Joining the community of nations serves Russia’s best interests

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

"Now is the time for the community of nations to come together, not splinter." [Creative commons licence]

In the sweep of history, nations can meet or miss their moment. That moment is now for Russia to step up and join the community of nations. We need Russia – and Russia needs the world, writes Herta Däubler-Gmelin.

Professor Herta Däubler-Gmelin teaches international and humanitarian law at Freie University in Berlin and is the former German justice minister.

This week the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, consisting of the European Justice ministers, will review the state of enforcement of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights.

On the agenda for the umpteenth time: the case of Alexey Pichugin, Russia’s long-serving political prisoner. Mr Pichugin is a former manager at the Yukos Oil Company, once the largest in Russia. Multiple international tribunals have found that Yukos was unlawfully expropriated by Russia’s government, sending shock waves through the investing community about respect for property rights in Russia.

And for human rights, too.  Mr Pichugin was subjected to secret trial, interrogation with psychotropic drugs, and his case has been the subject of not one, but two ECHR judgments, each finding that his prior trials were unfair and he should be provided new trials that comport with the convention on human rights.

Russia has ignored these (and other) judgments – and more than that, even passed a law in December 2015 justifying its disregard of court judgments regardless of its treaty obligations not to do so.

These developments have earned Russia special interest on the part of the Committee of Ministers.  Most recently, the Russian government submitted again a “new action plan” to the Committee that – despite the name – again provides for no meaningful action to address the failures of its judicial system to abide by court judgments in cases including Mr Pichugin’s.

The result of all of this has rightly been alarm about human rights and the rule of law in Putin’s Russia, with some respected human rights activists calling for Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe. But now is the time for the community of nations to come together, not splinter.

The world faces an unprecedented threat from global terrorism, with attacks coming with increasing regularity. Even before North Korea’s most recent H-bomb test, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its “doomsday” clock to two and a half minutes before midnight, the closest we have been to nuclear devastation since the early 1980s, the height of the Cold War.

War rages in Afghanistan and Syria. Unrest rocks Venezuela. Environmental changes mean increased risk to us all from natural disasters. It is time now, not to isolate, but to come together.

What does any of this have to do with Alexey Pichugin and human rights? The answer is: everything. The trust required for international criminal justice cooperation, the fight against global terrorism, collective nuclear anti-proliferation efforts and international economic investment – all of these demand a common foundation respecting the rule of law and the limits that human rights impose on how governments treat individuals.

One lesson of this truth is the Magnitsky Act in the United States, which imposes sanctions on Russia and requires annual reports from the US Trade Representative and Secretary of State on the strengthening of the rule of law in Russia.

The Act is a direct consequence of the deterioration of Russian rule of law and has been a source of irritation in US-Russian relations. Russia has lobbied for its repeal, but the answer is action, not lobbyists.

Enforcement of European Court of Human Rights judgments in cases like Mr. Pichugin’s, and compliance by Russia with its treaty obligations pursuant to the European Convention on Human Rights, would cost Mr. Putin’s government nothing, while meaning everything in terms of freedoms the Russian people, like all people, possess and should enjoy without fear.

At the same time, respect for fundamental rights would send a message that Russia is prepared to take its rightful place among the great nations of the world, cooperating in world affairs on equal footing as the leading nations with respect to human rights and the rule of law.

The upcoming Committee of Ministers meeting represents an opportunity for Russia to step up to the task, not to turn a cold shoulder to the Committee’s concerns.

Meaningful action in the case of Mr Pichugin, who has already been imprisoned for more than 14 years, would be a first step to Russia’s turning from isolation toward the community of nations. It is the right thing to do, not just for the individuals whose cases would be impacted, but for the world at this critical moment in history.