The Russian Duma’s overwhelming vote to ratify Protocol 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights could force the hand of the government to reform the country’s legal system.
Long promised under Vladimir Putin, the reform of Russia’s opaque justice system has been a topic of open debate for more than a decade. Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s successor to the presidency, even made it a key component to his televised interview at the end of last year.
In it he announced in no uncertain terms that “our system of the execution of punishment has not changed for decades,” and suggested the need to change was immediate. The response, both nationally and internationally, was understandably muted: this is now a well-worn promise in a country where the conviction rate for criminal cases without a jury has hovered at around 99 per cent.
The passing of Protocol 14 by the State Duma is, therefore, something of a landmark moment. Its adoption will give those accused and/or convicted of crimes in Russia a credible external authority to which they can appeal. It will also put pressure on judges to ensure that court cases are free from political interference and the standards of evidence and sentencing are in line with international codes of practice.
Perhaps most significantly, however, it also gives the Committee of Ministers the right to bring a member state before the Court of Human Rights for non-compliance with the court’s judgements.
Undoubtedly it is this latter amendment that has been at the core of the decision to remain the only country in the Council of Europe to fail to ratify the protocol up to this point. Its decision to do so now, therefore, is as intriguing as it is promising for the reform agenda under the current Kremlin administration.
One potential drawback for the government is that Russia has already been publicly accused of being in violation of Court judgements. Human Rights Watch estimates that it has ignored more than 100 court rulings, which it would now be obliged to comply with.
The Moscow Times reports that Andrei Denisov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, has claimed that the Duma’s decision reflected the fact that certain preconditions demanded by the Kremlin had been granted. While this was strongly denied by council members, it could certainly help explain the timing of the move, given Moscow’s intransigence on the issue in the recent past.
If true it could be that the Kremlin has been assured that past violations of court judgements may not be considered by the court or, more probably, that they have been granted greater influence over the workings of the court.
Either way there is good reason to see this as a step towards redressing one of Russia’s most worrying traits: the lack of an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, however, many in this country will favour the more superficial analysis and see it simply as another victory for the president over his more conservative-minded prime minister.