international treaties could severely undermine international law. If adopted, the proposed legislation would not only likely aggravate the human rights situation in Russia; it could also serve as a dangerous model, paving the way for other countries to shirk international human rights obligations.”

Alice Mogwe, FIDH President

The legislation was designed by an ad hoc working group convened on 15 January, the same day that Putin first announced the constitutional changes during his annual address. The document, drafted in just four days and without a meaningful consultation with the civil society, proposes substantive changes to 14 articles of the Constitution, contrary to a federal law requiring a separate draft law for each amendment. As early as 23 January the draft law was unanimously accepted in the first reading by the lower chamber of Russia’s Parliament. The final reading, to be followed by a vote, is expected at the end of February.

Not only is the substance of the amendments worrying; the authorities’ disregard for constitutionally prescribed procedures required to adopt them gives cause for alarm. Since the proposed changes concern the first two chapters of the Constitution, the “Fundamentals of the Constitutional System” and the “Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen”, Article 135 requires that a new Constitution be adopted by a Constitutional Assembly, followed by a referendum. Neither the law governing the formation of the Constitutional Assembly, nor the organ itself, are currently in existence. Rather than abide by these procedures, the authorities plan to hold a nationwide constitutional vote this spring, in an attempt to give the proposed amendment an air of legitimacy.

The authorities’ move to prize sovereignty above all, in disregard for international law, could usher in a dark time for human rights in Russia, with the potential to set a dangerous global precedent. FIDH and its 37 member organisations urge the Russian parliamentarians and the Russian people to vote against the proposed amendments.

Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial (ADC-Memorial, Russia)
Adilet (Kyrgyzstan)
Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma)
Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA
Bir Duino (Kyrgyzstan)
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine)
Citizens’ Watch (Russia)
Civil Society Institute (Armenia)
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
Dutch League for Human Rights
Finnish League for Human Rights
French Human Rights League – Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH, France )
Human Rights Association – Insan Haklari Dernegi (Turkey)
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)
Human Rights Center Georgia (HRIDC)
Human Rights Center Memorial (Russia)
Human Rights Center Viasna (Belarus)
Human Rights in China (HRIC)
International Legal Initiative (Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights
Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC)
Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)
League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI)
Ligue Iteka (Burundi)
Lithuanian Human Rights Association
Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN)
Manushya Foundation (Thailand)
Odhikar (Bangladesh)
Portuguese Human Rights League – Civitas (LPDHC)
Promo Lex (Moldova)
Regional Watch for Human Rights (Liberia)
The League for Defence of Human Rights (LADO, Romania)
The Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC, Tanzania)
Union for Civil Liberty (UCL – Thailand)
Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR)

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