Russia’s war is a lesson for Europe’s rights system

A dark shadow will hang over Red Square today as Russia marks its annual “Victory Day” with parades of troops and military hardware. The shadow cast by its invasion of Ukraine extends far beyond Russian and Ukrainian borders. Its cause is not just the war crimes and the devastation to so many civilian lives but also the challenge that Russia’s relentless crackdown on human rights presents to Europe’s entire human rights system. It also offers some important lessons.

On 16 March, the Council of Europe expelled Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, and on 16 September Russia will cease to be a party to the European Convention of Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights will thus cease to review Russian cases related to events that take place after that date. This is of massive significance not only for the future of Russia but also for prospects of cooperative relations with its neighbours. Indeed, European Court judgments can provide key guideposts for the rebuilding of a Russian legal order and relations with its neighbours.

Not that relations with Russia have been easy.

Russia’s engagement with the European Court has been fraught. Soon after it joined the Council of Europe, Russia engaged in a brutal second war in Chechnya. The Court has delivered hundreds of judgments against Russia for violations during that war and only a few have been implemented, because many implicate the security forces that form one of the current regime’s primary pillars.

Over the last 10 years, the Russian authorities increasingly championed sexism and homophobia under the cover of “traditional values.” Thus, they protested when the European Court ruled that gender stereotypes did not justify differential treatment of men and women regarding parental leave from the armed forces. They chafed even more when the Court found that gay prides could not be banned and that laws criminalizing “propaganda of homosexuality” violated the European Convention. The authorities strongly resisted implementing these judgments, possibly inspiring other countries (e.g., Azerbaijan, Hungary, Turkey) to discriminate against LGBTI persons.

Political persecution of critical voices is another red line crossed for too long in Russia. Among the most sensitive cases have been those linked to the Kremlin’s restrictive and sometimes murderous approach towards the political opposition. When one looks at the Court’s docket, one sees all the major opposition figures.

The intransigence of Russia in implementing these judgments has perhaps inspired other nations such as Turkey, which has also regularly detained critics to silence them. Most recently, Turkey defied the Council of Europe and European Court and sentenced civil society leader Osman Kavala to life in prison.

One important group of cases awaiting a decision for years has been NGOs challenging the so-called “Foreign Agents Law” of 2012. The law, which imposed arbitrary restrictions and implied that NGOs were spies and traitors, signalled the beginning of the very hard times for Russian civil society. The Court must finally issue a judgment on these cases and the Council of Europe should no longer remain impassive when similar legislation in other countries silences NGOs.

In 2015, Russia’s Constitutional Court found that judgments by the Strasbourg Court could only be implemented if they conformed with the Russian Constitution, allowing Russia to declare certain decisions “non- executable”. Such a challenge to the system was met with only mild criticism, which no doubt bolstered other countries’ determination to similarly undermine the European human rights framework.

Against this bleak backdrop, we must still imagine a post-Putin generation seeking to rebuild a Russia that upholds human rights, a Russia with some prospect of rejoining the Council of Europe. This Russia will have to address past and ongoing violations within Russia, but also forge new relations with its neighbours.

The Court should make sure it gives prompt consideration to cases arising from the invasion of Ukraine, but also those involving relations with other neighbouring countries. These cases generally stem from Russia’s attempts to control so called “breakaway territories” including Transnistria (Moldova), Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), and in Crimea, Donbas and elsewhere in Ukraine.

Russia has been an important contributor to the overall Council of Europe budget. It is key that other member states step up to fill funding gaps. The Council of Europe must also seek creative ways to support Russian civil society going forward, ensuring for instance that people at immediate risk of prison for their human rights work are able to seek protection in member states.

A critical lesson for the future of the Council of Europe is that shrinking civic space is unacceptable. The expulsion of Russia should be followed by the strongest resolve to address political repression and other forms of crackdown on dissent in member states. For instance, in Turkey and Azerbaijan, but also Hungary and Poland, moves to silence critical voices have been flagrant over the years. Priority must be given to implementation of judgments concerning essential freedoms for civil society and journalists.

Finally, there is some movement towards convening a big summit to chart the way forward after Russia’s expulsion. Before any summit, it is essential to conduct a retrospective exercise about the red lines Russia crossed over the years and up to the recent war of aggression. Such an exercise could also help highlight red lines already crossed by other member states and lead to a collective recommitment to upholding human rights more effectively going forward. When Russia re-emerges from this dark chapter of history, the Council of Europe must be ready to welcome it on the path back to justice and human rights.

“Russia’s aggression challenges us all,” Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnes Callamard told an audience in Kyiv on Friday at the end of a high level visit to Ukraine. “What kind of a world do we want to live in? One that is built on bullying, authoritarianism, the brutality of weapons deployed above and beyond the weight of the law?”

Nils Muižnieks is Director, Europe Regional Office, Amnesty International

This article was first published here in Politico


Right now, people in Ukraine are facing a catastrophic human rights crisis. People are dying, including children, and many thousands of lives are at risk. Take action to demand that the Russian authorities stop this act of aggression and protect civilians now.