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Russia to ignore international courts

Russia says it no longer feels obliged to enforce decisions handed down by the European Court of Human Rights. Observers are discussing whether Russia may soon leave the Council of Europe.

Decisions handed down by international courts must no longer be enforced in Russia. That, according to a new decree signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on Monday. In the future, Russian authorities defending their country's interests before international courts will be able to count on help from Russia's Constitutional Court. That court will then decide whether Russia will enforce such decisions.

During a meeting with President Putin after the signing, Valery Zorkin, Chairman of the Constitutional Court of Russia, said that Russia was not turning its back on Europe. Nevertheless, he said that there was no need to uphold decisions handed down by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), "if our own Constitution and the laws based upon it better protect citizens' rights." Yet, for years, suits from Russian citizens have dominated the ECHR's docket. Most cases are brought to seek redress to the arbitrary behavior of authorities. Plaintiffs can appeal to the supranational instance in Strasbourg after they have exhausted all legal recourse in their country.

Reserved reaction from the Council of Europe

Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe

In light of the new Russian law, which grants the Constitutional Court of Russia the authority to review possible conflicts between decisions by the ECHR and the Russian constitution, Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, pointed out that in accordance with Article 46 of the European Convention on Human Rights, all member states have obliged themselves to uphold the finality of decisions handed down by the Strasbourg Court.

"It will be up to the Constitutional Court of Russia to ensure respect for the Convention if it is called to act under the new provisions," Jagland explained. The Council of Europe, he said, "will only be able to assess Russia's compliance with its obligations when and if a specific case arises." Continuing that, "other member states have already examined whether decisions by the Strasbourg Court comply with their national constitutions. So far, countries have always been able to find a solution in line with the Convention. This should also be possible in Russia."

Differences between Russia and the West

Putin and Khodorkovsky, March 2002

Putin and Khodorkovsky, March 2002

German legal scholar Otto Luchterhandt, who was involved in writing the Russian constitution in the 1990s, sees two problems in the relationship between the ECHR and Russia. One is the balance between national and international law, the other is the growing difference of opinion between the West and Moscow regarding human rights in Russia. Luchterhandt told DW that the approach now being taken by the Kremlin should be viewed against this backdrop.

In October, Constitutional Court Chairman Zorkin said that from a Russian standpoint it seems that international courts hand down decisions based on a specific social and political context. By that, he was referring to whether or not the ECHR's decision to award former Yukos shareholders damages to the tune of 1.86 billion euros ($2 billion) should be enforced. "The current political situation is different from what it was in the mid-1990s, when we talked of a Europe that stretched from Lisbon to Vladivostok," said Zorkin. In the case of the oil company Yukos, which was owned by ex-oligarch and now exiled Putin adversary Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and was broken up by the Kremlin, international courts ordered Russia to pay out billions in damages.

Will Russia leave the Council of Europe?

Observers suspect that Russia will now use the new law not only to sidestep the Yukos decision but also to get around international lawsuits brought by other countries, such as Ukraine. The law could also be the first step in Russia's departure from the Council of Europe. Russia, however, denies that it intends to leave the Council of Europe or revoke its signature from the European Convention of Human Rights.

Though according to legal scholar Luchterhandt such a move cannot be ruled out. He says that calls to leave the Council have become loud in Russia and should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, he thinks it unlikely at the moment. Rather, Luchterhandt sees Russia's actions as the desire to avoid enforcing especially unpleasant or expensive ECHR decisions.

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