Regional Justice for Russia: The Role of the ECtHR
March 17, 2014
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When considering recent Russian violations of international law, from the invasion of Crimea to the massive human rights abuses perpetrated by the Russian army in Chechnya to ongoing Russia human rights violations in the form of police brutality, a corrupt legal system and laws targeting LGBT people, there are first seems to be little opportunity for international justice to intervene. While international sanctions like the kind being currently imposed on Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Crimea can be effective in spurring policy changes as we witnessed recently in Iran, sanctions do not have the same goals of reconciliation, reparations, accountability and deterrence that ideally accompany transitional justice mechanisms, whether through the ICC or traditional systems. Russia is not a state party to the ICC, and as a member of the UN Security Council, it has the power to veto any UN referrals or ad hoc criminal tribunals. Yet where international justice fails, regional justice plays a key role.
Russia has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1996, and so is under the jurisdiction of the associated European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The court acts as an official mechanism for Russian citizens to receive justice and acknowledgement of abuses perpetrated by the Russian state:
“Russian citizens have overloaded the system with petitions, and the ECtHR frequently has chided the Russian state for failing to address the underlying conditions that lead to these recurring human rights violations. At the same time…ECtHR decisions have been repeatedly cited by Russia’s highest constitutional tribunal—the Constitutional Court—in its determinations dealing with civil and social rights” (Pomeranz 17).
The ECtHR enjoys a high level of legitimacy within Russia, even at the state level, and therefore has a unique position to influence human rights norms. Citizens take advantage of the court to achieve reparations from the state for crimes ranging from torture, enforced disappearances and murder to judicial corruption and unfair court rulings. As Emma Gilligan writes in her book Terror in Chechnya “It [the ECtHR] now stands as the only avenue for moral justice and financial compensation for Chechen civilians” (Gilligan 182). Victims have been bringing their cases to this court, and although there has not been any accountability for perpetrators, the Russian government has recognized the court’s legitimacy and has been paying the ordered monetary compensation to victims. Alena Ledeneva highlights the key role of the ECtHR in her book Can Russia Modernise, suggesting that the court provides a recourse for citizens hurt by corruption and corrupt courts: “In modern Russia, however, sistema [informal corruption networks]’s victims can receive the protection of international law. International law courts provide an exit, even if it is not an easy road to take” (Ledveneva 153).