The International Obligations of Russia and the West

11 October 2012

By Andrei Kovalev

Given the continued, grievous and widespread violations across the full spectre of human rights in Russia, and the passing of a series of repressive laws by a State Duma fully under the control of President Putin, I would like to point out a few facts. 

The first is a rather obvious one. Russia is a state that has signed up to numerous international agreements to fulfil obligations under international law and moral and political obligations in terms of human rights and democracy. They were worked out and adopted with Russia’s participation or were inherited from the USSR, of which Russia has declared itself to be the legal continuation.

Secondly, all states must fulfil their international obligations. Russia can in no way be considered an exception to this rule. 

Thirdly, the international community has at its disposal all the international legal, moral, political and other tools that it needs to place pressure on the Russian authorities. 

Fourthly, obligations made under international law take legal priority over a state's own internal legislation. In cases where the Russian state's laws run contrary to international law, pressure must be brought to bear by the Russian and/or international public opinion, as well as by the other states that have signed up to the international agreements, to get Russia's laws corrected or overturned. 

My fifth point is that the final document from the Moscow Conference on the Human Dimension of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) states very clearly: “The participating States emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned. They express their determination to fulfil all of their human dimension commitments and to resolve by peaceful means any related issue, individually and collectively.... In this context they recognize that the active involvement of persons, groups, organizations and institutions is essential to ensure continuing progress in this direction.” This document remains in force. 

The sixth point is that the democratic reforms that took place in Russia at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s were only possible because the efforts of the reformers were backed up by pressure from the democratic nations. This pressure had already begun to mount much earlier. As a result, the USSR ratified the international covenants on human rights, and in 1975 signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), which carried significant human rights obligations, and near the end of its existence adopted the Moscow conference document, cited above. 

Seventh. In the existing situation in Russia, one should clearly separate the authorities in the country from the population. Supporting illegitimate authorities who are in essence enemies of the Russian people is an anti-Russian position. 

My eighth and final point is that the unwillingness of the Russian authorities to observe their international obligations or even engage in discussion of such issues does not give the governments of democratic countries an excuse to shut their eyes to what is happening in the country. Otherwise, we are facing a new Munich Agreement – the consequences of which are well known to us all. Georgians and the citizens of some other ex-Soviet states are already experiencing the consequences. If the West continues its policy of appeasement, this situation will only escalate.