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Analysis & Opinion
19.01.10 Rights From Wrongs
By Tom Balmforth

As activists take to the streets of central Moscow to mark the one-year anniversary of the murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Barburova on January 19, there are small signs that the Kremlin is taking human rights more seriously. Last week, the Russian State Duma finally ratified a long-blocked protocol for the 47-member European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It will accelerate rulings on the ECHR’s backlog of 120 thousand-plus cases, over a quarter of which were filed by Russian citizens. Two thousand and nine was a bad year for human rights in Russia, say activists, but will the reform change that in 2010?

On January 15, United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, voted to ratify protocol 14 to the Convention on Human Rights, despite minor opposition from the Communist Party and liberal factions. The Senate still needs to approve the reform and the president – to add his signature, but Russia’s State Duma was seen as the major obstacle to ratification. Russia had been the only Council of Europe (CoE) member not to ratify it, after United Russia voted against in December 2006, supposedly blocking then-President Vladimir Putin’s signature.

“This is a good sign that Russia is prepared to play by the rules of the international institutions of which it is a member - this has been a long-standing problem for the Council of Europe,” said Allison Gill, the director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Moscow office. Some rights workers say the move will “promote access to justice” for Europeans and Russians. The reform aims to streamline the method of arbitrating the CoE’s human rights cases, which are apparently so numerous it would take seven years to process them all under the current system. Council of Europe Secretary General Torbjorn Jagland said that the ratification was “important for the whole of Europe,” RIA Novosti reported.

But what about Russia? “First and foremost this reform is going to improve the efficacy of the European Court, which has become a really important human rights mechanism for Russia and for many Russians,” said Gill. According to the CoE’s November 2009 figures, 31,825 out of all of the 47-member ECHR’s cases are filed by Russians, amounting to over 27 percent of all cases. The streamlining of ECHR means that verdicts will be reached quicker. “Now it seems that Russia is not impeding these applications, but is actually making it easier for the court to consider these cases - this is a move which is unequivocally positive,” said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at
the Carnegie Moscow Center.

But it is far from flawless. It does not, for instance, guarantee that Russia will actually fully follow up cases once they have been investigated by the ECHR. When a case is deemed to be substantive, the ECHR formulates measures addressing the underlying problems at work in a case. It then oversees the implementation of these measures, a domestic investigation into the human rights case, and recommends specific compensation for its victims. “Even though the Russians pay out the money, they do nothing to implement the individual measures in the case,” said Gill, who contributed to the HRW report “Russia’s Implementation of European Court of Human Rights Judgments on Chechnya.” In the 33 cases HRW examined in the North Caucasus republic, no investigation was successful. “In every case we have looked at, they failed to even take very basic steps like interrogate witnesses whose whereabouts are known,” she said.

“In one well-known case, a mother saw her son being arrested on television by Russian servicemen, and she heard the order given to ‘get rid of him.’ She then took this video to the prosecutor’s office - the case has been opened and closed eleven times. No investigator has ever viewed the video,” said Gill.

Amongst prominent human rights murders committed in 2009 are Markelov’s, who was killed a year ago today by two neo-Nazi extremists, possibly for representing Chechen victims of human rights violations, and Natalya Estemirova, a rights activist for Memorial who was killed on July 15 after investigating abductions and murders in Chechnya. “Two thousand and nine was one of the worst years in recent history, with a rapidly deteriorating climate for human rights. The most prominent problems in 2009 were the murders of activists,” said Gill.

Rights activists can take some consolation in having been given rare official permission to demonstrate and publically commemorate the first anniversary of Markelov’s murder, which the authorities had previously refused to do. But it seems unlikely that the reform voted through the Duma will have a big impact. “Is this ECHR reform going to radically change the human rights landscape in Russia? No, I don’t think so,” said Gill.

Gill believes that improvement of the human rights climate depends on justice being achieved in the prominent investigations being conducted at the moment. “If there is a real investigation and the perpetrators are brought to justice, it will send a strong message that it is not acceptable to attack rights activists or civic activists,” she said. Estemirova’s case stands out in this respect.

“Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been hailed by many for his softer approach, his more democratic, human rights friendly approach. However, I think we need to judge him on his actions rather than his words. Medvedev promised an independent investigation into Estemirov’s murder, but then in the next breath he put a limitation on that investigation saying that it was impossible to investigate any kind of official involvement in the murder,” said Gill. And positive headway still seems yet to come in the investigation and all we know at the moment is that the case is “ongoing,” she said.

The decision to vote on the ECHR reform again was initiated by Medvedev at the end of last year, when he demanded that it be reviewed by the Duma. It will most likely fuel suspicions of a divide in the Medvedev-Putin power tandem suggested by the liberal policy. But Lipman was skeptical. “I wouldn’t draw a line between the two’s policies: they’re a team,” she said. “While of course Medvedev has a different background and a different image from Putin’s, it should be remembered that he was Putin’s choice.” Medvedev, in this respect, is maintaining his role of polishing Russia’s image abroad, she said.
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