Russia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that it does not have to follow decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) when doing so would be ‘unconstitutional’.
As a Member State of the Council of Europe, Russia is bound by international law to ‘abide by’ decisions of the ECtHR, based in Strasbourg. In 2014 the ECtHR ordered Russia to pay 1.9 billion euros in compensation to shareholders in the Yukos oil company, which went bankrupt in 2006 as a result of tax enforcement measures by the Russian government.
Yukos, which was nationalised after its bankruptcy, argued that Russia had unlawfully seized it after imposing bogus taxes. The ECtHR agreed and said that Yukos had been treated unfairly because of the short time it had to prepare for the tax proceedings against it (4 days when the trial involved over 43,000 documents) and because Russian courts had changed the rules on the time limit for bringing criminal tax proceedings, which affected the outcome of the case.
On Thursday, the Russian Constitutional Court said that it could ignore rulings by international law bodies if they go against the supremacy of their Constitution. In what appears to be a move to ignore the ECtHR’s decision, the Court said that Russia’s constitution has ‘supreme legal force’ and includes the ‘obligation to pay lawfully established taxes’.
This development threatens to escalate tensions between Russia and the Council of Europe, with the Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights describing it as:
[a] signal that the standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law a State subscribes to when joining the Council of Europe can be disregarded at will.
The Council of Europe is an international organisation set up in the wake of World War II that aims to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Europe.
A law to trump all laws?
The Russian court’s ruling was made using powers granted by a controversial 2015 law. Ever since President Putin signed this law, the Russian Constitution has had priority over judgments handed down by international courts. Judges can now choose to disregard them if they consider it the only way to avoid violating their Constitution.
In refusing to pay compensation to Yukos, Russia would appear to be in breach of Article 46 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires states to “abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties.”
Why does this matter for the UK?
There is little doubt that this turn of events sets a worrying precedent for the future of human rights, both in Russia and throughout Europe. However, Russia is not the first country to ignore the ECtHR’s decisions.
The UK government has repeatedly refused to relax its blanket ban on votes for prisoners, despite several negative rulings from the ECtHR. The initial judgment which said the UK’s blanket policy breached the human right to vote is now more than a decade old. Since then, the ECtHR has confirmed that the UK’s refusal to grant any prisoners voting rights remains a human rights violation.
If the UK continually refuses to comply with the ECtHR’s decisions on prisoner voting, it is possible that Russia and other states see this as a precedent for treating the requirement to protect human rights as somehow ‘optional’. British legal commentator and retired Court of Appeal judge Henry Brooke said on Twitter:
The Government has been repeatedly told of the dangers of undermining the rule of law represented by the ECHR. Russia first: who next.
- Read the press release of the Russian Constitutional Court here (in Russian only)
- Read Reuters’ coverage of the case
- Read about 11 Times The European Court of Human Rights Changed the UK